Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gowan

"Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gowan," the tenth full-page illustration for the volume by Sol Eytinge, Jr. 1871. 7.4 cm high by 9.9 cm wide. The Diamond Edition of Dickens's Little Dorrit (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871), facing page 283. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

The eighth paired character study to complement Dickens's narrative, Eytinge's "Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gowan," by virtue of its composition implies that the relationship between the former "Pet" Meagles and the artist Henry Gowan is imbalanced in that Gowan and his gigantic oil canvas on its easel fill the scene, whereas Minnie Gowan is jammed into the upper-left register. In a domestic scene laden with antique statuary, neoclassical cornices, and an elaborate fire-place mantel, the living female form, Minnie, seems a mere afterthought. The subject upon which the couple have focussed their attention and which occupies the centre of the illustration is the large canvas upon which Henry Gowan is still working and which, despite its foreign subject (Blandois in a cape at the Great Saint Bernard in Switzerland), is an extension of Gowan himself, who thus dominates the scene to the near exclusion of his young wife, who curiously regards the painting. Some two months into their European honeymoon, the relationship appears to be deteriorating.

Eytinge captures well the essence of Henry Gowan: the proud, "idle carelessness" (282) and air of "degeneracy, "of being disappointed"; for example, as befits Eytinge's illustration, Henry Gowan constantly conveys the conviction that he has married beneath his class — despite the fact that Minnie's father, a banker, has paid his debts — and "against the wishes of his exalted relations" (283), the Barnacles. Although this is a honeymoon scene set in Venice, the husband ignores his wife entirely as he studies the effect of his painting in Chapter 6, "Something Right Somewhere," of Book Two, "Riches." This would seem to be the relevant passage, shortly after the arrival of Fanny and Amy Dorrit, claiming mutual acquaintance with the Gowans through the Merdles, at the Gowans' home, although there is no precise correspondence between any passage in the chapter and the illustration:

"Don't be alarmed," said Gowan, coming from his easel behind the door. "It's only Blandois. He is doing duty as a model to-day. I am making a study of him. It saves me money to turn him to some use. We poor painters have none to spare." [285]

Unable to realise visually his subject's false self-deprecation, Eytinge has nonetheless communicated well the essentials of Henry Gowan's nature. In order to adhere to his self-imposed two-character stricture, Eytinge has excluded other significant characters, including Amy and Fanny Dorrit, Gowan's dog Lion, and the elegantly attired Blandois (i. e., Rigaud), from the composition. Even though the illustrator has chosen a less sensational scene, it is one which nevertheless reveals the suave surface by focussing on his indolence rather than on the underlying meanness and brutality that he momentarily reveals in his attack on the dog, the shocking moment that concludes the episode. In balance, one may applaud Eytinge's choice of scene to realise in terms of his detailing, for so many of the scene's contributing elements — from the classical column (right) to the cigar dangling from Henry Gowan's lips — are completely atextual. Minnie looks timidly at her husband's creation, her face a blank of understanding and appreciation: the painting, like the painter himself, is, implies Eytinge, utterly beyond her limited comprehension.

Reference

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit, il. Sol Eytinge, Junior. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871.


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Last modified 6 May 2011