My Aunt astonishes me

My Aunt astonishes me by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). March 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 34, "My Aunt Astonishes Me," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. 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 eleventh monthly number, which appeared 1n March 1850 and comprised chapters 32 through 34, Phiz realizes the revelation of the novel's chief plot, the unexpected financial failure of Betsy Trotwood, who had been the source of David's affluent lifestyle. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), the illustrated realized is the following:

We looked at one another, without knowing what to make of this, and went into the sitting-room. What was my amazement to find, of all people upon earth, my aunt there, and Mr. Dick! My aunt sitting on a quantity of luggage, with her two birds before her, and her cat on her knee, like a female Robinson Crusoe, drinking tea. Mr. Dick leaning thoughtfully on a great kite, such as we had often been out together to fly, with more luggage piled about him! [vol. 2, 72]

Mrs. Crupp, David's housekeeper, occupies the centre of the room busily making tea in David's sitting-room at the Adelphi for Betsey Trotwood, who sits serenely on "a box" (73) — as in the text. Behind David, at the extreme right, stands Clara Barkis (née Peggotty) in standard Victorian mourning. Behind Aunt Betsey, at the extreme left, behind a gigantic kite whose tail trails towards the centre of the room, is Mr. Dick. Thus, the weapon of fate depicted in the picture of the Sword of Damocles in "We are disturbed in our cookery", having descended upon the Micawbers for debt, and upon Em'ly and the extended Peggotty family as a whole for the girl's vain and deluded fancy, has now descended upon Aunt Betsey, who has entrusted her affairs to attorney Wickfield, and her extended family, Mr. Dick and David. Although she has been ruined financially, Betsey Trotwood faces her situation with same unflappable determination as Dan'l Peggotty in the previous illustration, "Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth".

Phiz has made the compositions of the two illustrations for the March number somewhat similar, perhaps intending to suggest thematic parallels as the movements in both have left what is known and safe, moving towards an uncertain future. Dan'l Peggotty will have to go abroad in search of his errant niece, and David and his aunt will have to live without the benefit of her fortune, in London, a source of apprehension for the elderly woman from Kent ("Whatever," one wonders, "will Mr. Dick be able to do with his kite in the confines of the metropolis?"). With five figures disposed in seated and standing postures in a drawing-room with chairs and a central fireplace, "My Aunt astonishes me" resembles "Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth." If one includes the picture of James Steerforth as a child above the mantelpiece, five figures occupy each scene. In each, a stately matriarch is seated and shown in profile, Mrs. Steerforth dominating the right-hand register and balancing the standing figure of her petitioner, Dan'l Peggotty, left, each side being presided over by a male and female bust, indicative of the public, male-dominated, and the domestic, female-controlled, spheres respectively. The movements implied in these illustrations likewise complement each other: in the first of the March 1850 etchings, the action proceeds from left to right, with Dan'l Peggotty and David having entered from the left and effectively blocked by Mrs. Steerforth and her dark companion, Rosa Dartle, in the quest for information and sympathy; in the second etching, the action flows in the reverse direction. Behind and beyond Dan'l Peggotty in the first illustration and David in the second the viewer is to understand that there lies the greater world. Still dressed for the street, David and Clara Barkis have just entered through the door, right, having climbed the stairs of the Adelphi Buildings beyond, and Mrs. Crupp is turned towards Aunt Betsey and her companion, Mr. Dick, as she attends to making the tea.

Whereas the background details, such as the painting, the busts, and the playful kitten contribute thematically to the viewer's understanding of "Mr. Peggotty and Mrs. Steerforth," there are few such details in "My Aunt astonishes me." In "My Aunt astonishes me," in contrast, the only significant detail is the cracked mirror, which may imply the underlying flaws in David's former vision of a comfortable future and an admirable friend and mentor, James Steerforth. If the crack reflects such flawed vision, it may also portend a problematic future, with financial and emotional tribulations that the protagonist only dimly apprehends as he discovers his aunt, his earthly possessions, and her life-companion in his bachelor apartment. What is not present in the room is also significant: all is in reasonably good "manly" order, in contrast to the domestic chaos that reigns once David has acquired those challenging hostages to fortune, Dora and Jip, whose influence is obvious in the clutter in those same rooms as depicted in "Our housekeeping" and "My child-wife's old companion," the illustrations for the fifteenth and seventeenth monthly numbers respectively.

References

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

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

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


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Last modified 30 December 2009