In his analysis of Phiz's plate Sunset in the Long Drawing-Room at Chesney Wold Michael Steig observes:
So strong are the effects of tone, perspective, composition, and the feeling that nonhuman forces are in control, that one is liable to overlook the fact that this illustration convevs its thematic emphases by means of methods as emblematic as those of its companion plate. Dickens provides in his text the central emblematic conception by dwelling upon the threatening shadow that encroaches upon the portrait of Lady Dedlock, and this in turn becomes the subject of the plate. But Phiz has added a central emblem, a large statue which gives the plate a focus distinct from the portrait and the shadow, and which complements them. It depicts a woman seated with a winged infant leaning upon her knee and looking up at her. In general terms [149/150] this probably embodies the idea of motherly love, but its likely source in Thorwaldsen's sculpture of Venus and Cupid makes it possible to be more specific: in Thorwaldsen's piece, Venus is consoling Cupid for the bee sting he has just received, and the application at this stage of the novel would be not only to Esther's parentage, but to Lady Dedlockk's failure to mother her, and to prevent her suffering as a young child.
Persuasive as this analysis is, Steig's speculations regarding the function and meaning of the statue seem rather narrow. He completely disregards the erotic undercurrents in the scene; traditionally, Venus tells Cupid that if he finds the bee's sting painful he should imagine how his own sting will afflict humankind. Lady Dedlock's tragedy is arguably brought about by love's sting in her affair with Captain Hawdon, and Esther's miserable childhood and lack of a mother figure is a direct consequence of this unhappy union. The yoking of a scene of motherly affection with the sense of threat from erotic love is particularly poignant in this context. It also might figure, rather than simply Lady Dedlock's failure to be a mother, her yearning to be so -- as is also seen in her interaction with Rosa and in the brief meeting with Esther in which she reveals her identity.
Indeed, the dim lighting in this illustration makes the statue appear less like a cold stone artifact and more like it could be an actual mother and child. This blurring between artistic representation and actual human life reduces the judgmental quality that Steig seeks to attach to the statue; the initial confusion that is possible regarding whether or not the statue might be a real mother and child reduces its ability to function as an ironic comment upon the action and folds it into the drama itself, operating as an expression of the maternal care that is thwarted in the novel but emphasising the presence of that care just as much as it reminds us of the impossibility of its fulfilment.
A similar naturalisation might be argued to function with regard to the shadow. Steig points out that the emblematic function of this shadow encroaching onto Lady Dedlock's portrait can easily be overlooked -- the overall atmosphere of the illustration is so strong that it is easy to see the shadow as an expression of that atmosphere, rather than directly symbolic of the doom approaching Lady Dedlock. Within the context of the other so-called 'dark' plates, in which the shadows and the night have no particular symbolic function, it is easy to overlook the more pointed nature of this particular shadow. Darkness is so pervasive in these more naturalistic plates that it ceases to be symbolic and becomes simply a feature of their composition. It is also, of course, a literal condition -- in many of these plates, which deal amongst other things with Lady Dedlock's flight and death, it is, literally, night. The increasingly naturalistic style of these plates might work against an aim to comment upon the action, causing us to read more symbolic elements as simply illustrative.
When the plates lose their more caricatured style and excess of Hogarthian symbolism do they cease to comment on the text and become, simply, illustrations subservient to it, providing a visual depiction of whatever is described in the text? Is it only the symbolism in these plates that ofers any kind of extratextual commentary?
Should an illustration seek to offer such a comment?
Steig identifies "the feeling that non-human forces are in control" as one factor that causes one to overlook the illustration's more emblematic aspects. Does one really have a sense that "non-human forces are in control" thanks to this illustration? If so, how?
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans. Bouverie Street, 1853.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978. [e-text in Victorian Web.]
Last modified 28 November 2007