Ever since the early chapters of David Copperfield appeared in the Chapman and Hall serial in 1849, some scrupulous readers have noted that the description of the Peggotty family's boat-house "cottage" on the Yarmouth sands does not coincide with Hablot Knight Browne's illustrations. The question of the upside down or right side up deployment of the seaside cottage extends beyond the authority of the text over the illustrations (which constitute a first reader's response) to the matter of ultimate authorial intention, since Dickens had several opportunities during serialization to adjust Phiz's conception of the Peggotty home, and could easily have vetoed the 1850 title-page vignette. Ironically, this novel, despite less than stellar sales compared to those of its predecessor, Dombey and Son, was Dickens's "favourite child." Surely he would have taken pains to instruct Phiz carefully as to what he required in the way of illustration in each of the nineteen months of part publication.

The few surviving letters from author to artist do suggest that Dickens was alert to even minor details, so that the inverted boat-house of David Copperfield constitutes something of a literary mystery. Jane Rabb Cohen offers the following solution to it:

As Browne seemed to be taking special pains to please, Dickens was less prone to criticize him. Even when the artist turned Peggotty's boat home upside down, in contradiction of the text (III, facing p. 30), though not reality, the author said nothing. [101]

Cohen here seems to be suggesting that Dickens knew that the boat-house at Yarmouth was not inverted, but chose not to correct Phiz's misconception. Certainly, the 1850 title-page vignette, one of the last monthly illustrations that Phiz created for the novel, in preparation for the volume edition by Chapman and Hall, implies by its very presence at the beginning of the single volume an authorial sanction; after all, if Dickens had fundamentally disagreed with Phiz's reconfiguration of the Peggottys' home, he could have required another subject. Although we have scant evidence of Dickens's monitoring Phiz's compositions for the novel in serial, we know that he approved mightily of the illustrator's conception of Micawber and intervened in the matter of David's wearing an Eton jacket rather than a travelling coat in "The Friendly Waiter." Moreover, Mark Cronin, arguing that the opening vignette may be intended to prefigure Steerforth's overturned boat (depicted as capsizing in Barnard's full page illustration "The Storm"), terms the upside boat-house "a textual synergistic disjunction that works." Although Dickens's text does not so specify in chapter 3 when David first lays eyes on the unconventional cottage, both Phiz's exterior and interior plates of the Peggottys' cottage depict an upturned boat with a door and window cut into its sides. Two plates from the original monthly serial numbers depict the boat-house's interior as commodious; 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. In "Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure" (first illustration for the August 1849 monthly number) we see the transom (right) and the keel uppermost, but the boat is a mere backdrop to the foregrounded social action (Barkis and Clara Peggotty driving off to their wedding in a chaise attended by David and Emily), so that the only Phiz image that communicates his conception of the exterior of the Peggottys' boat house is that in the title-page vignette, one of his last plates for the nineteen-month serialisation. The curvature of the walls as they blend into the ceiling is once again evident in "We arrive unexpectedly at Mr. Peggotty's fireside" (second illustration for the November 1849 monthly number), but the room seems to have expanded 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. Compare these interiors to that of a righted boat, that in "The Emigrants" (second illustration for the October 1850 monthly number), in which there is no curvature of the walls. Finally, Phiz's exteriors of the boat are at variance, that in "Mrs. Gammidge casts a damp on our departure" suggesting a small hut, but that in the title-page vignette suggesting a house of regular dimensions.

Valerie Browne Lester argues that the composition of the boat-house plates "is a reminder that Phiz occasionally had the upper hand" (147) in his collaborative arrangement with Dickens, and contends the inversion actually constitutes an improvement in the conception of the Peggotty family's home. In her attitude she is echoing Frederic G. Kitton's earlier assertion that the sequence of boat-house plates are the result of the novelist's uncharacteristic failure to conduct adequate "surveillance" (103) of Phiz's monthly contributions, although, as has already been noted, "To Hablot Knight Browne, 9 May 1849," implies quite the contrary. The illustrator may have simply assumed that the writer had intended an upside boat. Despite local traditions reflected years later in such illustrations as "The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth" (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), there is no evidence that the writer actually saw such a boat house when in company with John Leech and Mark Lemon he visited Yarmouth on 9 January 1849; even that most meticulous of biographers, Peter Ackroyd, can only speculate as to Dickens's experience on the shore at dusk: "It is possible that he also saw the Yarmouth boat-house, an odd structure with its roof made from the bottom of a boat" (553).

