My first fall in life
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's David Copperfield, chapter 19, "I Look about Me, and Make a Discovery."
Source: Centenary Edition, facing page 340.
Image scan 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.]
First November 1849 illustration for Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Steel etching. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume one, facing page 340. All forty Phiz plates were etched in duplicate, as was the case with Dombey and Son, the duplicates differing only slightly from the originals. Phiz contributed forty etchings and the "life of every man" wrapper design. Image scan 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.]
"My first fall in life," the first illustration for the seventh monthly number, containing chapters 19, 20, and 21, illustrates the following textual passage from chapter 19, according to J. A. Hammerton (1910):
I have always considered this as the first fall I had in life. When I booked my place at the coach-office I had had "Box Seat" written against the entry, and had given the book-keeper half-a-crown. I was got up in a special great-coat and shawl, expressly to do honour to that distinguished eminence; had glorified myself upon it a good deal; and had [339/340] felt that I was a credit to the coach. And here, in the very first stage, I was supplanted by a shabby man with a squint, who had no other merit than smelling like a livery- stables, and being able to walk across me, more like a fly than a human being, while the horses were at a canter! (Ch. 19)
Despite the chagrin that David as narrator conveys in the text, David in Phiz's illustration seems cheerfully established on the top of the carriage. In a pre-Railway Age nostalgia, Phiz imbues the coach journey from Canterbury up to London with a certain romance; his take on the scene is characteristic of those who fondly look back at a bygone era. An enthusiastic horseman, Phiz had shown himself, moreover, an excellent hand at drawing horses ever since his prize-winning "John Gilpin's Race" (1832) brought him to critical and popular notice some years before his association with illustrating The Pickwick Papers for Chapman and Hall after the suicide of the initial principal illustrator, Robert Seymour. Memorable scenes involving life-like, highly spirited horses occur throughout Phiz's illustrations, notably for the Irish novels of Charles Lever. In the Dickens canon, one need look no further than the dark plate "On The Dark Road" in Dombey and Son (1848) or the Marquis' unruly and destructive steeds who trample a child in "The Stoppage at the Fountain" in the August numberA Tale of Two Cities (1859). But here Phiz, unable to communicate the ironic humour of David's conversation with the driver about Suffolk fowling, dumplings, and Punches, has found little of purely visual interest in the coaching scene except the cantering horses themselves in that last sentence of the passage quoted above. The sinister or baleful character of those other teams of horses in those highly dramatic illustrations, however, would be quite inconsistent with Phiz's "romance of the highroad." The four matching coach horses here seem to be enjoying themselves immensely as they briskly canter ahead of the heavily-loaded carriage and its convivial driver at the dawn of the Railway Age.
In a single paragraph following the scene realized in the plate, David briefly rehearses the scenes in which he was victimized and traumatized upon his downward journey as he gambled on his aunt's being prepared to receive him hospitably. The present journey marks yet another ending and beginning for David as he leaves behind him happy days at school and fond memories of Agnes Whitfield in the provincial cathedral town, "the tranquil sanctuary of my boyhood" (337), as he calls it in retrospect. Although he regards this loss of his box seat rather than his mother's death, menial work in the bottling warehouse, or desperate flight as an indigent tramp from London to Dover as "his first fall in life," Phiz, fully aware of the irony, makes David a prissy, self- satisfied, miniature adult, and reveals that neither the coachman nor the white-hatted passenger in the box seat above has any duplicitous or malign intention towards the insecure protagonist-narrator.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980.
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. London and New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto & Windus, 2004.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana U. P., 1978.
Last modified 6 December 2009