Feigning to be intent on her embroidery, she sat plying her needle until her busy hand was stopped by Mrs. Boffin's hand being lightly laid upon it (p. 203) — James Mahoney's thirty-fifth illustration for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Household Edition (New York), 1875. Composite wood-block engraving by the Dalziels, 10.4 cm high x 13.4 cm wide. The Harper and Brothers illustration for fifth chapter, "The Golden Dustman Falls into Bad Company," in the third book, "A Long Lane," realizes the end of the scene in the parlour of the Boffin mansion in which the Golden Dustman compels John Rokesmith to give up his rented sitting-room in the Wilfer home, and move into the Boffin household as a full-time functionary, to be available at all times of the day. Bella and Mrs. Boffin both sadly note the change in Mr. Boffin's brusque manner towards Rokesmith and his growing parsimony — so that, ironically, Bella is not the only one "feigning," for the Boffins and John Harmon are staging an elaborate "moral fraud" to effect Bella's spiritual reformation.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

Passage Illustrated

"Have you given notice to quit your lodgings?"

"Under your direction, I have, sir."

"Then I tell you what," said Mr. Boffin; "pay the quarter's rent — pay the quarter's rent, it'll be the cheapest thing in the end — and come here at once, so that you may be always on the spot, day and night, and keep the expenses down. You'll charge the quarter's rent to me, and we must try and save it somewhere. You've got some lovely furniture; haven't you?"

"The furniture in my rooms is my own."

"Then we shan't have to buy any for you. In case you was to think it," said Mr. Boffin, with a look of peculiar shrewdness, "so honourably independent in you as to make it a relief to your mind, to make that furniture over to me in the light of a set-off against the quarter's rent, why ease your mind, ease your mind. I don't ask it, but I won't stand in your way if you should consider it due to yourself. As to your room, choose any empty room at the top of the house."

"Any empty room will do for me," said the Secretary.

"You can take your pick," said Mr Boffin, "and it'll be as good as eight or ten shillings a week added to your income. I won't deduct for it; I look to you to make it up handsomely by keeping the expenses down. Now, if you'll show a light, I'll come to your office-room and dispose of a letter or two."

"On that clear, generous face of Mrs. Boffin's, Bella had seen such traces of a pang at the heart while this dialogue was being held, that she had not the courage to turn her eyes to it when they were left alone. Feigning to be intent on her embroidery, she sat plying her needle until her busy hand was stopped by Mrs. Boffin's hand being lightly laid upon it. Yielding to the touch, she felt her hand carried to the good soul's lips, and felt a tear fall on it.

"Oh, my loved husband!" said Mrs Boffin. "This is hard to see and hear. But my dear Bella, believe me that in spite of all the change in him, he is the best of men."

"He came back, at the moment when Bella had taken the hand comfortingly between her own.

"Eh?" said he, mistrustfully looking in at the door. "What's she telling you?"

"She is only praising you, sir," said Bella.

"Praising me? You are sure? Not blaming me for standing on my own defence against a crew of plunderers, who could suck me dry by driblets? Not blaming me for getting a little hoard together?" &mdash, Book 3, Chapter 5: "The Golden Dustman Falls into Bad Company," p. 203-204.


Despite the fact that it was his visual antecedent, Mahoney ten years later deviated from the choices for illustration made by Dickens and his original illustrator, Marcus Stone, so that, for the twelfth instalment in the British serialisation (April, 1865), there is no exact counterpart to this illustration of Mrs. Boffin's leading Bella further into the "pious fraud" plot involving her husband's supposedly becoming a hardened miser. The original series of illustrations at this point emphasized Boffin's supposed obsession with miserliness through the medium of cautionary "lives of misers" which he seeks in second-hand bookstalls in Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman". However, the point that both Stone and Mahoney are underscoring in these illustrations is similar, namely that Noddy Boffin's "mania" is part of a calculated plan to show Bella Wilfer the folly of her materialism — and the value of the faithful, stoic John Rokesmith. However, by holding up to scrutiny the book-buying expedition and focussing on the portly figure of Noddy Boffin, Stone may have been guilty of distracting the reader from both Bella's growing alarm at Boffin's obsession with money and the possible resolution of the romantic plot. As a contemporary reviewer noted,

Mr. Boffin is being spoilt by prosperity, and is changing every day, growing suspicious, capricious, hard, tyrannical, and unjust. We are now more than half through Mr. Dickens's story; but the final development of its complicated plot is as yet only dimly visible. [London Review, 4 March 1865, p. 258; rpt., Grass, p. 207]

Although Mahoney's parlour scene is not as "pictorial" as Stone's at the bookstall — indeed, it is but one of eight parlour scenes up to this point in the program of illustration — it has the virtue of focussing on the moral development of Bella. The irony of her "feigning" when those about her are feigning much more would have been utterly lost on the serial reader at this point, and even Dickens's illustrator may not in this instalment have been aware how the author would resolve the romantic complications posed not by a mere blocking figure such as an unreceptive parent or guardian, but rather by the materialism of the romantic heroine herself. Mahoney, unlike Stone, had the decided advantage of having read the entire novel prior to developing his program of illustration, and so was aware of the "pious fraud" being practised upon Bella by the Boffins in concert with John "Rokesmith" (i. e., Harmon).

In Mahoney's narrative-pictorial sequence, seven drawing-room and parlour scenes precede this one; indeed, Mahoney utlizes very few outdoor scenes (twelve in total), the majority of the 58 illustrations being interiors (46). Consequently, at first nothing about the sitting-room scene involving the two upper-middle-class ladies in voluminous dresses seems out of the ordinary. This is a comfortably, indeed, amply furnished upper-middle-class Victorian room with a fireplace and its appurtences (bellows, pokers, guard, broom, and mantelpiece), overstuffed chair, kerosene lamp (centre, perhaps implying Bella's growing enlightenment about the dangers of avarice), and a barley-cane-legged table with embroidery equipment. The room's occupants, too, are "ample," although contrasting in age, posture, colour of dress, and attractiveness; heavy furniture surrounds them (and a heavy door guards the exit), leaving them little space for movement, and therefore represents the limitations of nineteenth-century materialism and bourgeois money-morality. In this novel, only the "common" characters such as Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam, Rogue Riderhood, and Betty Higden interact with the natural world — the exceptions being the active heroes John "Rokesmith" Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn, who are shown both indoors and out.

The Boffins in the original and later editions, 1865-1867

Left: Marcus Stone's April 1865 serial illustration of Bella Wilfer and Mr. Boffin shopping for volumes containing "Anecdotes of strange characters, Records of remarkable individuals" in The Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman.​Right: Sol Eytinge, Junior's dual character study of the​Boffins does not do justice to their moral worth: Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (1867). [Click on images to enlarge them.]


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Last modified 31​December 2015