In 1931, Lawrence Gadd cited Dr. Bately, a native of Yarmouth, as stating that such a boat-house existed in the 1830s, although not quite where Dickens in the novel locates it: "it was originally built, partly of an old boat, on a piece of swampy land, as a shed in which to stow the fishing gear of a shrimp-man" (71), coinciding with the catch that Daniel and Ham Peggotty present to David at school. Dickens may have deliberately shifted the location of the cottage seaward in order to facilitate its destruction by the tempest at the end of the story. However, Gadd's source "asserted that Dickens never saw it. It is not clear on what ground he made such a confident statement, unless he knew that the original boat-shed was hidden by the brick-work and tile roof prior to Dickens's first visit to Yarmouth in 1848" (72) as of his time of writing, Gadd reported that "numerous old boats, upright and inverted, high and dry upon the shore, at many places round the English coast and used as habitations" (72), and any of these could have provided Dickens with his model. Indeed, in his 1929 article in the Dickensian, Gadd proposed as a likely source of inspiration the boat-house on the Gravesend, Higham Canal, near Rochester, which Dickens knew from visits to the immediate neighbourhood in 1836 and 1841:

a quaint little cottage consisting of an inverted fishing-boat, or navy cutter, supported upon low walls of brickwork. The entire boat, which is 30 feet long, 71/2 feet beam and 5 feet deep, was used to form the roof and upper part of the house; and at the bow end there is a small brick chimney to carry away the smoke from the kitchen fire. Small as it is, the cottage has two stories, the actual boat forming an upper chamber, lighted by a small window cut in the stern. (125)

This Gravesend structure, as Gadd has demonstrated, was erected on that spot between 1802 and 1832, and therefore was likely known to Dickens in his twenties, if not earlier. Yet another source, K. J. Fielding suggests, was Samuel Laman Blanchard (1804-1845), a Yarmouth native and member of Dickens's intimate circle who heard Dickens read The Chimes in Forster's rooms in December, 1844. It is not implausible that Dickens combined James Sharman's boat-shed (located at the foot at the Nelson Monument) from his friend Blanchard's recollection of it (for the original was demolished in 1845) with other boat-houses he had seen elsewhere on the coast and in particular with the boat-house on the Higham Canal.

"That's not it?" said I, "that ship-looking thing?" "That's it, Mas'r Davy," returned Ham. 1870s. Illustration by Fred Barnard (engraved by the Dalziels) for the Household Edition of David Copperfield(Chapter III, "I Have a Change," p. 15). Scanned image 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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. ]

Whereas Fred Barnard twenty years later interpreted the letterpress literally to show the cottage at the first moment of its appearance in the novel as a boat "high and dry," as though washed ashore on the sands, and "roofed in" like a child's Noah's ark, according to Hammerton in 1910, "On the Denes at Yarmouth, however, in recent years might have been seen an inverted boat that had been converted into a snug dwelling-place" (339). Hammerton states that Phiz, whom he terms "the least imaginative and inventive of the famous illustrators, improved upon the text, for the pictorial value of the inverted boat will not be denied" (339). In fact, so compelling is Phiz's conception that it has failed to convince only two of Dickens's principal illustrators (Harry Furniss and Fred Barnard). The 1935 MGM film adaptation clearly shows the ribs of the boat's keel in the set design, which undoubtedly reflects Phiz's interior scenes. The appeal of the inversion alluded to by Hammerton may well be that the boat house's interior scenes visually as well as psychologically foil the novel's early conventional drawing room scenes, dominated in the letterpress by the glacial Murdstones (enacted by the sinister Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble in the 1935 black-and-white film). As David G. Smith remarks,

Dickens's acceptance of Phiz's alteration of his plans (if that's what happened) might have been because he recognized the thematic rightness of having the boat turned upside down. After all, the Peggottys continually encounter tragedy and death. Dan Peggotty, Mr. Gummidge, and Ham all end up "drowndead," Em'ly meets a fate worse than death, and the last time we see the boat it is nothing more than an abandoned wreck. It's a household that is figuratively turned upside down — perhaps Dickens thought it would make sense if it happened literally as well.

Since, however, as Valerie Browne Lester notes, Phiz and Fred Barnard were great friends during the period when the younger illustrator received the Chapman and Hall commission for the Household Edition, we must also consider the possibility that Barnard's revised image, true to the textual description of a "roofed in" boat and the biblical associations of the boat house (the very name Ham, one of Noah's sons, and such Old Testament figures as Abraham, Isaac, and Daniel depicted in the cheap coloured prints on the interior walls), had Phiz's sanction and therefore represents his final intention. Further, one might plausibly argue that when Davy, born aloft on Ham's shoulder, first spies the "superannuated boat not far off, high and dry on the ground" in chapter 3 he would have commented upon its being an inverted boat as he subsequently describes it, rather than "That ship-looking thing" (Norton, p. 32). Further, it is less likely that the boy in chapter 10 would experience apprehensive fancies "that the sea might rise in the night and float the boat away" (Norton, p. 127) if the boat were not grounded on its keel.

An interpretation of of the Peggottys' boathouse by the twentieth-century illustrator John Austen. Click on thumbnail for larger image and additional information.]

