I'm Eighty-Seven!

"I'm eighty-seven!" by E. A. Abbey. 10.2 x 13.4 cm framed. From the Household Edition (1876) of Dickens's Christmas Stories, p. 146. Dickens's The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain was first published for Christmas 1848. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Stone met with Dickens and Leech, still the main Christmas Book illustrator, to discuss the story of The Haunted Man in 1848 [November 19]. Predictably, the painter [i. e., Stone], with his taste for attractive women, was most inspired by Milly Swidger, the redeeming angel in the macabre situation that Redlaw brings on himself by wishing away all memory of the past. The artist made proposed sketches of Milly, ornamenting the dreary college room with holly, assisted by the elderly Philip. Dickens called "CHARMING" the drawing he preferred of Milly standing on the chair rather than the floor, a position that stressed Philip's fragility as did his more noticeably stooped shoulders. [Cohen, 187]

The matronly cap, signifying Milly's having lost a child and therefore having greater maturity of character and experience than her youthful figure would suggest, was Stone's response to Dickens's suggestion that there be some outward and visible sign of her status. Abbey and Barnard have both drawn on this illustration and the 1848 illustrations depicting Professor Redlaw, but have modelled the figures more naturally. Compare, for example, John Tenniel's study of the gloomy scientist Professor Redlaw in an elaborate psychomachia as the frontispiece of the 1848 volume with the same character in the introductory scenes by Fred Barnard and E. A. Abbey in the Household Edition volumes of the 1870s. Tenniel stresses the metaphysical dimensions of the wooden Redlaw's moral and emotional struggle: as angels and demons vigorously wage war for the soul of the intellectual protagonist, his psychological double, the malevolent and leering "Phantom," leans over Redlaw's shoulder, tempting him to see human existence as a bleak, cheerless, Darwinian struggle. Thus, in this illustration uninformed (as it were) by Charles Darwin's ground-breaking 1859 work on evolution, Origin of Species, Tenniel establishes from the first the characteristic supernatural dimension of the story, whereas in Barnard's sequence the Phantom appears just once — and Abbey's three half-page wood-engravings not at all.

Although Tenniel reinforces the supernatural element in the "good angel/bad angel" motif of the ornamental title-page, the other original illustrators emphasize the domestic bonhomie of the sometimes cartoon-like Swidgers, as opposed to the steady-going domestic realism of Abbey's and Barnard's larger wood-engravings in their short programs of illustration. If Abbey's and Barnard's realistic treatments seem to lack the charm of the original volume's depictions of Redlaw and the Swidgers, Barnard's "'Merry and happy, was it?' asked the Chemist in a low voice", a large-scale wood-engraving, is decidedly stronger in its delineation of the characters of Redlaw, the old man, and William than E. A. Abbey's equivalent, which, despite its detailing Redlaw's dinner-table and sideboard as the informing context, fails to reveal much about the relationship between Redlaw and the two male Swidgers, all of whom seem oblivious to Milly's starting to decorate the room, although Abbey ably and even sacramentally illuminates the scene by the single gas-lamp on the narrow table (centre). Curiously, although it is highly likely that both Household Edition illustrators had been able to study the fourteen original illustrations (an influence evident in the manner in which both have drawn Redlaw), Milly in Barnard's initial illustration is lacking the matronly cap that fulfilled Dickens's suggestion to Stone and Leech.

Left: John Tenniel's Gothic handling of the scene of Redlaw's temptation, the 1848 book's frontispiece; right: Frank Stone's "Milly and The Old Man", in which Milly, standing on a chair and assisted by her father-in-law, begins to decorate the dining hall for Christmas; immediately above: Fred Barnard's "'Merry and happy, was it?' asked the Chemist in a low voice", in which a more benign and convivial Redlaw interacts with the Swidgers (1878). [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

The original scarlet and gold volume entitled The Haunted Man and The Ghost's Bargain (1848), the last of Dickens's Christmas Books, possess the most extensive and complex programme of illustration of any in the series. The original illustrators in fourteen engravings exploit the supernatural dimension, family relationships, and the Gothic setting of the old college, and reiterate in the presence of the ragged street urchin the theme of the dangers of adopting a purely Utilitarian posture to the societal problems of poverty and ignorance. Although so dire a social vision may not have been entirely consonant with the world view of the later Victorians, in just five illustrations Fred Barnard for the Chapman and Hall Household Edition offers a rich and varied visual programme that covers the elements which the original illustrators emphasized, albeit in fewer illustrations, five compared to the original volume's fourteen. However, E. A. Abbey appears not to have been as interested in the story, and certainly has not exploited its many possibilities for visualisation in his three illustrations, none of which deals with the street boy. Abbey does, however, include the plot involving "the poor student," and the working-class families, the Tetterbys and the Swidgers.

