The Flight

The Flight by Marcus Stone. Wood engraving by W. T. Green. 9.6 cm high x 15.8 cm wide. First illustration for the thirteenth monthly number of Our Mutual Friend, Chapter Eight, "The End of a Long Journey" in the third book, "A Long Lane." The Authentic edition, facing p. 442. [This part of the novel originally appeared in periodical form in May 1865.] 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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

The setting is a market town on the upper reaches of the Thames, somewhere above Kingston, where the fiercely independent Betty Higden has been selling her wares. The moment realised is established by the following passage:

The poor old creature had taken the upward course of the river Thames as her general track; it was the track in which her last home lay, and of which she had last had local love and knowledge. She had hovered for a little while in the near neighbourhood of her abandoned dwelling, and had sold, and knitted and sold, and gone on. In the pleasant towns of Chertsey, Walton, Kingston, and Staines, her figure came to be quite well known for some short weeks, and then again passed on.

She would take her stand in market-places, where there were such things, on market days; at other times, in the busiest (that was seldom very busy) portion of the little quiet High Street; at still other times she would explore the outlying roads for great houses, and would ask leave at the Lodge to pass in with her basket, and would not often get it. But ladies in carriages would frequently make purchases from her trifling stock, and were usually pleased with her bright eyes and her hopeful speech. In these and her clean dress originated a fable that she was well to do in the world: one might say, for her station, rich. As making a comfortable provision for its subject which costs nobody anything, this class of fable has long been popular.[438-439]

Nearing the end of her earthly pilgrimage at the upper reaches of the Thames, nearer its pure source and far removed from its polluted alterego in London, Betty is still terrified at the prospect of being ruled infirm and consigned by the parish authorities to the union workhouse. The enquiry by well-meaning but intrusive "Samaritans" usually begins by somebody's asking whether she has any relatives in the vicinity who will look after her:

'You have had a faint like,' was the answer, 'or a fit. It ain't that you've been a-struggling, mother, but you've been stiff and numbed.'

'Ah!' said Betty, recovering her memory. 'It's the numbness. Yes. It comes over me at times.'

Was it gone? the women asked her.

'It's gone now,' said Betty. 'I shall be stronger than I was afore. Many thanks to ye, my dears, and when you come to be as old as I am, may others do as much for you!'

They assisted her to rise, but she could not stand yet, and they supported her when she sat down again upon the bench.

'My head's a bit light, and my feet are a bit heavy,' said old Betty, leaning her face drowsily on the breast of the woman who had spoken before. 'They'll both come nat'ral in a minute. There's nothing more the matter.'

'Ask her,' said some farmers standing by, who had come out from their market-dinner, 'who belongs to her.'

'Are there any folks belonging to you, mother?' said the woman.

'Yes sure,' answered Betty. 'I heerd the gentleman say it, but I couldn't answer quick enough. There's plenty belonging to me. Don't ye fear for me, my dear.'

'But are any of 'em near here? 'said the men's voices; the women's voices chiming in when it was said, and prolonging the strain.

'Quite near enough,' said Betty, rousing herself. 'Don't ye be afeard for me, neighbours.'

'But you are not fit to travel. Where are you going?' was the next compassionate chorus she heard.

'I'm a-going to London when I've sold out all,' said Betty, rising with difficulty. 'I've right good friends in London. I want for nothing. I shall come to no harm. Thankye. Don't ye be afeard for me.'

A well-meaning bystander, yellow-legginged and purple-faced, said hoarsely over his red comforter, as she rose to her feet, that she 'oughtn't to be let to go'.

'For the Lord's love don't meddle with me!' cried old Betty, all her fears crowding on her. 'I am quite well now, and I must go this minute.'

She caught up her basket as she spoke and was making an unsteady rush away from them, when the same bystander checked her with his hand on her sleeve, and urged her to come with him and see the parish-doctor. Strengthening herself by the utmost exercise of her resolution, the poor trembling creature shook him off, almost fiercely, and took to flight. Nor did she feel safe until she had set a mile or two of by-road between herself and the marketplace. . . . [439]

As Betty hastens away from the confrontation with the well-meaning crowd gathered in the village square before the Golden Lion Inn (identified by Stone as being behind the crowd), looking over her shoulder to assure herself that nobody is pursuing her. For an elderly woman who has just suffered a mild stroke, Betty moves with surprising speed despite her unsteady gait as she balances her large basket on her left arm and pushes her right arm determinedly forward. The perspective that Stone has chosen matches that of the text in that the viewer is situated in front of Betty, and therefore sees the townspeople somewhat indistinctly sketched in a hundred yards back, the illustration's focal character clearly being Betty, her expression denoting both apprehension and suspicion. Stone has framed the marketplace scene, placing the retreating Betty outside the societal frame, her gnarled, alienated state reiterated by the ancient, leafless tree on the other side of the stone fence (right).

References

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

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


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Last modified 3 July 2011