Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy by E. G. Dalziel. 1868. Wood engraving. Framed, 13.8 x 9.1 cm. Source: Facing page 68, in The Illustrated Library Edition of Dickens's Works, Christmas Stories, vol. 2. Click on image to enlarge it. The 1864 Christmas story Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy is a sequel to to highly popular 1863 framed tale Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings, in which the pathetic Mrs. Edson, abandoned by her husband, attempts suicide and later dies under the kindly landlady's care, leaving an infant son to be adopted as "Jemmy."
He had been so still, that the moment he moved I knew of it, and I pulled off my spectacles and laid down my book and rose and looked at him. From moving one hand he began to move both, and then his action was the action of a person groping in the dark. Long after his eyes had opened, there was a film over them and he still felt for his way out into light. But by slow degrees his sight cleared and his hands stopped. He saw the ceiling, he saw the wall, he saw me. As his sight cleared, mine cleared too, and when at last we looked in one another’s faces, I started back, and I cries passionately:
"O you wicked wicked man! Your sin has found you out!"
For I knew him, the moment life looked out of his eyes, to be Mr. Edson, Jemmy's father who had so cruelly deserted Jemmy's young unmarried mother who had died in my arms, poor tender creetur, and left Jemmy to me.
"You cruel wicked man! You bad black traitor!"
With the little strength he had, he made an attempt to turn over on his wretched face to hide it. His arm dropped out of the bed and his head with it, and there he lay before me crushed in body and in mind. Surely the miserablest sight under the summer sun!
"O blessed Heaven," I says a crying, "teach me what to say to this broken mortal! I am a poor sinful creetur, and the Judgment is not mine."
As I lifted my eyes up to the clear bright sky, I saw the high tower where Jemmy had stood above the birds, seeing that very window; and the last look of that poor pretty young mother when her soul brightened and got free, seemed to shine down from it.
"O man, man, man!" I says, and I went on my knees beside the bed; "if your heart is rent asunder and you are truly penitent for what you did, Our Saviour will have mercy on you yet!"
As I leaned my face against the bed, his feeble hand could just move itself enough to touch me. I hope the touch was penitent. It tried to hold my dress and keep hold, but the fingers were too weak to close.
I lifted him back upon the pillows and I says to him:
"Can you hear me?"
He looked yes.
"Do you know me?"
He looked yes, even yet more plainly.
"I am not here alone. The Major is with me. You recollect the Major?"
Yes. That is to say he made out yes, in the same way as before.
"And even the Major and I are not alone. My grandson — his godson — is with us. Do you hear? My grandson.
The fingers made another trial to catch my sleeve, but could only creep near it and fall.
"Do you know who my grandson is?"
"I pitied and loved his lonely mother. When his mother lay a dying I said to her, 'My dear, this baby is sent to a childless old woman.' He has been my pride and joy ever since. I love him as dearly as if he had drunk from my breast. Do you ask to see my grandson before you die?"
"Show me, when I leave off speaking, if you correctly understand what I say. He has been kept unacquainted with the story of his birth. He has no knowledge of it. No suspicion of it. If I bring him here to the side of this bed, he will suppose you to be a perfect stranger. It is more than I can do to keep from him the knowledge that there is such wrong and misery in the world; but that it was ever so near him in his innocent cradle I have kept from him, and I do keep from him, and I ever will keep from him, for his mother's sake, and for his own."
He showed me that he distinctly understood, and the tears fell from his eyes.
"Now rest, and you shall see him." ["Mrs. Lirriper Relates How She Went on, and Went over," pages 68-70]
E. G. Dalziel's illustration entitled Willing Sophy, down upon her knees scrubbing early and late and ever cheerful but always smiling with a black face in the 1877 Household Edition's "How Mrs. Lirriper Carried on the Business" realizes a moment in the opening portion of the 1863 novella (reduced to just two chapters after initial publication), in which Dickens establishes the various characters in Mrs. Lirriper's London boarding-house, including the rather awkward maid Sophy, who cheerfully scrubs away at the floors, but always manages to blacken her face in the process. For the second Lirriper story in The British Household Edition of 1877, Dalziel realised the highly amusing arrest of her cousin, Joshua Lirriper, for debt in "Come Sir! Remove me to my vile dungeon. Where is my mouldy straw?" (p. 156), perhaps repeating the illustration of American illustrator E. A. Abbey, who enjoyed the Lirriper stories so much (or at least saw in them the strong potential for contrasting tragic and comic realisations) that he provided an illustration for each: the sentimental death of young Mrs. Edson for the former and the farcical apprehension of Joshua Lirriper for the latter.
Five Relevant Illustrated Library Edition (1868), Household Edition (1876-77), and Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910) Illustrations
E. A. Abbey's "She prayed a good good prayer and I joined in it poor me" and "Come Sir! Remove me to my vile dungeon. Where is my mouldy straw?" (1876).
Left: Edward Dalziel's 1877 illustration "Willing Sophy down upon her knees scrubbing early and late and ever cheerful but always smiling with a black face!" "Come Sir! Remove me to my vile dungeon. Where is my mouldy straw?" Lower right: Harry Furniss's delightful moment of adults engaging in imaginative play with Jemmy in "Jemmy and the Major". [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Even when his predecessors emphasized the painfully sentimental, as was the case with Abbey's representation of the death of young Mrs. Edson, Furniss favours comic subjects involving children and the positive interaction of adults with children. In Jemmy and the Major we have yet another instance of how Furniss gravitates towards more light-hearted scenes, rather than, as with the pathetic. The death-bed scene of the profligate Mr. Edson, forgiven and prayed for by the Christian-spirited Mrs. Lirriper, complements the scene that Dalziel in 1868 furnished for Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings, namely that realising the death of the infant Jemmy's mother. Thus, Dalziel emphasises the operation of poetic justice or providence in the fate of the man who abandoned his pregnant wife. Such death-bed scenes were a commonplace in Victorian fiction; perhaps the locus classicus in Dickens, I find Mr. Barkis "going out with the tide" in the February 1850 instalment of David Copperfield (chapter 30) is a contrast in that an essentially kindly man of advanced age dies surrounded by friends and family, rather than, as is the case with the decrepit Edson of Dalziel's 1868 illustration, complete (albeit charitable) strangers, who sadly include his own son (centre).
A Note on the 1911 Text
The two volumes containing the Christmas stories do not indicate where they fall in the 36-volume sequence. The "Bibliographical Note" on the verso of the title-page makes reference to the Charles Dickens Edition of 1871, although this text has been augmented by five stories from "Reprinted Pieces" and two others, "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older" and "The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices," "which were not always included in the collected works of the novelist."
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Last modified 3 October 2013