A stranger calls to see me

A Stranger calls to see me by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). November 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 63, "A Visitor," 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

The second illustration for the nineteenth (double) monthly number, issued in November 1850, completes the story of Dan'l Peggotty, his niece, and those who accompanied them to Australia. For this second November illustration, the illustrator shows a mature David Copperfield, his middle age made obvious by his receding hairline, seated before a domestic hearth with his second wife Agnes seated beside him, his children playing happily with numerous toys, and his first wife, Dora, presiding over the scene from the painting above the mantelpiece. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), this illustration of well deserved domestic bliss may be associated with the following passage:

Little Agnes ran to bring the old man in, and my wife cried out to me that it was Mr. Peggotty! [Hammerton, 366]

In fact, Hammerton has collapsed the passage that Phiz, likely prompted by Dickens, has utilized to demonstrate that the highly moral couple, David and Agnes, are enjoying the benefits of spousal companionship and family that fate has denied to Em'ly, still a single woman in Port Middlebay, Australia, tending her uncle's home:

There soon appeared, pausing in the dark doorway as he [520/521] entered, a hale, grey-haired old man. Little Agnes, attracted by his looks, had run to bring him in, and I had not yet clearly seen his face, when my wife, starting up, cried out to me, in a pleased and agitated voice, that it was Mr. Peggotty!

The pleasant domestic scene, with the husband and wife keeping company with "three of [their] children" (a turn of phrase implying that David and Agnes by the tenth year of their marriage have had more than that number of offspring) is reminiscent of pictures in the popular press (notably, The Illustrated London News) of the royal couple and their numerous progeny at mid-century. If we assume that the date of Dan'l Peggotty's London visit is the spring of 1850, the time of this instalment's publication, then David and Agnes Copperfield would have married about the same year as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (1840). The royal couple eventually had nine children in total, and certainly by mid-century had seven children.

In the final illustration in the narrative-pictorial sequence, and discounting the ornamental title-page and frontispiece as flashbacks, the story essentially comes to closure with respect to the David-Agnes romance. The boy who had nothing but the rags on his back as he approached Dover is now a comfortably circumstanced middle-class parent of a growing family, a benign Victorian pater familias in contrast to the despotic stepfather who killed his mother with unkindness. Testifying to the source of his wealth and respectability, books lie strewn across the floor, as if (however unlikely) these have been the playthings of the Copperfield children, the building blocks of cognition and sensibility, so to speak, analogous to the physical building blocks with which little Agnes has been playing. Since another few years will pass in the succeeding chapters before we arrive, so to speak, at the present, the year 1850, we may assume this domestic scene and reunion with Dan'l Peggotty occur in the mid-1840s, when both Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria had growing families: while Dickens's oldest child was a boy (Charles Dickens, Junior, born 6 January 1837), the Queen's oldest child was Victoria, the Princess Royal, born in 1840, and was therefore about five years of age (roughly the same age as the child named for after her mother, Kate Dickens, born 31 January 1839) when the scene is set chronologically. Interesting but by sheer coincidence, both couples, Charles and Catherine Dickens and Victoria and Albert, each had nine children survive infancy. There are certain similarities between this picture of the Copperfield family and that of the Royal family in The Illustrated London News in the 12 October 1844 issue: "The Crimson Drawing-room: — Introduction of Louis Philippe to the Infant Royal Family" (page 233).

The drawing-room of this final scene in Phiz's narrative-pictorial sequence bears certain points of resemblance to that other Copperfield drawing-room scene by Phiz, "My child-wife's old companion", even though the house in which David and Agnes reside is located in London rather than on the outskirts of the metropolis, in Highgate, where David and Dora lived. The same clock, indicative of the passage of time and its effects on the characters, sits on the mantelpiece, and Dora's picture looks down up David, whom she has bequeathed in both scenes to the more intellectually able Agnes. As Jane Rabb Cohen notes,

After Agnes and David are married, the same portrait, hanging between the two sculptured angels, and next to it apparently a drawing of Em'ly before her Yarmouth boat home, recall the turbulent past that made the present idyllic scene possible . . . .[105]

One should add, as Phiz's including so many books again in David's domestic situation implies, that the present idyllic scene is also made possible by the fruits of David's imagination, so that, in a sense, the scene contains two varieties of Copperfield children. The scene to the right of the fireplace, then, corresponds with the title-page vignette, while the picture to the left appears to be an old house, possibly the Blunderstone Rookery, which in a different view is the subject of the frontispiece. The angels whose presence Cohen notes do not in fact represent the twin angels of David's life, Dora and Agnes, since one (right) is clearly male, so that the logical construction to place upon the sculptures is that they are analogues for the destined couple themselves. The picture of Dora is unchanged since "My child-wife's old companion", although less dark and therefore more easily discerned in its details; since the posture and the off-the-shoulder dress are the same, one is tempted to note that, whereas Agnes was wearing a more modest dress suitable to the gloomy mood in the earlier plate (in which she is about to announce Dora's death), now Agnes is wearing a dress in precisely the same fashion, a subtle suggestion that she has replaced Dora in David's life. Daniel Peggotty, a respectable dressed, affluent, old farmer, seems to have aged dramatically since his last appearances (in "The Emigrants" and "Mr. Peggotty's dream comes true"), and the wild-haired Copperfield boys resemble the Micawber twins in "Restoration of mutual confidence between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber". A significant difference is the size of the chairs in each drawing-room scene, for whereas David's chair is much larger than Dora's armless chair (identified by the guitar and music folio leaning against it) in the former scene, in the latter scene David and Agnes occupy chairs of similar size and design, suggesting their intellectual and moral equality. Nevertheless, in terms of composition, one chair has its back to the viewer in each scene; however, while that chair is vacant in the former scene, in the latter it is occupied by David (once again shown in in profile), who formerly was wrapped up in his melancholy thoughts of the ailing Dora but now turns away from the fire to welcome Mr. Peggotty. Although Fred Barnard also provides an illustration for ch. 63 in the Household Edition of the novel, the "stranger" is not in fact Mr. Peggotty; rather, the Barnard plate realizes a moment in the sixty-fourth chapter, when Mr. Dick fashions and flies kites for David's boys in the summertime.

References

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

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.

Slater, Michael, Nicolas Bentley, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford & New York: Oxford U. P., 1990.


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Last modified 11 March 2010