If Barnard's treatment of this opening scene of Redlaw at dinner seems to lack the charm of the original volume's depictions of Redlaw and the Swidgers, "'Merry and happy, was it?' asked the Chemist in a low voice. 'Merry and happy, old man?'" is still more lively than the equivalent in E. A. Abbey's sequence in the American Household Edition. Abbey's half-page wood-engraving, despite its detailing Redlaw's dinner-table and sideboard as the informing context, fails to convey much about Redlaw (other than his depression) and the two male Swidgers, all of whom seem oblivious to Milly's starting to decorate the room, although the scene is effectively and even sacramentally illuminated by the single gas-lamp on the narrow table (centre).

Passage Illustrated (on the same page as the illustration)

"Punctual, of course, Milly," said her husband, relieving her of the tray, "or it wouldn't be you. Here's Mrs. William, sir! — He looks lonelier than ever to-night," whispering to his wife, as he was taking the tray, "and ghostlier altogether."

Without any show of hurry or noise, or any show of herself even, she was so calm and quiet, Milly set the dishes she had brought upon the table — Mr. William, after much clattering and running about, having only gained possession of a butter-boat of gravy, which he stood ready to serve.

"What is that the old man has in his arms?" asked Mr. Redlaw, as he sat down to his solitary meal.

"Holly, sir," replied the quiet voice of Milly.

"That's what I say myself, sir," interposed Mr. William, striking in with the butter-boat. "Berries is so seasonable to the time of year! — Brown gravy?"

"Another Christmas come, another year gone!" murmured the Chemist, with a gloomy sigh. "More figures in the lengthening sum of recollection that we work and work at to our torment, till Death idly jumbles all together, and rubs all out. So, Philip!" breaking off, and raising his voice as he addressed the old man, standing apart, with his glistening burden in his arms, from which the quiet Mrs. William took small branches, which she noiselessly trimmed with her scissors, and decorated the room with, while her aged father-in-law looked on, much interested in the ceremony.

"My duty to you, sir," returned the old man. "Should have spoke before, sir, but know your ways, Mr. Redlaw — proud to say — and wait till spoke to! Merry Christmas, sir, and Happy New Year, and many of 'em. Have had a pretty many of 'em myself — ha, ha! — and may take the liberty of wishing 'em. I'm eighty-seven!"

"Have you had so many that were merry and happy?" asked the other.

"Ay, sir, ever so many," returned the old man.

"Is his memory impaired with age? It is to be expected now," said Mr. Redlaw, turning to the son, and speaking lower.

"Not a morsel of it, sir" replied Mr. William. "That's exactly what I say myself, sir. There never was such a memory as my father's. He's the most wonderful man in the world. He don't know what forgetting means. It's the very observation I'm always making to Mrs. William, sir, if you'll believe me!"

Mr. Swidger, in his polite desire to seem to acquiesce at all events, delivered this as if there were no iota of contradiction in it, and it were all said in unbounded and unqualified assent.

The Chemist pushed his plate away, and, rising from the table, walked across the room to where the old man stood looking at a little sprig of holly in his hand.

"It recalls the time when many of those years were old and new, then?" he said, observing him attentively, and touching him on the shoulder. "Does it?"

"Oh many, many!" said Philip, half awaking from his reverie. "I'm eighty-seven!" [Chapter One: "The Gift Bestowed," 145-6 in the American Household Edition]

Whereas Abbey makes this an ensemble picture of the four characters around the dinner table, Barnard brings Redlaw and the old man well forward, and makes it clear that the elderly family retainer is holding holly and berries, for he seems to proffer them to Redlaw. Barnard's academic seems genuinely interested in the fragile old man, whom Barnard distinguishes from the others by his slight build, shrunken face, stooping posture, and long, white hair. In contrast, in Abbey's picture, we see the old man from behind, and can see little of his face even as we note that he wears trousers rather than breeches and hose as in Barnard's and Frank Stone's illustrations.

The men between whom Abbey's Redlaw sits, son and father, Philip and William Swidger, are book-ends of the human condition — maturity and old age — as well as bell weathers of Redlaw's mental state as the story proceeds. With the cancellation of his dreadful "gift," father and son are restored to the mutual amity initially evident in the text and reinforced by William's glance at Philip in Barnard's illustration. Both regain their essential optimism after learning that a wholly pragmatic or Utilitarian perspective only serves to make life less bearable. The illustration involves the theme of the beneficial effects of memory, for memories are, as Deborah A. Thomas remarks, "humanizing impulses" (58) that enable us to deal with the challenges and reversals of human existence. the holly and berries with which Mrs. William in Abbey's illustration begins to deck the dining room of the old college suggest not merely the continuity of long-standing traditions, but also the life-sustaining effects of memory, community, and family.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting, color correction, and linking by George P. Landow. [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.]


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Last modified 28 December 2012