The Vacant Stool —
13.9 x 9.2 cm vignetted
Fourth illustration for The Cricket on the Hearth in Christmas Books, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), vol. 8, facing page 216.
Omitting the shotgun that both Richard Doyle and John Leech had prominently positioned as a suspense-generating device in their 1845 studies of the anguished John Peerybingle, Harry Furniss has engendered reader sympathy for the wronged husband while minimising the possibility of his committing a violent act out of jealousy or righteous indignation. [Commentary continued below.]
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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He reversed the Gun to beat the stock upon the door; he already held it lifted in the air; some indistinct design was in his thoughts of calling out to him to fly, for God's sake, by the window —
When, suddenly, the struggling fire illumined the whole chimney with a glow of light; and the Cricket on the Hearth began to Chirp!
No sound he could have heard, no human voice, not even hers, could so have moved and softened him. The artless words in which she had told him of her love for this same Cricket, were once more freshly spoken; her trembling, earnest manner at the moment, was again before him; her pleasant voice — Oh what a voice it was, for making household music at the fireside of an honest man! — thrilled through and through his better nature, and awoke it into life and action.
He recoiled from the door, like a man walking in his sleep, awakened from a frightful dream; and put the gun aside. Clasping his hands before his face, he then sat down again beside the fire, and found relief in tears.
The Cricket on the Hearth came out into the room, and stood in Fairy shape before him. ["Chirp The Third," p. 215, emphasis added to indicate original caption]
Eschewing both the sentimental and the melodramatic, electing to realise a moment just before the arrival of the Fairy Cricket, Furniss depicts neither the spectacular element that had thrilled Victorian theatre audiences for over sixty years — the revelation of the Fairy of the Hearth and and her legion of followers — nor the weapon that John Peerybingle is sorely tempted to use against the violator of his hearth. Undoubtedly the illustrator wished the reader to focus upon the husband's dilemma and state of mind, so that he avoided those pictorial elements that Richard Doyle had so successfully exploited in "Chirp the Third", the vision of his devoted young wife (right) and the two dozen fairies who seem to be divided between commiserating with John and extolling Dot's domestic virtues. The carrier is definitely "brooding," and Furniss has employed subtle highlighting to imply the presence of the fireplace as a source of light to the left. Furniss's John resembles Doyle's rather than Leech's in "John's Reverie" since he wears conventional (albeit rustic) middle-class clothing rather than a linen smockfrock. Furniss, like Leech, however, highlights the vacant stool (down centre) to emphasize John's loneliness and sense of abandonment since it is a symbol of the domestic happiness and companionship that he has hitherto enjoyed with Dot. For Furniss, the evocatively pensive pose (perhaps influenced by Auguste Rodin's "Penseur," first exhibited in 1902) is enough to convey his essential impression of the text, so that, unlike Leech, he feels no need to provide such realistic background details as curtains, leaded panes, narrow fireplace, and (most significantly) the gun that John has been tempted to use because Furniss is not interested in generating suspense and (having omitted the fairy motif) does not have to foil the real and supernatural dimensions of the story.
Certainly as an anti-sentimentalist Furniss felt that he should avoid the tinsel fairy trappings of the tale and focus on the husband's dilemma, and then pull off a happy ending of multiple recognitions in the finalé, following the general pattern which the original team of illustrators had followed:
Leech's illustrations sustain this optimistic spirit without falsifying the forces that threaten it. He did not shrink from portraying the Carrier's despair over the appearance of Dot's infidelity (III, 247), for example. [Cohen, 146]
Furniss took his inspiration (although not John's clothing) from Leech's rather than Doyle's plate involving the brooding of John Peerbiugle. He may not have had available E. A. Abbey's 1876 illustration of John's threatening Tackleton as a possible model. In any event, Furniss chose character study over violent action as his subject to examine the husband's emotional turmoil upon his discovery of (putative) adultery. In the non-sanctioned Edward Stirling adaptation at the Adelphi, London, noted character actor O. Smith, who often played "heavies" and western desperados, took the role of John Peerybingle, a role that the famous thespian Henry Irving made his own in British productions of Dion Boucicault's Dot, beginning in 1866 and running at least until 1880. These strong character actors brought both vulnerability and volatility to the role, and thereby helped shape later nineteenth-century readers' perceptions of John Peerbingle, perceptions that Furniss could still rely upon as late as 1910.
Related Illustrations in Earlier Editions
Left: Richard Doyle's "Chirp the Third"; centre, John Leech's "John's Reverie" (1845); right, E. A. Abbey's "'Listen to me!' he said. 'And take care that you hear me right!'"(1876). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Bolton, H. Philip. "The Cricket on the Hearth." Dickens Dramatized. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Pp. 273-295.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. "John Leech." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980. Pp. 141-151.
Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. 16 vols. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
Dickens, Charles. The Christmas Books. Il. Harry Furniss. Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 8.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
Dickens, Charles. The Cricket on the Hearth. A Fairy Tale of Home. Il. John LeechDaniel Maclise, Richard Doyle, Edwin Landseer, and Clarson Stanfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, [dated 1846].
Last modified 3 July 2013