The Death of Nancy
14.3 x 9.4 cm framed
Twenty-seventh illustration for The Adventures of Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist and A Child's History of England, Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), vol. 3, facing 360.
Dickens's original illustrator, George Cruikshank in Bentley's Miscellany did not focus on the murder of Nancy; rather, Furniss's model was apparently the James Mahoney dark plate for Chapter 48 in the third volume of the Household Edition, He moved, backwards, towards the door: dragging the dog with him. However, whereas Mahoney merely darkened the crime scene, depicting Sikes's leaving, Furniss has blacked out the room, focussing on Bill Sikes's deadly club and the white handkerchief that Nancy, already struck down, holds aloft as a signifier of her innocence. [Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.
She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief — Rose Maylie's own — and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.
It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.
[Chapter 47, "Fatal Consequences," 364-365.]
Dickens's orginal illustrator, George Cruikshank in Bentley's Miscellany does not depict Nancy's murder, for such a grisly scene would undoubtedly have been regarded as far too gruesome a scene for family reading, but he does show the deed's effects on the killer in Sikes attempting to destroy his dog (January 1839) and The Last Chance (February 1839), both illustrations already having appeared in the final volume of Richard Bentley's triple-decker in November 1838. The readers of the Household Edition find an illustration that anticipates both the murder and its aftermath, in Chapter 47, "Fatal Consequences," before the quarrel between the common-law spouses even begins in The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress.
Furniss leaves the reader in utter puzzlement in this dark plate, so that the reader must piece together the murder scene largely from what dickens has written. The lithograph offers a second dark plate of the scene made famous by Dickens's thrilling reading of it in Britain and America, the first being the 1871 Household Edition illustration by James Mahoney, who builds up a very different sort of suspense by focussing not on the grisly deed but on its immediate consequences. Accepting the inevitability of Nancy's death as soon as they encounter the illustration, situated in Chapter 47, readers likely would wonder how Sikes will elude detection, and whether authorities will recognise that Sikes committed the murder at Fagin's instigation. In He moved, backwards, towards the door: dragging the dog with him, Mahoney leaves the reader to imagine the violent scene that has resulted in the contorted body lying in a pool of light on the floor.
Thus, the Furniss illustration is the later artist's response to the Household Edition rather than the serial edition illustration. Whereas Cruikshank shows the psychological impact of the murder on Sikes, like Mahoney Furniss attempts the actual murder scene less obliquely by placing the viewer at the very scene, only moments after the commission of the crime, as Sikes exits the room with his dog. Several later illustrators have depicted Sikes as a throwback to the Neanderthal, with a club for a weapon, although in fact he uses the butt of his pistol initially to inflict his murderous rage upon the woman who but recently has tended him through an illness after the abortive Chertsey robbery. The Pailthorpe illustration is somewhat misleading in this respect as, having already struck Nancy once, Sikes raises his club for the death-blow in A Foul Deed (1886). Likewise, J. Clayton Clarke ("Kyd") in his watercolour study of Sikes, Bill Sikes (circa 1900) shows a grim-faced killer and an overturned chair suggesting that he is about to attack Nancy.
Whereas, albeit in a dimly lit garret, the reader can discern Nancy's body in the foreground and Sikes and Bull's-Eye exiting to the rear in the Mahoney dark plate, in the Furniss illustration the room is engulfed in darkness. Nancy raises the handkerchief recently given her by Rose Maylie, a suggestion of Desdemona's handkerchief in the murder scene in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello. The same shaft of light that reveals the handkerchief descends to Sikes's raised left hand and the club in his right. Thus, Furniss in this highly atmospheric dark plate conveys the writer's horror at the brutality and injustice of Nancy's murder, the direct result of an awakening conscience attempting to protect Oliver from Monks's evil designs. The technique itself is Furniss's homage to another early Dickens illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne who pioneered the style in Bleak House:
Both in combination with and transcending this model the illustrator employs the dark plate technique to convey graphically what is for the Dickens novels a new intensity of darkness. [Steig, Chapter 6, 131]
Illustrations from the original 1837-38 serial publication and later editions
Left: George Cruikshank's Sikes attempting to destroy his dog (1839). Centre: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Bill Sikes and Nancy (1867). Right: F. W. Pailthorpe's 1886 illustration "Has it long gone the half-hour?". [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Left: F. W. Pailthorpe's A Foul Deed. Centre: Charles Pears' pencil study, Nancy. Right: Kyd's original watercolour study Nancy. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: James Mahoney's 1871 engraving of the moments immediately after the murder, He moved, backwards, towards the door: dragging the dog with him. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 9 March 2015