Lizzie Hexam to the Rescue

Lizzie Hexam to the Rescue by Harry Furniss. 1910. 9 x 13.6 cm. Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, volume 15, The Charles Dickens Library Edition, facing page 737. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated

It was thought, fervently thought, but not for a moment did the prayer check her. She was away before it welled up in her mind, away, swift and true, yet steady above all — for without steadiness it could never be done — to the landing-place under the willow-tree, where she also had seen the boat lying moored among the stakes.

A sure touch of her old practised hand, a sure step of her old practised foot, a sure light balance of her body, and she was in the boat. A quick glance of her practised eye showed her, even through the deep dark shadow, the sculls in a rack against the red-brick garden-wall. Another moment, and she had cast off (taking the line with her), and the boat had shot out into the moonlight, and she was rowing down the stream as never other woman rowed on English water.

Intently over her shoulder, without slackening speed, she looked ahead for the driving face. She passed the scene of the struggle — yonder it was, on her left, well over the boat's stern — she passed on her right, the end of the village street, a hilly street that almost dipped into the river; its sounds were growing faint again, and she slackened; looking as the boat drove, everywhere, everywhere, for the floating face.

She merely kept the boat before the stream now, and rested on her oars, knowing well that if the face were not soon visible, it had gone down, and she would overshoot it. An untrained sight would never have seen by the moonlight what she saw at the length of a few strokes astern. She saw the drowning figure rise to the surface, slightly struggle, and as if by instinct turn over on its back to float. Just so had she first dimly seen the face which she now dimly saw again.

Firm of look and firm of purpose, she intently watched its coming on, until it was very near; then, with a touch unshipped her sculls, and crept aft in the boat, between kneeling and crouching. Once, she let the body evade her, not being sure of her grasp. Twice, and she had seized it by its bloody hair. — Book Four, "A Turning"; Ch. 6, "A Cry for Help," p. 729-730.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [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.]


In "A Cry for Help," the daughter of Thames waterman Gaffer Hexam turns her practised skill with oars and skiff to good account as she comes to the rescue of her admirer, Eugene Wrayburn, who has just been assaulted by the envious and mentally unstable Bradley Headstone. Furniss's vigorous, impressionistic style is well suited to this dynamic scene in which the Dickensian heroine snatches her lover (whom she just rejected at the river-bank) from drowning near Plashwater Weir, where shortly Bradley Headstone himself will drown, according to Victorian conventions of poetic justice. Although perhaps mere coincidence, it was a sign of the times that in the year that the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), illustrated by Harry Furniss, was published, suffragette spokesperson Emily Davies wrote Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women and in the House of Commons a bill was introduced to give vote rights to single and widowed females of a household, an initiative that would have granted young women such as Lizzie Hexam the right to vote.

Whereas the other nineteenth-century illustrators focussed on the romantic aspect of Lizzie's parting from Eugene (as in Marcus Stone's The Parting by the River, Part 17, September 1865) or the impending violence of the scene in the Household Edition, working at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Harry Furniss dares to realise an atypical aspect of the story, as one of the romantic heroines, the emotionally-conflicted girl of the working class uses her workaday skills learned from her father to rescue the privileged young attorney. Whereas F. O. C. Darley in the fourth American "Household" Edition volume of 1866 had focussed in the frontispiece on Rogue Riderhood's surveillance of Headstone as he attempts to destroy the evidence of his involvement in what he believes to be the murder of the young lawyer in On the Track, the crime-and-detection aspect of the novel, Furniss has seized upon one of the most suspenseful sequences in the final movement of the story which reverses the reader's conventional expectations about the hero's rescuing the heroine, an expectation reinforced by the new medium of motion pictures in an era when women were demanding political and social emancipation — and recognition of their potentialities beyond the hearth and home. Although Dickens's novel appeared just a decade after Coventry Patmore's idealisation of the woman's domestic function, The Angel in the House (1854-55), Lizzie is in many ways a much more complex, multi-faceted figure than Dickens's previous heroines — indeed, she strikes us today as the most modern, as Furniss points out by his selection of this scene of the dynamic Lizzie fearlessly acting in the male domain.

Although series editor J. A. Hammerton describes Lizzie in patriarchal terms in "Characters in the Story" — "daughter of Jesse Hexam; marries Eugene Wrayburn" [viii] — she appears a total of four times in twenty-eight Furniss illustrations, and occupies a prominent position (upper right) in the ornamental title-page Characters in the Story. She is one of two focal characters in the frontispiece, "Keep her out, Lizzie," and makes two solo appearances, in Lizzie Hexam's Vigil and Lizzie Hexam to the Rescue, in a narrative-pictorial sequence that involves only a very few individual studies other than Lizzie: Silas Wegg on his way to the Bower, and Bella's Baby. Thus, in a novel in which male characters predominate, Furniss accords a special prominence to Lizzie, who in so many ways violates the norms of the Victorian heroine, but by her courage, strength of character, and intelligence is worthy of development and concludes the story by crossing the class barrier. Furniss uses her as a foil to the more conventional female protagonist, Bella Wilfer, who is shown as feted, beautifully dressed, and mingling with upper-middle class society. Since chance plays a significant role in Lizzie's rescuing Wrayburn in that it is mere coincidence that she remembers seeing a boat at a convenient distance from the scene of the assault, Furniss sees her as a force, an agent of Providence.

Comparable Chapter Illustrations in the original and Household Edition, 1865-1875

Above: Marcus Stone's sentimental interpretation of the scene in which Lizzie Hexam dismisses Eugene Wrayburn by the river, The Parting by the River (Part 17, September 1865). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Above: James Mahoney's suspenseful interpretation of the scene in which Bradley Headstone attacks the unsuspecting Eugene Wrayburn by the river, He had sauntered far enough. Before turning to retrace his steps, he stopped upon the margin to look down at the reflected night (Book 4, Ch. 6). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Last modified 3 January 2016