Steerforth and Mr. Mell

Steerforth and Mr. Mell by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). July 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.]

Thus far, Phiz has provided us with reflective portraits and satirical studies, but in "Steerforth and Mr. Mell" Phiz offers a scene whose design demonstrates his strong suit: baroque action and multivariant studies of figures caught in uproarious action. The schoolroom scene, recalling the Gordon riots of Barnaby Rudge and anticipating the revolutionary mob scenes of A Tale of Two Cities, overflows with dynamic characters in a physical setting drawn with scrupulous attention to details given in the letterpress. Delighting in the challenge such a scene presents for the graphic artist, Phiz has vigorously captured the precise moment when in the confrontation between the virtuous school master and the haughty adolescent:

I am not clear whether he was going to strike Mr. Mell, or Mr. Mell was going to strike him, or there was any such intention on either side. I saw a rigidity come upon the whole school as if they had been turned into stone, and found Mr. Creakle in the midst of us, with Tungay at his side, and Mrs. and Miss Creakle looking in at the door as if they were frightened. Mr. Mell, with his elbows on his desk and his face in his hands, sat, for some moments, quite still. [ch. 7, "My 'First Half' at Salem House"]

In Phiz's continuing the exposition of characters, conflicts, situations, and themes, the initial illustrations (May, June, and July 1849) are especially important in highlighting the roles of certain characters. Having introduced the reader-viewer in the four previous plates to David himself as spectator and victim, to Mrs. Copperfield, Mr. Murdstone, and the Peggottys, Phiz now focuses on the ambivalent figure of James Steerforth, identified in the text as David's "protector" at Salem House, but revealed as an oppositionally defiant snob who uses his influence with the masters and the younger students to deride the kind-hearted Mr. Mell.

The double-voiced narrative captures both the younger David's infatuation with the older boy as his role model and mentor, and the mature narrator's sympathy with the much-put-upon teacher. The incident is important in that, apart from David's naivete as a new boy at the school, it underscores Traddles' role as the voice of reason and moral judgment. Balancing sympathy for the embattled teacher and enjoyment of the boys' exuberance, the illustrator has captured the critical moment when the head master and his one-legged assistant (extreme right) enter the classroom, presumably to restore order. The reader must explore the text to discover whether (as one would expect) they support the dedicated teacher or the arrogant scion of the upper classes. As in Dickens's text, Phiz has positioned David beside Mr. Mell, so that we cannot see David's reaction to the confrontation between two elders whom he admires. In the midst of the hubbub are the pillar-like figures of the master and the senior boy, with Steerforth taking centre stage, and his pivotal importance suggested by the pyramid of fractious boys that rises above him and the caricature of Tungay as a Roman imperator or legion commander (top centre) exemplifying Steerforth's aristocratic arrogance. The physical humour presented by the boys in their rampant misbehaviour in the plate is foiled by the letterpress, tinged with the narrator's regret that at the time he failed to penetrate James Steerforth's attractive veneer to see him in his true colours, not as the heroic champion of justice but as an inveterate snob encouraging the boys to disrespect the teacher who has risen from poverty to the lower levels of the professional classes. Ultimately David realizes that Steerforth is a lord of misrule who threatens the established social order and undermines the morality of true sentiment.

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., 1980.


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Last modified 18 November 2009