We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty's fireside

We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty's fireside by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). November 1849. Steel etching. Illustration for Charles Dickens's David Copperfield Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume one. 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.]

Commentary

For the second illustration in the seventh monthly part, for November 1849, Phiz reintroduces James Steerforth (right of centre, in the doorway), paralleling the unexpected reappearance in "Somebody turns up" of Wilkins Micawber in chapter 17. The textual passage realized is this:

A murmur of voices had been audible on the outside, and, at the moment of our entrance, a clapping of hands: which latter noise, I was surprised to see, proceeded from the generally disconsolate Mrs. Gummidge. But Mrs. Gummidge was not the only person there who was unusually excited. Mr. Peggotty, his face lighted up with uncommon satisfaction, and laughing with all his might, held his rough arms wide open, as if for little Em'ly to run into them; Ham, with mixed expression in his face of admiration, exultation, and a lumbering sort of bashfulness that sat upon him very well, held little Em'ly by the hand, as if he were presenting her to Mr. Peggotty; little Em'ly herself, blushing and shy but delighted with Mr. Peggotty's delight, as her joyous eyes expressed, was stopped by our entrance (for she saw us first) in the very act of springing from Ham to nestle in Mr. Peggotty's embrace. In the first glimpse we had of them all, and at the moment of our passing from the dark cold night into the warm light room, this was the way in which they were all employed: Mrs. Gummidge in the background, clapping her hands like a madwoman. [372]

This is one of two plates from the original monthly serial numbers that depict the interior of the Peggottys' boat-house as thoroughly commodious and cheerful; the second plate for the first instalment ("I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty") and the second for the seventh instalment ("We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty's fireside") imply by the curvature of the ceiling beams that the boat is upside down, so that the floor is actually the underside of the deck. The breadth of the room and the arching beams in "I am hospitably received by Mr. Peggotty," a scene involving four adults and two children), indicate that the ceiling is the inverted keel, reinforced by a thick cross-beam at the top of the plate. The curvature of the walls as they blend into the ceiling is once again evident in "We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty's fireside," (but the room seems to have expanded vertically to accommodate Steerforth's height and the size of the social gathering (six adults disposed in three groups of two each), and the window, curtained over (right), seems bigger than in either of Phiz's exterior realizations.

Steig notes that Em'ly and Martha exemplify the "fallen Woman" topos, made all the more real to Dickens by his charity work with the former prostitutes being trained in domestic arts at Miss Angela Burdett Coutts's Urania Cottage. These "fallen women" the author and the millionaire-philanthropist were determined to transform into exemplary "Daughters of Empire" who would advance the imperial colonization of such far-off British possessions as Australia and Canada. Em'ly and Dan'l Peggotty's becoming Australian colonists seems to reinforce this connection between this mid-century novel and Dickens's personal involvement with the Urania Cottage project. The novel places the blame for Em'ly's moral lapse squarely on the shoulders of the aristocratic, amoral rake James Steerforth:

Steerforth and Emily first meet in Part VII, but the pair of illustrations in Part VIII together form Browne's first important graphic interpretation of the tension-charged atmosphere between the upper-class seducer and the fisherman's daughter, betrothed to her cousin, Ham. [Steig 125]

While Ham, Mrs. Gummidge, and Mr. Peggotty have not changed in appearance since the day that Clara Peggotty drove off with Em'ly and David to marry the "willing" Barkis, Em'ly, although still "little" compared to the others in her blended family, has grown up. Significantly, Phiz depicts David as "little" for an adult, too, although his beaver hat compensates for his short stature, which is accentuated by Steerforth's height, which in turn suggests his superiority (or, more properly, his own conviction of his intellectual and emotional superiority) to everyone else in the scene. As Mr. Omer, the local haberdasher and funeral director who employs Em'ly states earlier that same day, Em'ly in Phiz's illustration seems "wayward" (365), an all-embracing term consonant with Em'ly's being rather too well dressed for a seamstress, a young woman of the working-classes, coy, and vacillating. In the text, she is unsure whether she should cleave to Ham, almost her brother, because marrying him will be a denial of her aspiration to be a lady. The picture has all the qualities of a tableau-vivant as it realizes every aspect of Dickens's description of the characters as they appear to David as he enters "unexpectedly."

As the picture of working-class domestic felicity is "instantaneously dissolved" (372) by the arrival "Mas'r Davy" and his tall friend, so the ties that bind Emily to this affectionate group are temporarily severed by the indolent Steerforth, who prefigures the marriage-breaking James Harthouse in Dickens's Hard Times for These Times (1854). Although we can see little of Steerforth as he stands in the doorway beside David, we can detect no riveting gaze on Em'ly, who (contrary to the text) is looking at her uncle rather than at the visitors. Steerforth's having exchanged his gentlemanly beaver top hat for a cap may suggest his having prepared for his Yarmouth excursion by dressing himself in the role of a seaside tourist who is enjoying the novelty of mingling with provincials and boatmen rather than Oxford dons and undergraduates.

References

Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U.P., 1980.

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

Hammerton, J. A., ed. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the the Dickens Illustrations. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.


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Last modified 9 December 2009