Prunes and Prism
10 cm high by 7.4 cm wide (framed)
Eleventh full-page illustration for Dickens's Little Dorrit in the James R. Osgood (Boston), 1871, Diamond Edition.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Little Dorrit (Boston: James R. Osgood [formerly, Ticknor and Fields], 1871)., by Sol Eytinge, Jr., in Charles Dickens's
The eleventh illustration, although entitled "Prunes and Prism," has as its subject the overbearing, class-conscious companion that Mr. Dorrit has engaged for his daughters on their Grand Tour, the unflappable Mrs. General. Although it would seem to complement the seventh chapter of Book Two, "Mostly Prunes and Prism," the title may be taken as an allusion to the following passage in an earlier chapter, in which she instructs Little Dorrit in elocution:
"I hope so," returned her father. "I — ha — I most devoutly hope so, Amy. I sent for you, in order that I might say — hum — impressively say, in the presence of Mrs. General, to whom we are all so much indebted for obligingly being present among us, on — ha — on this or any other occasion," Mrs General shut her eyes, "that I — ha hum — am not pleased with you. You make Mrs. General's a thankless task. You — ha — embarrass me very much. You have always (as I have informed Mrs. General) been my favourite child; I have always made you a — hum — a friend and companion; in return, I beg — I — ha — I do beg, that you accommodate yourself better to — hum — circumstances, and dutifully do what becomes your — your station."
Mr. Dorrit was even a little more fragmentary than usual, being excited on the subject and anxious to make himself particularly emphatic.
"I do beg," he repeated, "that this may be attended to, and that you will seriously take pains and try to conduct yourself in a manner both becoming your position as — ha — Miss Amy Dorrit, and satisfactory to myself and Mrs General."
That lady shut her eyes again, on being again referred to; then, slowly opening them and rising, added these words: —
"If Miss Amy Dorrit will direct her own attention to, and will accept of my poor assistance in, the formation of a surface, Mr. Dorrit will have no further cause of anxiety. May I take this opportunity of remarking, as an instance in point, that it is scarcely delicate to look at vagrants with the attention which I have seen bestowed upon them by a very dear young friend of mine? They should not be looked at. Nothing disagreeable should ever be looked at. Apart from such a habit standing in the way of that graceful equanimity of surface which is so expressive of good breeding, it hardly seems compatible with refinement of mind. A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid, and pleasant." Having delivered this exalted sentiment, Mrs. General made a sweeping obeisance, and retired with an expression of mouth indicative of Prunes and Prism. [Book 2, Chapter 5, "Something Wrong Somewhere," p. 276]
However, the imperious chaperon appears again in full sail, as it were, at the opening of Chapter 7, "Mostly Prunes and Prism," enforcing the proprieties, or, rather, imposing them on the Dorrit family from the mental vantage point of a coach box. Amy for her part attempts to accede to Mrs. General's attempts at "varnishing" of her surface as the socially correct one, hiding under layers of lacquer the real, the sensitive Little Dorrit, Child of the Marshalsea:
The wholesale amount of Prunes and Prism which Mrs. General infused into the family life, combined with the perpetual plunges made by Fanny into society, left but a very small residue of any natural deposit at the bottom of the mixture. This rendered confidences with Fanny doubly precious to Little Dorrit, and heightened the relief they afforded her.
"Amy," said Fanny to her one night when they were alone, after a day so tiring that Little Dorrit was quite worn out, though Fanny would have taken another dip into society with the greatest pleasure in life, "I am going to put something into your little head. You won't guess what it is, I suspect."
"I don't think that's likely, dear," said Little Dorrit.
"Come, I'll give you a clew, child," said Fanny. "Mrs. General."
Prunes and Prism, in a thousand combinations, having been wearily in the ascendant all day — everything having been surface and varnish and show without substance — Little Dorrit looked as if she had hoped that Mrs. General was safely tucked up in bed for some hours. [291-292]
Fanny is perceptive enough to see what her sister Amy, pure of heart, is blind to, namely that, as Fanny tells her, "Mrs. General has designs on pa!"
In the 1999 BBC One adaptation of the novel, British actress Pam Ferris provided a performance informed by a perceptive reading the self-deceiving Dickens character who is so determined to enforce a rigid, upper-middle-class code of respectability and impose it upon the Dorrits:
Mrs General is a triumph of genteel respectability. A widow, she has set herself up as a 'companion to ladies'. She hates to be thought of as a working woman and when Mr. Dorrit employs her to 'finish' his daughters, she adopts the pretence that she is a friend of the family, rather than a governess. She is extremely strict about decorum, putting Amy and Fanny through a gruelling training regime. The passage upon which Eytinge based his visual character study actually occurs in Book Two, Chapter 2 ("Mrs. General") which explains how Mr. Dorrit came to employ the widow as a companion on the European tour for his daughters:
In person, Mrs. General, including her skirts which had much to do with it, was of a dignified and imposing appearance; ample, rustling, gravely voluminous; always upright behind the proprieties. She might have been taken &mdasah; had been taken — to the top of the Alps and the bottom of Herculaneum, without disarranging a fold in her dress, or displacing a pin. If her countenance and hair had rather a floury appearance, as though from living in some transcendently genteel Mill, it was rather because she was a chalky creation altogether, than because she mended her complexion with violet powder, or had turned grey. If her eyes had no expression, it was probably because they had nothing to express. If she had few wrinkles, it was because her mind had never traced its name or any other inscription on her face. A cool, waxy, blown-out woman, who had never lighted well.
Mrs. General had no opinions. Her way of forming a mind was to prevent it from forming opinions. She had a little circular set of mental grooves or rails on which she started little trains of other people's opinions, which never overtook one another, and never got anywhere. Even her propriety could not dispute that there was impropriety in the world; but Mrs. General's way of getting rid of it was to put it out of sight, and make believe that there was no such thing. This was another of her ways of forming a mind — to cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards, lock them up, and say they had no existence. It was the easiest way, and, beyond all comparison, the properest. 
Thus, Dickens makes Mrs. General the exemplar of a social attitude (propriety) and in subsequent chapters gives her a distinct voice or verbal presence, but little in the way of physical features for the inspiration of an illustrator. Eytinge, of course, could reference Phiz's original images of Mrs. General for the Chapman and Hall serialisation (in which the earlier illustrator has crammed the widow of the commissariat officer's widow into the lower right corner of "The Travellers," one of two illustrations for the eleventh monthly part, October 1856, but has not developed her), but otherwise he had to select a carriage and fashion appropriate to the above description. Eytinge departs from Phiz's depiction in that this 1871 "Mrs. General" has no massive bonnet and is not shown in full mourning. With her nose held high and lace at her wrists and throat, complemented by a lace handkerchief, Eytinge's figure is far more impressive than Phiz's, and certainly as "dignified and imposing" as Dickens would have his reader think her, although her floral "fascinator" headgear must have struck some of Eytinge's readers as a little fey — a suggestion of Italianate fashion, perhaps.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit, il. Sol Eytinge, Junior. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). (1857). Ed. John Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
Davis, Paul. "Little Dorrit." Charles Dickens A to Z; The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998. Pp. 209-217.
Ferris, Pam. "Cast and Characters: Mrs. General." Little Dorrit. Accessed 5 May 2011. London: BBC One, 1999. http://www.bbc.co.uk/littledorrit/characterandcast/mrsgeneral.shtml
Last modified 8 May 2011