Part of the appeal of an upside-down boat is its verisimilitude (for such huts were common enough on England's southern coasts, apparently), and part its suiting the unconventional, anti-bourgeois Peggotty family. Phiz's image matches a peculiar cottage with an odd family, for Daniel Peggotty's "children" are neither his nor brother and sister, and Daniel Peggotty's housekeeper is not even a blood relation, but the widow of his deceased fishing partner; and yet this family unit like the cottage itself is hardly dysfunctional. Guiliano and Collins in the second volume of The Annotated Dickens include both Barnard's right side-up boat house (p. 39) and a period photograph of an inverted boat house at Gravesend which they suggest may have given Dickens "the idea for the Peggottys' house (note 5, p. 38), despite the fact that such a conception "is at odds with the text" (38). Moreover, they allude to K. J. Fielding's citing in "Peggotty's Boat: Fact and Fiction" (Dickensian, May 1960) local journalist Louis Meall in A Guide to Yarmouth (2nd. ed, 1851) as saying that the inverted boat house was "as much a creation of the author's fancy, as the adventures of the heroic and true-hearted Peggotty himself; but it is a very characteristic feature in a coast scene of 30 years ago" (118).

Significantly, Fred Barnard chose the scene of David's seeing the Peggotty cottage for the first time as the subject of his first full-page illustration, "That's not it?" said I, "That ship-looking thing?" "That's it, Mas'r Davy," returned Ham." (see above). In the British Household Edition this appears opposite the relevant letterpress (page 15), but after the interior scene with David and the Peggotty family grouping ("Dead, Mr. Peggotty? Page 9). The placement of this large-scale illustration is even more effective in the American edition (opposite the relevant letterpress, p. 18) since it occurs prior to the interior scene (p. 21). A point of continuity between the exterior scenes of Barnard and Phiz is the domestic hearth; the discontinuity is the supporting beams, which frame action in Phiz but are absent in Barnard, who presents the characters in profile in two groups of three on either side of the enlarged and emphasized hearth. In terms of the large-scale, exterior illustrations, Phiz has foregrounded a melancholic little Emily on the beach with the vessel behind, clouds and breakers contributing to the overall mood, while Barnard has foregrounded the figures of Ham, Clara, and David (right half), and reduced the boat house to half of the frame. The crosshatching in the 1872 plate's boat house roof and walls echoes the crosshatching in Clara Peggotty's shawl and box, David's coat, and Ham's sweater and boots. The scene, then, is fundamentally different in the 1850 and 1872 presentations as Barnard presents the house as an extension of a family unit rather than an adjunct to the romantic scenery of the beach, waves, and sky. The potential for melancholy, evident in the Phiz title-page vignette, is dispersed in Barnard's illustration by the presence and size of the human figures, and the viewer cannot be even momentarily deceived about the nature of the hulk in the background, which, but for the slight whiff of smoke blowing towards the right in Phiz's title-page vignette, might be a derelict left high and dry on the sands. Phiz has chosen to alienate Emily as a child to suggest her apartness from David's intense and largely indoor middle-class milieu; Barnard has chosen not to show her at all, focusing through carefully accumulated nautical details on the mixed working and domestic nature of the boat house, which serves both as the Peggottys' home and their place of business. Barnard's emphasizing the hearth in the initial interior but including—uncharacteristically—so much maritime bric-a-brac reinforces the comfort and coziness of this outwardly odd but inwardly normative Victorian home. Despite their working class background and untidily anti-bourgeois configuration, the Peggotty family offer a far more welcoming environment than David's legal guardians, the Murdstones, who though possessing all the outward signs of middle-class respectability and affluence, including formal education and the property inherited from David's mother, impose an emotionally stifling home life on the child and eventually exile him.

As for the issue of whether there actually was such a cottage on the Denes in Great Yarmouth in January 1849 when Dickens visited, despite traditions enshrined in such pictures as "The Old Boat-House at Yarmouth" (The Graphic, 1 November 1879), we should accept K. J. Fielding's verdict that "whether there was ever a 'real hut' one can probably never hope to decide" (117).

Note: James Sharman was something of a local character at Yarmouth, and author of the Guide to Yarmouth (1854). Fielding (118) quotes the following from Louis Meall, who regarded Sharman as "the prototype of the brave Ham":

In 1817, James Sharman was appointed 'Keeper of the Pillar', and looked after the Monument for 50 years until his death in 1867 at the age of 82. As a 14-year old, Sharman was working as a waiter at the Wrestler's Inn when he was forcibly press-ganged into the navy. He went on to serve on HMS Victory at Trafalgar. He later claimed to have helped carry the fatally wounded Nelson below decks, though this may have been his own embellishment in order to gain extra tips from visitors! Sharman was certainly a colourful character. His better documented exploits included a brave rescue of several sailors from the brig Hammond which was shipwrecked on the beach near his house in 1827. Charles Dickens read a newspaper report of this. While writing David Copperfield, which is partly set in Yarmouth, he visited Sharman, and apparently based the character Ham Peggoty [sic] on Sharman. An event that Sharman must have witnessed occurred in 1863, when an acrobat called Charles Marsh climbed up to stand on Britannia's shoulders. Sadly, he missed his footing while climbing down and plunged to his death before the horrified crowd gathered below. [See "Nelson's Monument — Background Information (Yarmouth)" ]


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Last modified 27 October 2009