"He's too proud a chap to eat it . . ."
Sir John Gilbert
10.2 x 8.2 cm vignetted
Frontispiece to thethird volume of Dickens's Little Dorrit, in theSheldon & Co. (New York) Household Edition (1861-71).
[Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham from his own collection.
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"None of your eyes at me," said Mr F.'s Aunt, shivering with hostility. "Take that."
"That" was the crust of the piece of toast. Clennam accepted the boon with a look of gratitude, and held it in his hand under the pressure of a little embarrassment, which was not relieved when Mr. F.'s Aunt, elevating her voice into a cry of considerable power, exclaimed, "He has a proud stomach, this chap! He's too proud a chap to eat it!" and, coming out of her chair, shook her venerable fist so very close to his nose as to tickle the surface. But for the timely return of Flora, to find him in this difficult situation, further consequences might have ensued. Flora, without the least discomposure or surprise, but congratulating the old lady in an approving manner on being "very lively to-night," handed her back to her chair.
"He has a proud stomach, this chap," said Mr F.'s relation, on being reseated. "Give him a meal of chaff!"
"Oh! I don't think he would like that, aunt," returned Flora.
"Give him a meal of chaff, I tell you," said Mr. F.'s Aunt, glaring round Flora on her enemy. "It’s the only thing for a proud stomach. Let him eat up every morsel. Drat him, give him a meal of chaff!"
Under a general pretence of helping him to this refreshment, Flora got him out on the staircase; Mr. F.'s Aunt even then constantly reiterating, with inexpressible bitterness, that he was "a chap," and had a "proud stomach," and over and over again insisting on that equine provision being made for him which she had already so strongly prescribed.
"Such an inconvenient staircase and so many corner-stairs Arthur," whispered Flora, "would you object to putting your arm round me under my pelerine?"
With a sense of going down-stairs in a highly-ridiculous manner, Clennam descended in the required attitude, and only released his fair burden at the dining-room door; indeed, even there she was rather difficult to be got rid of, remaining in his embrace to murmur, "Arthur, for mercy's sake, don’t breathe it to papa!"
She accompanied Arthur into the room, where the Patriarch sat alone, with his list shoes on the fender, twirling his thumbs as if he had never left off. The youthful Patriarch, aged ten, looked out of his picture-frame above him with no calmer air than he. Both smooth heads were alike beaming, blundering, and bumpy.
"Mr. Clennam, I am glad to see you. I hope you are well, sir, I hope you are well. Please to sit down, please to sit down." — Book Two, "Riches"; Chapter 9, "Appearance and Disappearance," vol. 2, pp. 162.
Sir John Gilbert provided sporadic relief for the series' principal illustrator, Felix Octavius Carr Darley, typically providing a frontispiece for the third volume in a four-volume set. Here, however, he had to provide the second in the series of four. Although he has provided a lengthy caption, Gilbert gives neither page number nor chapter number:
"He has a proud stomach, this chap! He's too proud a chap to eat it!" and, coming out of her chair, shook her venerable fist so very close to his nose as to tickle the surface.
This situation in the Patriarchal madhouse is utterly baffling for the reader who merely "drops into" the pages of text involved — in any event, Gilbert has provided no such guidance as to chapter or page; the angry blathering of Mr. F.'s Aunt only makes sense in the context of the chapter, in which Arthur Clennam, follows Miss Wade and Tattycoram to the "Patriarchal mansion" of Mr. Casby, Flora Finching's father. Anticipating the prose style of James Joyce in the boundless and unpunctuated monologue of Molly Bloom in Ulysses, Flora's speech knows scant intermission as she seeks to engage the attention of her childhood sweetheart, Arthur Clennam. One wonders what motivated John Gilbert to choose so minor an incident and so peripheral a character as Mr. F's Aunt for the book's third frontispiece. However, in a sense the tea-time confrontation epitomizes so much of the book as normative characters such as Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit (Austenian True Wits) encounter a metropolis teaming with False Wits.
Gilbert's introduction of yet another pallid Dickens hero, Arthur, is all the more effective for his being juxtaposed against such a singularly odd and barely comprehensible a character as Mr. F.'s Aunt, whom the illustrator has costumed as a perfectly respectable middle class matron of advanced years, complete with oversized hat and large linen napkin. Although the illustration does not make the situation completely clear, Mrs. F.'s Aunt has just thrust a piece of toast into his hand and is demanding that he finish for her, just as Flora would, were she present. Arthur, apparently a young, respectably dressed borgeois, reacts with mild shock and surprise to the elderly lady's aggressive behaviour, which is clearly intended to drive the rival for Flora's affections out of the house, never to visit Flora again.
Contemporary illustrator Sol Eytinge, Jr., depicted Flora as vacuous and Mr. F's Aunt as senile, but pliable in the 1867 Diamond Edition wood-engraving Flora and Mr. F's Aunt — a dual character study that, like this frontispiece by Gilbert, is based on Phiz's steel-engraving for Part 13 (December 1856) illustration Rigour of Mr. F's Aunt, to which J. A. Hammerton in The Dickens Picture-Book has appended the caption "Flora found him in this difficult situation" (419).
The social realist James Mahoney in the Household Edition's fifty-eight illustrations does not include this scene, choosing instead to realise Clennam's shadowing Miss Wade and Tattycoram in He stopped at the corner stopped at the corner, seeming to look back expectantly up the street as if he had made an appointment with some one to meet him there; but he kept a careful eye on the three. When they came together, the man took off his hat, and made Miss Wade a bow — Book 2, chap. ix. Mahoney's treatment of Flora in "What nimble fingers you have," said Flora, "but are you sure you are well?". . . "Oh yes, indeed!" Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thorough good romantic disclosure. — Book 1, chap. xxiv. There is little sympathy for the querulous, old woman in the Harry Furniss illustrations for the twelfth volume of The Charles Dickens Library Edition, Mr. F's Aunt, described as mildly ridiculous in Book One, Chapter 13:
There was a fourth and most original figure in the Patriarchal tent, who also appeared before dinner. This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr F.'s Aunt. — Volume One, page 236.
Awkward, surly, and even demented as Mr. F's Aunt may appear in this frontispiece by John Gilbert, his characterisation of her is consistent with the approach taken by Hablot Knight Browne in the original serial, and preferable to that of Sol Eytinge, Jr., in the Diamond Edition, although Furniss conveys something more of her imperious nature and self-importance.
Relevant Illustrations of Mr. F's Aunt from Other Editions
Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's unflattering Flora and Mr. F's Aunt. Centre: The original Phiz engraving which influenced later illustrators, Rigour of Mr. F's Aunt. Right: The Harry Furniss characterisation of Mr. F's Aunt as The Empress of Toast, Mr. F's Aunt. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
James Mahoney's 1873 composite wood-engraving of Flora Finching and Amy Dorrit, "What nimble fingers you have," said Flora, "but are you sure you are well?". . . "Oh yes, indeed!" Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thorough good romantic disclosure. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Relevant Illustrations from the Other Frontispieces by Darley, 1863
Left: F. O. C. Darley's photogravure frontispiece for volume one representing Rigaud and John Baptist Cavalletto in the Marseilles prison, Feeding the Birds. Centre: Darley's frontispiece for volume two, Joyful tidings — Ch. 35. Right: Darley's photogravure for the frontispiece of volume four, Closing in —Book Two, Ch. 30. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
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Last modified 17 November 2015