Little Dorrit among the Professionals
14.4 x 9.4 cm vignetted
Dickens's Little Dorrit, Vol. 12 of Charles Dickens Library Edition, Book the First, "Poverty"; Chapter 20, "Moving in Society," facing p. 257.
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham from his own collection.
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"The notion of you among professionals, Amy, is really the last thing I could have conceived!" said her sister. "Why, how did you ever get here?"
"I don't know. The lady who told you I was here, was so good as to bring me in."
"Like you quiet little things! You can make your way anywhere, I believe. I couldn't have managed it, Amy, though I know so much more of the world."
It was the family custom to lay it down as family law, that she was a plain domestic little creature, without the great and sage experience of the rest. This family fiction was the family assertion of itself against her services. Not to make too much of them.
"Well! And what have you got on your mind, Amy? Of course you have got something on your mind about me?" said Fanny. She spoke as if her sister, between two and three years her junior, were her prejudiced grandmother.
"It is not much; but since you told me of the lady who gave you the bracelet, Fanny —"
The monotonous boy put his head round the beam on the left, and said, "Look out there, ladies!" and disappeared. The sprightly gentleman with the black hair as suddenly put his head round the beam on the right, and said, "Look out there, darlings!" and also disappeared. Thereupon all the young ladies rose and began shaking their skirts out behind.
"Well, Amy?" said Fanny, doing as the rest did; "what were you going to say?"
"Since you told me a lady had given you the bracelet you showed me, Fanny, I have not been quite easy on your account, and indeed want to know a little more if you will confide more to me."
"Now, ladies!" said the boy in the Scotch cap. "Now, darlings!" said the gentleman with the black hair. They were every one gone in a moment, and the music and the dancing feet were heard again.
Little Dorrit sat down in a golden chair, made quite giddy by these rapid interruptions. — Book the First, "Poverty," Chapter 20, "Moving in Society," p. 243-244.
Harry Furniss would certainly have consulted the James Mahoney portrait of William playing the clarionet as his nieces silently watch in the 1873 Household Edition volume; however, Furniss rejected that moment for realisation, and opted instead to revise the 1856 serial illustration by Phiz). The backstage dialogue between the sisters conveys the stark differences between the older Fanny, the "professional" dancer, and the somewhat isolated, child-like Amy, her father's constant companion in the debtors' prison. Amy is a complete stranger to this world that her sister and uncle inhabit, a world of tawdry realties and entertaining surfaces. Here we see the stage from behind the scenes as the sisters discuss Fanny's exploiting her relationship with Edmund Sparkler, the doltish son of the wealthy Mrs. Merdle.
A more pertinent and interesting scene that none of these illustrators considered was that of the other stratum of society in which Fanny moves, that of the Merdles of Harley Street, Cavendish Square. The issue with which Phiz and Furniss engage themselves is the jewelry and clothing that Fanny is extorting from Mrs. Merdle in exchange for not becoming romantically involved with her dull-witted, socialite son Edmund Sparkler. Amy is particularly concerned about a bracelet that Fanny now wears, and Fanny is equally concerned about the unsavoury reputation that theatrical people have acquired in respectable, upper-middle-class society — and about Amy's behaving as if they are paupers. Mrs. Merdle has objected to a match between her dissolute son and the daughter of an insolvent debtor (indeed, in chapter 20 of the first book she had actually bribed the young dancer to discourage her son's attentions), but subsequently withdraws her objection once the Dorrit family has come into a fortune. The Dorrit sisters discuss the issue of the bracelet when Amy is seated in a stage throne at the theatre — the gilded chair in both the Phiz and Furniss illustrations suggesting her moral authority and superior judgment. That she has not been sullied by the tawdry world of the Victorian stage will render her a suitable wife to Arthur Clennam at the end of the novel.
Although the Furniss re-interpretation and the Phiz original have superficial similarities, including the backstage setting and the young dancers about to perform, significantly Furniss has shifted who is sitting on the throne, so that, in his pen-and-ink drawing, Fanny condescendingly treats Amy as if she were a senior, out of touch with reality. Amy is entranced (perhaps by this strange situation) rather than, as in Phiz, attentive and timid as she struggles to raise the issue of the bracelet. In both, Amy is still very much a child, whereas Fanny is physically a mature woman — although her judgment may not be so mature. Certainly Furniss's depiction of the backstage area is more dynamic, and his Fanny a more stunning beauty, with the wasp-waist that he gives many of his young women in his fin-de-siècle compositions.
Amy, Fanny, and William Dorrit in other editions, 1856-1873
Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's study of the regal Mrs. Merdle and her monocled son with Fanny in Mrs. Merdle, Mr. Sparkler, and Fanny (1867). Centre: Eytinge's illustration of the reclusive William playing his clarionet below the footlights, in the pit, William Dorri (1867). Right: James Mahoney's low-key scene of William Dorrit and his two nieces as he brings his work home, When they arrived there, they found the old man practising his clarionet (Book 1, Ch. 20). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: Phiz's original serial illustration of the Dorrit sisters backstage at the theatre where Fanny dances and William plays in the orchestra, Miss Dorrit and Little Dorrit (Book I, Ch. 20; May 1856). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 22 March 2016