"It makes a pretty and promising picter; don't it?" (p. 327 Harper & Bros.) and "It looks as if the old man's spirit had found rest at last; don't it?" said Mrs Boffin (p. 400 Chapman & Hall) —​ James Mahoney's fifty-fifth illustration for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Household Edition, 1875, has captions that offer slightly different interpretations of the same illustration. Wood engraving by the Dalziels, 9.3 cm high x 13.3 cm wide. The composite wood-engraving concerns Bella's reinstallation at the Boffin mansion, not as a dependant but as the chatelaine, Mrs. John Harmon, in Book Four, Ch. 13, "Showing How the Golden Dustman Helped to Scatter Dust."

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 Realised

The house inspected, emissaries removed the Inexhaustible, who was shortly afterwards heard screaming among the rainbows; whereupon Bella withdrew herself from the presence and knowledge of gemplemorums, and the screaming ceased, and smiling Peace associated herself with that young olive branch.

"Come and look in, Noddy!" said Mrs. Boffin to Mr. Boffin.

Mr. Boffin, submitting to be led on tiptoe to the nursery door, looked in with immense satisfaction, although there was nothing to see but Bella in a musing state of happiness, seated in a little low chair upon the hearth, with her child in her fair young arms, and her soft eyelashes shading her eyes from the fire.

"It looks as if the old man's spirit had found rest at last; don't it?" said Mrs. Boffin.

"Yes, old lady.'

"And as if his money had turned bright again, after a long long rust in the dark, and was at last a beginning to sparkle in the sunlight?"

"Yes, old lady."

"And it makes a pretty and a promising picter; don't it?"

"Yes, old lady."

But, aware at the instant of a fine opening for a point, Mr. Boffin quenched that observation in this — delivered in the grisliest growling of the regular brown bear. "A pretty and a hopeful picter? Mew, Quack quack, Bow-wow!" And then trotted silently downstairs, with his shoulders in a state of the liveliest commotion. — Book Four, Chapter 13, "Showing How the Golden Dustman Helped to Scatter Dust," p. 328 in the Harper & Bros. edition; p. 398 in the Chapman & Hall edition.

Commentary: Return to the Boffins

As is the case with the various plots, the romance of John and Bella ends in a poetically just manner, the Mahoney plate being the reification of domestic rewards for virtue and a re-drafting of the November 1865 Marcus Stone serial illustration Mr. Boffin does the Honours of the Nursery Door (Book Four, chapter 13), which in the Chapman and Hall edition is identified as "It looks as if the old man's spirit had found rest at last; don't it?" said Mrs Boffin. The day after John's assuming his rightful name and identity at The Three Jolly Fellowship Porters, the Harmons return to the Boffin mansion, and the Boffins explain to Bella (and the reader) how they recognised him and why they undertook to have Noddy pretend to be a miser. Bella's baby, little Bella, is installed in the nursery at the top of the house in this Mahoney illustration, which is actually misplaced in the following chapter in the Chapman and Hall edition, when Wegg is checkmated and receives his comeuppance.

In the original, vertically oriented full-page wood-engraving, the kindly Boffin and his wife (almost entirely obscured) are mere spectators to Bella's happiness, although nothing about the domestic space that Stone is describing specifically suggests that the room with its ornate table and painted setting for a classical nude is, in fact, a "nursery." Already Bella has become an idealised portrait of youthful maternity rather than the the rather agressive, knowing, and wasp-waisted figure that Stone had created in Witnessing the Agreement for the May 1864 instalment. His Bella has matured considerably, being more rounded in the face and more benign and philosophical in her facial expression. She and the infant dominate the composition; the older generation are mere witnesses to the new order of things in the old Harmon mansion. On the other hand, Mahoney's interest in his re-drafted version of this same scene is divided between the pairs, and the illustrator has provided significant visual clues as to the purposed nature of the room, with its window giving a vista that suggests it is at the top of the house (where such spaces were usually found in Victorian great-houses).

Although the text does not specifically describe the room to which Bella has vanished with the Inexhaustible (baby Bella) as being a nursery, the Stone picture's caption nevertheless is unequivocal on the point, so that Mahoney is not exercising too much license in providing such realistic details as a large basinette, several baby rattles (down centre), and a nursing chair. A small chair (centre rear) implies that this was the room in which John Harmon himself was a child. The illustrator shows the Boffins as conferring about the fitness of the scene, and they clasp each other's hands in unified appreciation of seeing Bella and her sleeping child. Perhaps this Noddy Boffin in his dressing-gown is less of a "bear" than his hirsute counterpart in the Stone illustration, but the image is both more more specific and less idealised, as is consistent with Mahoney's realistic style. His illustration does more than showcase Bella's mature beauty; it resolves the romantic difficulties of John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer as they are now "The Harmons," and will pass along their knowledge about and appreciation of life into the future through baby Bella, so that the British Household Edition caption, pointing towards the extension of the Harmon family line, seems the more appropriate. The Mahoney emphasis on the formerly wilful Bella Wilfer as an attentive mother has little to do with the contemporary image of the New Woman; rather, Bella has become a Victorian Madonna of the type memorialised in Coventry Patmore's model of upper-middle-class female beauty and social utility, The Angel in the House, a lengthy poem that appeared ten years before Dickens wrote this, his last complete novel.

Relevant illustrations of Bella, John Harmon, and the Boffins, 1865-1867

Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Diamond Edition study of the Boffins in their new-found affluence, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (Book 1, ch. v). Centre: Marcus Stone's November 1865 serial illustration of Mr. Boffin does the Honours of the Nursery Door, in which the illustrator shows the older couple admiring the "picture" of their adopted daughter with her infant. Right: Sol Eytinge, Junior's dual character study of Bella and the Boffins' Secretary, the secretive John Harmon (1867).[Click on images to enlarge them.]


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Last modified 17 January 2016