Our Mutual Friend, Household Edition (New York), 1875. Wood engraving by the Dalziels, 9.3 cm high x 13.4 cm wide.(p. 219). — James Mahoney's thirty-eighth illustration for Charles Dickens's
The Harper and Brothers woodcut for eighth chapter, "The End of a Long Journey," in the third book, "A Long Lane," has a very different caption than that in the Chapman and Hall volume, published that same year in London: Witnessing the Agreement and Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, both of which have much longer captions in the London text. For further differences, including the London and New York volumes having entirely different frontispieces, see The differences between the British and American printings of Mahoney's illustrations for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.— the reference being to Betty's burial instructions and money sewn into her skirt. The half-page illustration depends for its effectiveness on the Dickensian coincidence that Betty Higden, suffering from successive strokes, crawls off into the woods near the paper mill on the upper Thames, and in her dying moments encounters Lizzie Hexam, who has fled London because of Bradley Headstone's unwanted attention. This is one of those illustrations possessing a different caption in the Chapman and Hall and Harper and Brothers versions of the same book, suggesting that, although the American publisher must have received a list of illustrations, but chose occasionally to deviate from the given wording — two further examples are
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.]
A look of thankfulness and triumph lights the worn old face. The eyes, which have been darkly fixed upon the sky, turn with meaning in them towards the compassionate face from which the tears are dropping, and a smile is on the aged lips as they ask: "What is your name, my dear?" "My name is Lizzie Hexam." "I must be sore disfigured. Are you afraid to kiss me?" The answer is, the ready pressure of her lips upon the cold but smiling mouth. "Bless ye! Now lift me, my love." Lizzie Hexam very softly raised the weather-stained grey head, and lifted her as high as Heaven. — Book Three, "A Long Lane"; Chapter 8, "The End of a Long Journey," p. 219, the page after the illustration.
Despite the fact that it was his visual antecedent, Marcus Stone's 1865 treatment of Betty Higden as the rebel, fleeing a town where the citizens seem to be contemplating sending her to the poorhouse, has little in common with James Mahoney's pathetic illustration of Betty's final moments in the woods near the paper-mill where Lizzie Hexam has fled to avoid Bradley Headstone's unwelcome attention. Whereas the Irish artist probably first read this part of the novel and encountered Stone's wood-engraving The Flight in the May 1865 instalment, not in the context of the June 1865 issue of Henry Harper's new vehicle for publishing fiction, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, in which illustrators Felix Octavius Carr Darley and Sol Eytinge, Jr., the first American illustrators of Our Mutual Friend must have initially read the novel. American readers such as these two illustrators would have encountered the sentimental death of Betty Higden, attended by Lizzie Hexam, near the paper-mill on the upper Thames in Part 13 (June 1865), pages 101-121 in Harper's, an instalment that includes Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman, The Evil Genius of the House of Boffin (both relating to the previous number, published in the New York periodical in May), and the two wood-engravings pertaining to the June instalment, The Flight, and Threepenn'orth Rum, the former two appearing in Great Britain in the April 1865 number and the latter two in the May 1865 instalment. Mahoney, impressed by the death of Betty Higden, which comes at the very end of Chapter 8 in the third book, must have felt that this sentimental moment was worthier of visual comment than Betty's hurrying out of the Thames town, fearful that, having lived outside the state welfare system her whole life, was about to be committed to the custody of the local Guardians of the Poor Law and suffer the indignity of a pauper's grave, if not of having her corpse sold to an anatomist.
As Ruth Richardson notes, over the course of thirty years, beginning with Oliver Twist, Dickens had presented a uniform assault on the institution of the workhouse and the act of Parliament that created it, the 1834 Poor Law, utlising editorials in Household Words as well as fictional characters:
Among the most recent of these had been the character of Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend, who takes to the road rather than die in a workhouse. The book was the last novel Dickens completed before his death, published in parts over the period of 1864-5 — just ahead of and in parallel with the Lancet Sanitary Commission's Reports. The words the audience at the great meeting heard [Dr. Joseph] Rogers read aloud referring to the poor creeping into corners to die rather than fester and rot in workhouse wards, refer to those — young and old — who preferred to sleep out under the stars rather than enter those hateful places, and to the incomprehension which met their deaths. Dickens's creation Betty Higden addresses this incomprehension, by way of explaining the self-respect that refused to be browbeaten by the coercive humiliation of applying for help to the workhouse. [Richardson 296]
The novel, then, appeared a year before the government's official enquiry into the continuing abuses of the workhouse system vindicated Dickens's attack most pointedly delivered in the death of Betty Higden. Through her fictional sufferings, Betty helped to bring down the workhouses, which progressive parliamentarians replaced with a system of public infirmaries for the poor who were ill, and instituted the Metropolitan Asylums Board for those indigents who were insane or had infectious diseases. The new hospitals constructed in the decade following Our Mutual Friend became the basis for the National Health Service.
In contrast to the simplicity of Eytinge's wood-engraving, Mahoney's wood-engraving like Darley's frontispiece presents Betty in a natural, detailed setting. Whereas Darley intensifies her humanity in her final moments through her look of dazed confusion at the young woman whom she mistakes for an angel, Betty is old and gnarled in Stone's and Mahoney's final illustrations of her, but is very near death in the Household Edition. In Stone, she marches determinedly away from town with the talk of the poorhouse, but in Mahoney she is tended like a child by Lizzie Hexam as her apparently lifeless hand lies beside her basket of knitting. In the background, Mahoney supplies a weir, mill-wheel, and a lighted factory building, but emphasizes the vegetation, perhaps with the implication that her death before such a building is more natural than in a workhouse. In particular, Mahoney gives prominence to the leafless tree under which Betty has taken refuge. Through it the illustrator may well be implying that Betty has striven for and achieved a death in nature, retaining her dignity and individuality to the end. In the 1875 plate, Lizzie seems relatively anonymous, whereas in the Darley frontispiece she is well dressed, her hair neatly arranged, like the mill-girls of Lowell, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire.
Certainly one can better appreciate Fanny Robin's pathetic death in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (September 1874 instalment, which appeared shortly before the publication of this Household Edition volume) if one has already encountered Betty Higden's dying under an oak tree; Hardy's illustrator, Helen Paterson Allingham, elected to show a desperate young woman, pregnant and friendliness, sleeping outside in She opened a gate within which was a haystack rather than dying inside the Casterbridge Union Workhouse, a venerable building which appears as a shadowy presence in the initial-letter vignette for that number.
Betty Higden in the original and later editions, 1865-1875
Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's study of thenoble widow and her family, Mrs. Higden, Sloppy, and the Innocents (1867). Right: F. O. C. Darley's 1866 Household Edition frontispiece of the death of Betty Higden near the Thames paper-mill, The end of a long Journey. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Above: Marcus Stone's realistic interpretation of Betty Higden's escaping the clutches of "The Parish" and the well-meaning inhabitants of the Thames market-town, The Flight (Part 13, May 1865). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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Last modified 1 January 2016