Benjamin Britain taking Tea
7.3 x 5.7 cm. vignetted
Dickens's The Battle of Life, The Pears' Centenary Edition, vol. 4, page 113.
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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It was a very neat little bar, with the usual display of bottles and glasses; a sedate clock, right to the minute (it was half-past five); everything in its place, and everything furbished and polished up to the very utmost.
"It's the first time I've sat down quietly to-day, I declare," said Mrs. Britain, taking a long breath, as if she had sat down for the night; but getting up again immediately to hand her husband his tea, and cut him his bread-and-butter; "how that bill does set me thinking of old times!"
"Ah!" said Mr. Britain, handling his saucer like an oyster, and disposing of its contents on the same principle.
"That same Mr. Michael Warden," said Clemency, shaking her head at the notice of sale, "lost me my old place."
"And got you your husband," said Mr. Britain.
"Well! So he did,' retorted Clemency, 'and many thanks to him."
"Man's the creature of habit," said Mr. Britain, surveying her, over his saucer. "I had somehow got used to you, Clem; and I found I shouldn't be able to get on without you. So we went and got made man and wife. Ha! ha! We! Who'd have thought it!" ["Part the Third," p. 113, 1912 Pears edition]
The short title on page 14 ("Benjamin Britain taking Tea") is augmented by a direct quotation beneath the actual illustration: "Ah!" said Mr. Britain, handling his saucer like an oyster, and disposing of its contents on the same principle" (page 113, immediately below the lithograph in fine print, and at the very bottom of page 113; in other words, the reader encounters these lines twice at the bottom of page 113.
Although in the story as originally published, the crusty servant-turned-publican Benjamin Britain is a minor character in the comic subplot of the servants' "practical" romance which contrasts Marion's sisterly sacrifice for Grace and Alfred, in the Green series of thirty illustrations, Benjamin Britain as a "Dickensey" working-class character appears nine times (i. e., in thirty per cent) in the narrative-pictorial sequence, albeit prominently in far fewer illustrations, notably Britain and Clemency in the Kitchen (p. 76) and Britain hears a Footstep (p. 81). As opposed to the middle-class characters whose intense emotionalism (the conflict between love and duty or obligation to others) is the basis of the plot, Britain satisfies his need for creature comforts, and leads a comparatively tranquil existence free from stress — not unlike the rustic supporting characters in the Wessex Novels of Thomas Hardy.
In the Christmas season of 1846 when the novella was originally published, the part of Benjamin Britain was enacted at London's Lyceum Theatre by gifted comedian and theatrical producer Robert Keeley (1793-1869) in the Albert Smith adaption, Dickens having had Keeley specifically in mind when he wrote the book. Dickens also wrote the part of Clemency Newcome, the play's comic woman, for Mary Anne Keeley, nee Goward, whom Robert Keeley had married on 26 June 1829; billed as "Mrs. Keeley" she regularly appeared alongside her husband at Covent Garden (1832-1842), The Adelphi, The Olympic, and at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with Dickens's great friend, the dominant actor of the mid-Victorian stage, William Charles Macready. From 1844 through 1847, the couple managed The Lyceum, and starred in numerous productions.
However, Britain does not loom large in the original edition. Britain appears only a few times, and is definitely a supporting character whose character comedy serves as a foil to his social superiors in John Leech's The Parting Breakfast, in subsequent editions, Britain fared no better, although E. A. Abbey in the American Household Edition volume of 1876 at least foregrounds Dr. Jeddler's butler in "Meat?" said Britain, approaching Mr. Snitchey, with the carving knife and fork in his hands, and throwing the question at him like a missile.
Relevant Illustrations from the 1846 and later Editions
Left: John Leech's realisation of the send-off for Alfred relegates Benjamin to a supporting role: The Parting Breakfast. Right: Fred Barnard's depiction of Britain as a publican in "Part the Third," Guessed half aloud "milk and water," "monthly warning," "mice and walnuts" — and couldn't approach her meaning. (1878). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: E. A. Abbey's 1876 dramatic realisation of the breakfast scene, "Meat?" said Britain, approaching Mr. Snitchey, with the carving knife and fork in his hands, and throwing the question at him like a missile. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Above: Harry Furniss's more ample treatment of the comic servants in the so-called "Proposal" scene (based on an illustration of the Albert Smith production), Clemency and Britain. [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.
Last modified 28 May 2015