The Old dinted Corselet
8 x 5 cm. vignetted
Dickens's The Battle of Life, The Pears' Centenary Edition, IV, 19.
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The ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of metal, but it was hard to say what use they had ever served, and those who found them wondered and disputed. An old dinted corselet, and a helmet, had been hanging in the church so long, that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make them out above the whitewashed arch, had marvelled at them as a baby. If the host slain upon the field, could have been for a moment reanimated in the forms in which they fell, each upon the spot that was the bed of his untimely death, gashed and ghastly soldiers would have stared in, hundreds deep, at household door and window; and would have risen on the hearths of quiet homes; and would have been the garnered store of barns and granaries; and would have started up between the cradled infant and its nurse; and would have floated with the stream, and whirled round on the mill, and crowded the orchard, and burdened the meadow, and piled the rickyard high with dying men. So altered was the battle-ground, where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight. ["Part the First," p. 19, 1912 edition]
Whereas the 1846 edition implies through several early illustrations — the top of Part the First and War — that the battle in question occurred during the Civil War of the seventeenth century, Charles Green has elected to depict as the title-page vignette a scene from the War of the Roses in the fifteenth-century. However, Green's fourth illustration, The Old dinted Corselet, a thumbnail of the kind of light armour worn by roundhead cavalry, on page 19, clearly contradicts the chronological setting that Green has posited for the story's flashback, an unnamed battle from the seventeenth-century wars between Cromwell and his parliamentary adherents on the one side, and King Charles the First and his royalist adherents on the other. The armour is not merely a relic of a previous era, but a reminder to the living that they are surrounded by the dead.
In the Household Edition of 1878 Fred Barnard does not merely establish through his first illustration, The ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of metal . . ., that the conflict was one in which the combatants wore full armour, he describes the sense of wonder that grips the villagers when periodically an artefact from that battle is turned up by a plough; in other words, Barnard graphs the relationship between the past conflict and the tranquil present. In the original 1846 narrative-pictorial sequence, Clarkson Stanfield underscores this difference through two highly effective landscape scenes, War and its complement, Peace. However, the elegant title-page by Daniel Maclise in the 1846 edition, putting the battle in a psychological context with angelic or Blakeian adversaries, nevertheless has at its centre a mediaeval warrior with a broadsword in one hand and a spear surmounted by a banner in the other — and butterfly wings, perhaps in realisation of "The painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its wings."
In encountering and reading through the illustration on page 19, one must ponder why the village elected to hang the dinted helmet and body-armour on the wall of the church. It is a metonymy, as the text makes clear: it represents the death of not just one soldier, but the hundreds of deaths that day, the meaning of which the living can barely apprehend. Significantly, Dickens mentions none of the issues involved in the conflict, let alone who won and who lost. The village clearly derives its identity from that battle, but, ironically, the villagers seem to know very little about it, other than that, the hidden past, the buried relics of that combat, occasionally come to light. The application of this theme to story only becomes apparent when Michael Warden and the missing sister reappear in the final part of the story, exploding the widely-held belief that Marion eloped with Michael Warden and that the pair have been living on the Continent.
Relevant Illustrations from the 1846and 1876 Editions
Left: Clarkson Stanfield's description of the aftermath of the slaughter, War. Right: Clarkson Stanfield's description of the same field, a century later, under cultivation, Peace. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: Fred Barnard's 1878 engraving of the villagers' reaction to the discovery of another relic of the battle, The ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of metal. . . . [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Dickens, Charles. The Battle of Life: A Love Story. Illustrated by John Leech, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, and Clarkson Stanfield. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1846.
_____. The Battle of Life: A Love Story. Illustrated by John Leech, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, and Clarkson Stanfield. (1846). Rpt. in Charles Dickens's Christmas Books, ed. Michael Slater. Hardmondsworth: Penguin, 1971, rpt. 1978.
_____. The Battle of Life. Illustrated by Charles Green, R. I. London: A & F Pears, 1912.
_____. Christmas Books. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
_____. Christmas Books, illustrated by Fred Barnard. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.
_____. Christmas Books, illustrated by A. A. Dixon. London & Glasgow: Collins' Clear-Type Press, 1906.
_____. Christmas Books. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book, 1910.
_____. Christmas Stories. Illustrated by E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
Created 6 May 2015