Felix O. C. Darley
10.2 x 8.8 cm vignetted
Frontispiece to the second volume of Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, in the W. A. Townsend (New York) Household Edition (1861-71).
[Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham from his own collection.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Passage Illustrated: "The Rehearsal"
As Mrs. Vincent Crummles recrossed back to the table, there bounded on to the stage from some mysterious inlet, a little girl in a dirty white frock with tucks up to the knees, short trousers, sandaled shoes, white spencer, pink gauze bonnet, green veil and curl papers; who turned a pirouette, cut twice in the air, turned another pirouette, then, looking off at the opposite wing, shrieked, bounded forward to within six inches of the footlights, and fell into a beautiful attitude of terror, as a shabby gentleman in an old pair of buff slippers came in at one powerful slide, and chattering his teeth, fiercely brandished a walking-stick.
"They are going through the Indian Savage and the Maiden," said Mrs. Crummles.
"Oh!" said the manager, "the little ballet interlude. Very good, go on. A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That'll do. Now!"
The manager clapped his hands as a signal to proceed, and the savage, becoming ferocious, made a slide towards the maiden; but the maiden avoided him in six twirls, and came down, at the end of the last one, upon the very points of her toes. This seemed to make some impression upon the savage; for, after a little more ferocity and chasing of the maiden into corners, he began to relent, and stroked his face several times with his right thumb and four fingers, thereby intimating that he was struck with admiration of the maiden's beauty. Acting upon the impulse of this passion, he (the savage) began to hit himself severe thumps in the chest, and to exhibit other indications of being desperately in love, which being rather a prosy proceeding, was very likely the cause of the maiden's falling asleep; whether it was or no, asleep she did fall, sound as a church, on a sloping bank, and the savage perceiving it, leant his left ear on his left hand, and nodded sideways, to intimate to all whom it might concern that she was asleep, and no shamming. Being left to himself, the savage had a dance, all alone. Just as he left off, the maiden woke up, rubbed her eyes, got off the bank, and had a dance all alone too — such a dance that the savage looked on in ecstasy all the while, and when it was done, plucked from a neighbouring tree some botanical curiosity, resembling a small pickled cabbage, and offered it to the maiden, who at first wouldn't have it, but on the savage shedding tears relented. Then the savage jumped for joy; then the maiden jumped for rapture at the sweet smell of the pickled cabbage. Then the savage and the maiden danced violently together, and, finally, the savage dropped down on one knee, and the maiden stood on one leg upon his other knee; thus concluding the ballet, and leaving the spectators in a state of pleasing uncertainty, whether she would ultimately marry the savage, or return to her friends.
"Very well indeed," said Mr. Crummles; "bravo!" — Volume 2, Chapter 23, pages 128-130.
Since so much of the satire in Nicholas Nickleby involves the deplorable state of the English theatre, the chapters involving the provincial company under the management of Vincent Crummles, who recruits both Mr. Johnson (Nicholas) and his servant, Smike, to take roles in Romeo and Juliet. Nicholas and Smike (carrying bundle) are in the background of this illustration of the Infant Phenomenon's dancing in rehearsal.
The passage realized occurs as Nicholas and Smike enter the Portsmouth theatre with the company's manager, Vincent Crummles, in Chapter 23 of 1861 edition of The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, although the quotation beneath the frontispiece does not specifically mention this chapter. As is typical of this edition, the chapter title ("Treats of the Company of Mr. Vincent Crummles, and of his Affairs, Domestic and Theatrical") is given in both a prefatory "Table of Contents" (v to vii) and in capitals immediately under the chapter number; this chapter was first published in Part Seven (October 1838) in the Chapman and Hall monthly serialisation. However, the Phiz illustrations for this number concern events in Chapters 22 and 24, so that Darley was breaking with the precedent set by the original British publication in describing the rehearsal in the theatre at Portsmouth as Nicholas's formal introduction to the British stage, for which he will serve as resident playwright, freely translating plays from French without regard for Continental copyright — a common practice for English acting companies.
Independent of Darley's choices of subjects for the frontispieces of the three volumes of Nicholas Nickleby, Fred Barnard elected to provide a more realistic version of an earlier part of the same scene in the Chapman and Hall Household Edition, with Nicholas and the other onlookers left rear, and the principals centre-stage: The Indian and The Maiden — Chap. xxiii. Whereas Barnard's approach is to render the scene caught in the midst of action, with the "Indian" gnashing his teeth and menacing the "Maiden" (in mid-pirouette) with his cane, Darley has captured the moment of stasis when the dance ends, all emotion spent, and the dancers freeze, striking a pose to take a round of applause.
Comparing the two, one can better appreciate the elegance of Darley's treatment, which fails, nevertheless, to capture the energy and humour of the text as Barnard's does. Whereas Barnard focuses on the contrasting emotions and postures of the performers, Darley gives the context of the scene, showing the footlights in the foreground, and a corpulent Crummles and Nicholas in the background (with umbrella), with Smike carrying a small bundle on the end of a stick to intimate that the pair are travellers — and Mrs. Crummles, oblivious to the dancers and absorbed in a book (extreme left). Although the scene occurs in the 1830s, Darley has given the male dancer clothing that is consistent with the fashions of the 1980s (still, improbably, wearing his silk hat!), but has put the female ("The Infant Phenomenon") in a ballet dress. Without doubt, the Crummles of Darley is more human and less of a caricature than the figure offered by Phiz in this sequence of theatrical illustrations. The stage set (a forest with a Martello tower to the left) completes the theatrical scene, with the Phenomenon dressed exactly as in the text and the beautifully attired male dancer's cane lying beside him on the boards. However, the "Indian" is wearing street shoes rather than buff slippers, and is neither "shabby" nor "old," suggesting that Darley has deliberately deviated from the text to provide a more pleasing composition, making the fifteen-year-old Ninetta (The Phenomenon) look less frowsy than he might have, given Dickens's description.
Relevant Illustrations from the Original Serial, 1838
Left: Phiz's 1838 steel engraving representing the scene in which Dickens describes the state of the provincial stage, The Country Manager Rehearses a Combat. Right: Phiz's 1838 steel engraving representing the scene in which the company stages a "bespeak" or sponsored performance, The Great Bespeak for Miss Snevellici. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]
Above: Fred Barnard's 1875engraving of the dance routine in the theatre at Portsmouth, The Indian and The Maiden — Chap. xxiii. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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F. O. C.
Last modified 3 November 2015