Our Johnny

Our Johnny by Marcus Stone. Wood engraving by Dalziel, 9.4 cm high x 15.75 cm wide

Stone's illustration for Book 2, Chapter 9, "In which The Orphan Makes His Will," reminiscent of Phiz's "dark" plates such as those found in Bleak House, is not merely atmospheric in that it complements the text and advances the narrative, for the smokiness and dinginess of the cottage's dark interior foreshadow plot developments with "Our Johnny's" fatal respiratory ailment, likely red measles (or, as Sloppy puts it in describing the formal medical diagnosis, "something as wos wery long for spots"). The reader sees Betty Higden solicitously holding her grandson in her lap (left) as Bella Wilfer peers through the open door (right) and smoke from the fitful fire fills the cavernous fireplace. Stone does not dwell on the quaintness of Betty's scant furniture or bric-a-brac on the mantel, finding little romance in poverty but conveying through the sturdiness and pleasing shape of the chairs Betty's essential dignity. The moment the illustrator has chosen to realise is thus a brief passage in Part 8 (the monthly number for December 1864): “they raised the latch of Betty Higden's door, and saw her sitting in the dimmest and furthest corner with poor Johnny in her lap” (283). The physical distance between the well-dressed, upper-middle-class visitors at the door and the working class Betty in her chair is a gulf that ultimately consumes the young life upon which the Boffins have laid such hope. When the child they have adopted came down with some childhood ailment caught from "the Minders," Betty had apparently taken the child to the "doctor's shop once" (281), by which we should probably understand the local apothecary's, but, distrustful of institutions, has elected to wait and see whether "Our Johnny would work round" (281), rather than take him to a proper medical establishment:

To catch up in her arms the sick child who was dear to her, and hide it as if it were a criminal, and keep off all ministration but such as her own ignorant tenderness and patience could supply, had become this woman's idea of maternal love, fidelity, and duty. [282]

Learning of the child's condition from Sloppy, Rokesmith immediately orders the carriage, and within half-an-hour the party are on their way to Brentford. However, once Mrs. Boffin has assessed the child's condition and proposes removing Johnny from the cottage "to where he can be taken better care of" (284), Betty flares up, believing that he is about to be institutionalised.

This, then, is the situation presented in the text. The illustration furnishes the reader with details that Dickens does not: the tidiness and general cleanliness of the cottage, its flagstone floor, and rugged beamed ceiling, its few pieces of solid furniture, and what is possibly the mangle worked by Sloppy to the extreme right. Stone has the light from the single leaded-pane window and the doorway illuminate the diminutive child and Betty's spotlessly clean bonnet, the passage of the light from the doorway drawing our eye left, across the dimly lit, smokey room from Bella towards the grandmother and her charge. The vividly realised — or should we say "improvised"? — details such as the noble basket above Betty's head, on the left-hand side of the mantelpiece, create verisimilitude and subtly convey a sense of the occupant's character.

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.]

References

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. Il. Marcus Stone. Volume 14 of the Authentic Edition. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1901.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark and Facts On File, 1998.


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Last modified 5 June 2011