"Our Pew at Church"
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
This is the initial monthly illustration for Dickens's David Copperfield, ch. 2, "I Observe."
Source: Centenary Edition, facing page 18.
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 "lie of every man" wrapper design.
[Compare working drawing]
Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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The initial illustration, chosen by artist and author collaboratively from among David's "earlier recollections" in Blunderstone, takes us outside the limitations of the child's retrospective first person point of view to reveal amongst a drowsing congregation an extremely alert Mr. Murdstone (left) studying the young widow in the Copperfield family pew in the village church. In its dramatizing complacent Anglicanism the plate by Phiz recalls an earlier satire of the Church of England by William Hogarth entitled The Sleeping Congregation (1736). The moment realized from the letterpress is this:
Here is our pew in the church. What a high-backed pew! With a window near it, out of which our house can be seen, and is seen many times during the morning's service, by Peggotty. . . . But though Peggotty's eye wanders, she is much offended if mine does, and frowns to me, as I stand upon the seat, that I am to look at the clergyman. (Centenary Edition, vol. 1, p. 17)
Significantly, the letterpress in which the mature David tries to recapture the child David's recollection of the Blunderstone church dwells upon authority figures — for example, Clara Peggotty, the presiding clergyman "singing a drowsy song" , the local physician, Mr. Chillip, "in his Sunday neckcloth," and the narrator's mother), and a boy across the aisle — and utterly fails to mention the other observer of and in the scene, Mr. Murdstone. Whereas the diminutive David's gaze casually wanders to his mother beside him, that of the dark-haired, bewhiskered gentleman in the pew opposite is firmly fixed upon her. Steig notes that, given the ostensible subject of the illustration, a satire of complacent, country Anglicanism, Murdstone's presence so early in the narrative-pictorial sequence is not merely disquieting, but also quite unexpected.
The elaboration of all details in the illustration except Murdstone himself is perfectly consistent with Phiz's notion of paying homage to Hogarth's "The Sleeping Congregation," even though this is not the most vivid among David's "very earliest impressions" (18). While David in the accompanying letterpress, gradually dozes off and falls off his seat with a crash, in the illustration he looks contemplatively at his mother, as if already considering the matter of his mother's re-marrying which he broaches subsequently to Peggotty. Although Phiz's David seems alert enough, his mother's eyes are either demurely downcast or momentarily closed, and a number of the congregation have fallen asleep, including the verger, the beadle (centre, left). While Murdstone disregards both his hymnal and Book of Common Prayer, the order of service belonging to the sleeping elderly woman in front of him takes an Irishman's rest on a tombstone, while a hymnal tumbles from the hands of a sleeping musician in the choir loft (upper centre), whereas in the Hogarthian original a pair of musicians' tricorn hats are falling from the sleepers' heads left of centre. The rector's assistant, although upright, has likewise fallen asleep and neglects his text. Among the figures of authority, only the pew-opener (right of centre in the foreground) and the minister at are attending to the service, while, right-of-centre, Clara Peggotty (as in the letterpress) looks out the window, preoccupied with the safety of the Rookery.
Although Phiz clearly keeps the focus on the congregation and the physical setting, he also invites us to read the very few words clearly readable: the "Bodgers" on the monument above Mrs. Copperfield's head, "Benefactors of the Church" in the sign below the choir, the Latin phrases (of which more shortly) on the tombstones in the foreground, and most significantly "MARR" from the Book of Common Prayer beside Murdstone, the book being open at the order of marriage. The "monumental tablets on the wall" (18) are Phiz's point of departure for a detailed elaboration of the church's interior, beginning with a monumental crusader in the right foreground and culminating with the rococo cherubs blowing trumpets, a shield and shredded regimental flags at the apex of the gothic arch that determines the overall shape of the picture. Above David's mother, as in the letterpress, is the Bodgers monument, complemented by an Elizabethan statue of a nobleman above it, drawing the viewer's gaze towards the sleeping musicians and across the village minister and the dangling spider above him. Steig contends that the cobweb on the candelabrum to the left of the rector is a metaphor for the general drowsiness and inattentiveness of the congregation (who assume a prominence in Phiz's illustration largely lacking in the Hogarthian original), but the spider dangling from the cherub's trumpet immediately above the minister's neck is much more than a metaphor. At one level, it represents the possibility of an embarrassing moment, but at another it serves as a metaphor for the patient watcher at the bottom of the page. For Steig, "only the five little boys who look at a bird's nest with two eggs in it and mock the unconscious beadle lend any touch of life to the somnolent scene."
Strategically positioned near the empty font and the children, Murdstone is perhaps (as his keeping the prayer book open at the marriage service implies) already contemplating marrying the pretty widow and having a child by her. The overall effect may therefore be one of foreshadowing rather than simply metaphor. Steig proposes that the stolen bird's nest, a receptacle for two eggs, "may also symbolize the innocence of Mrs. Copperfield, soon to be violated by the cunning Murdstone, [so that] the spider and web assume sinister overtones as emblems of deceit and capture" (116). Another subtly embedded symbolic image is that of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, barely discernible as a low-relief wood-engraving on the fascia of the pulpit, which again offers a metaphor for Murdstone's studied pursuit of the unprotected young woman, which may well also serve as foreshadowing the pursuit of Little Em'ly by the sexual exploiter James Steerforth. At the very bottom of the picture, as is consistent with the burial practices of small country churches prior to the Reformation, are two tombstones. However, these acquire symbolic significances through their Latin common enough inscriptions "Requiescat in Pace" (which the elderly parishioner just above this inscription is certainly doing) and "Resurgam," that is, "Rest in Peace" and "I shall rise again." Steig notes their underlying psychological import, suggestive as these inscriptions are of "David's fear of his father's grave and the 'raising of the dead' when Peggotty tells him 'You have got a pa' (ch. 3, p. 32)" (Steig 116).
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. .
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana U. P., 1973.
Last modified 26 January 2010