We sat down on a bench that was near

"We sat down on a bench that was near" by F. A. Fraser. c. 1877. 4.8 x 6.7 inches. An illustration for the Household Edition of Dickens's Great Expectations (p. 224). Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham from material reproduced courtesy of The Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF.

To begin with, Charles Dickens had died in the midst of writing yet another best-seller — but the potential for sales of his novels was very much alive in the minds of the management of Chapman and Hall, Covent Garden. The year after their principal author's death, the London publishing house issued a new Oliver Twist as the first of a series that would eventually amount to twenty-two volumes. Chapman and Hall named the new edition the "Household Edition" in order to capitalize on the reading public's fond memories of of Dickens's 1850s weekly journal, Household Words. The firm, desiring a new "sixties" look for the illustrations, recruited members of a new generation of artists that had moved away from the symbolic detailism and caricature of Phiz and Cruikshank. Although Fred Barnard received the commissions for a number of the new volumes, F. A. Fraser received the contract for Great Expectations (circa 1875).

Including the frontispiece, Fraser's series includes twenty-eight plates. In the last, he reveals to the reader unfamiliar with the novel's plot that Pip and Estella do indeed meet again in the closing pages. But, like Dickens, the illustrator gives the reader an ambivalent closure rather than what we have come to recognize as the "happy" ending of "Boy Gets Girl" that the Victorian reading public demanded. The illustration, centrally positioned on the page which describes Pip's return to the forge after eleven years abroad, alerts the reader to the final scene in the ruined garden--but not to its outcome.

The twilight hour is admirably conveyed by the dark shading that sweeps across the entire picture. Fraser suggests Pip's hopefulness in the look he gives Estella, and Estella's pensiveness in the downcast turn of her head and her averted glance. The viewer finds it difficult to "read" her attitude towards Pip. He has aged very little if at all since the deathbed scene with Magwitch (plate 27)--indeed, his hair and features are unchanged, and he still wears the same clothes and carries the same cane! Despite the December setting, a rosebush flourishes to the left of the figures, emblemmatic perhaps of their continued affection for one another, and inspired perhaps by Dickens's reference to the old ivy that "had struck root anew, and was growing green on the low quiet mounds of ruin." Through his caption Fraser indicates the precise moment realized. The bench is of wood rather than wrought-iron or stone, and is, therefore, like the lovers, surprisingly well preserved. The general tidiness of the background is hardly suggestive of a "ruin" at all.

Although the shading makes assessment of the colour of Estella's clothing difficult, she appears to be in mourning, despite the fact that two years have passed since Drummle's death. Although Pip drescribes himself to her as one who "work[s] pretty hard for a sufficient living," he is as fashionably and soberly dressed as she. Unlike Stone and Furniss, Fraser has chosen to depict the lovers seated and still exploring their feelings for one another, rather than showing them leaving the ruined garden together and towards (the reader hopes) a new life together. This, the reader unfamiliar with the entire plot of the novel is caught in a moment of indecision, and does not find closure in this illustration until he or she has turned the page and read the accompanying letter-press. The plate in itself does not afford closure, only the fragile possibility of closure.

References

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Volume 6 of the Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871-1880 [this volume c. 1877].


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Last modified 19 March 2004