"You never charge me, Miss Wilfer," said the Secretary, encountering her by chance alone in the great drawing-room, "with commissions for home. I shall always be happy to execute any commands you may have in that direction." — p. 158. The lengthy caption (without the page number in the New York edition) and full-page illustration of the Boffins' "great drawing-room" (implying that there is also a "lesser")​highlight the Secretary's subtly upbraiding Bella Wilfer for neglecting her John Dickens-like, middle-class family now that she has had the good fortune to be taken up by the wealthy, childless Boffins and has been ​ translated to their suburban​mansion, to and from which John Rokesmith travels daily. His subtle goading provokes Bella to visit her parents (in the Boffins' coach, of course) and buy her father a new wardrobe. James Mahoney's twenty-third illustration for Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Household Edition, 1875. Full-page wood-engraving by the Dalziels, 13.1 cm high x 17.5 cm wide.

Passage Realised

Yet it was not so very long ago that Bella had been fluttered by the discovery that this same Secretary and lodger seem to like her. Ah! but the eminently aristocratic mansion and Mrs. Boffin's dressmaker had not come into play then.

In spite of his seemingly retiring manners a very intrusive person, this Secretary and lodger, in Miss Bella's opinion. Always a light in his office-room when we came home from the play or Opera, and he always at the carriage-door to hand us out. Always a provoking radiance too on Mrs. Boffin's face, and an abominably cheerful reception of him, as if it were possible seriously to approve what the man had in his mind!

"You never charge me, Miss Wilfer," said the Secretary, encountering her by chance alone in the great drawing-room, "with commissions for home. I shall always be happy to execute any commands you may have in that direction."

"Pray what may you mean, Mr​. ​ Rokesmith?" inquired Miss Bella, with languidly drooping eyelids.

"By home? I mean your father's house at Holloway."

She coloured under the retort — so skilfully thrust, that the words seemed to be merely a plain answer, given in plain good faith — and said, rather more emphatically and sharply:

"What commissions and commands are you speaking of?"

"Only little words of remembrance as I assume you sent somehow or other," replied the Secretary with his former air. "It would be a pleasure to me if you would make me the bearer of them. As you know, I come and go between the two houses every day."

"You needn't remind me of that, sir."

She was too quick in this petulant sally against "Pa's lodger"; and she felt that she had been so when she met his quiet look. — Book Two, "Birds of a Feather," Chapter 8, "In Which an Innocent Elopement Occurs," p. 132-135 in the New York edition.

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.]


The woodcut for Book Two, "Birds of a Feather," Chapter Eight, "In Which an Innocent Elopement Occurs" (p. 132) is one of just three full-page illustrations in the 1875 Household Edition volume of Our Mutual Friend, suggesting that Mahoney regarded this scene as highly significant in the plot surrounding the relationship between the Boffins' Secretary, John Rokesmith (i. e., John Harmon operating under a pseudonym), and the fashionably dressed Bella Wilfer. Mahoney has modelled his illustration in part on the original serial wood-engraving by Marcus Stone, Pa's Lodger and Pa's Daughter (Part 8, December 1864). Sol Eytinge, Jr., depicted a more animated, affectionate Bella and her father together to illustrate the closeness of their relationship, temporarily disrupted by Bella's desire for wealth. The message that Rokesmith conveys to Bella embarrasses her in Mahoney's illustration, as she retreats from engaging with the voice of conscience by thoughtfully examining an exotic houseplant housed on a tripod stand of tropical wood, here a signifier of taste, affluence, and social status, an object equivalent in function to the ornate, High Victorian furnishings in the Stone original, in which Bella pretends to be reading a book and to be disregarding Rokesmith's presence. Clearly his moral intention in the text is to chasten the wilful Bella for neglecting her own family, particularly her kindly father, R. W., since the Boffins have elevated her to a loftier socio-economic sphere. If there is a spark in the Stone illustration, it is of suppressed romance and sexuality that one does not find the Mahoney reinterpretation.

John and Bella are surrounded by evidence of wealth and ease, including the many books on the table behind the young man​ in the great drawing-room. The swirling draperies (right) echo the swirling fabric of Bella's dress, implying that she has become very much a part of this upper-middle-class environment, but also subtly suggesting her agitation at Rokesmith's implied criticism. But the drawing-room furnishings are excessively ornate and massive, although elegant, suggesting the rather cloying nature of this materialistic ​ existence that Bella has​so wilfully embraced as the surest route to happiness. John Rokesmith, holding a tome and striking a pose reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet, looks unflinchingly at her, a pillar of moral rectitude, as emphasized by the classical column behind him.

Pertinent Illustrations in the original and Diamond Editions, 1864-1867

Left: Marcus Stone's first December 1864 illustration of John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer (Part 8), Pa's Lodger and Pa's Daughter. Right: American Sol Eytinge, Junior's dual character study of the Bella and her kindly father, R. W., The Cherub and the Lovely Woman (1867). [Click on images to enlarge them.]


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Last modified 15 December 2015