Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-Day People. Middle of page 94. Wood-engraving; 4 by 5 ¼ inches (10 cm high by 13.3 cm wide), framed.Drawn by A. B. Frost. Wood engraving. For ""Our Parish," Chapter III, "The Four Sisters," in Dickens's
Passage Illustrated: The Look-a-like Sisters
At last, the Miss Willises moved in; and then the "calling" began. The house was the perfection of neatness — so were the four Miss Willises. Everything was formal, stiff, and cold — so were the four Miss Willises. Not a single chair of the whole set was ever seen out of its place — not a single Miss Willis of the whole four was ever seen out of hers. There they always sat, in the same places, doing precisely the same things at the same hour. The eldest Miss Willis used to knit, the second to draw, the two others to play duets on the piano. They seemed to have no separate existence, but to have made up their minds just to winter through life together. They were three long graces in drapery, with the addition, like a school-dinner, of another long grace afterwards — the three fates with another sister — the Siamese twins multiplied by two. The eldest Miss Willis grew bilious — the four Miss Willises grew bilious immediately. The eldest Miss Willis grew ill-tempered and religious — the four Miss Willises were ill-tempered and religious directly. Whatever the eldest did, the others did, and whatever anybody else did, they all disapproved of; and thus they vegetated—living in Polar harmony among themselves, and, as they sometimes went out, or saw company "in a quiet-way" at home, occasionally icing the neighbors. Three years passed over in this way, when an unlooked for and extraordinary phenomenon occurred. The Miss Willises showed symptoms of summer, the frost gradually broke up; a complete thaw took place. Was it possible? one of the four Miss Willises was going to be married!
Now, where on earth the husband came from, by what feelings the poor man could have been actuated, or by what process of reasoning the four Miss Willises succeeded in persuading themselves that it was possible for a man to marry one of them, without marrying them all, are questions too profound for us to resolve: certain it is, however, that the visits of Mr. Robinson (a gentleman in a public office, with a good salary and a little property of his own, besides) were received — that the four Miss Willises were courted in due form by the said Mr. Robinson — that the neighbors were perfectly frantic in their anxiety to discover which of the four Miss Willises was the fortunate fair, and that the difficulty they experienced in solving the problem was not at all lessened by the announcement of the eldest Miss Willis, —"We are going to marry Mr. Robinson."
It was very extraordinary. ["Our Parish," Chapter III, "The Four Sisters," page 94]
Commentary: Extending the Text
This half-page illustration introducing one of the earliest of Dickens's journalistic sketches emphasizes the uncanny similarity in the faces, forms, hairstyles, and dresses of the Miss Willises, newcomers to "Our Parish." Click on the image to enlarge it. The older, bonneted lady-visitor at left signals that Frost has added to Dickens's text by having the wealthy old lady introduced in the previous chapter visit the four sisters at 25 Gordon Place. Dickens has already mentioned that, with the exception of her annual summer vacation to the sea-coast, the old lady leaves her house only to visit those households on her immediate block — "She seldom visits at a greater distance than the next door but one on either side" (92). The author of the London Sketches has established also that, as soon as the Miss Willises move in, the "calling" begins; however, Dickens never actually mentions that the affluent old lady pays a social call to the Miss Willises, so that her presence in the front parlour of the sisters is Frost's interpolation, connecting the second and third chapters of "Our Parish" and providing the young (and remarkably plain) ladies a focal point for the conversations and their piano-playing. The suitably domestic sphere includes utensils for knitting and drawing, suitably pastimes for upper-middle class women of the period. Their dresses and hairstyles, which come from a period after the Regency, suggest that Frost has used contemporary American fashions rather than attempting to recreate a period look. No other illustrators of Sketches by Boz depicted on the four sisters, choosing instead to illustrate the more satirical material of Chapter IV, "The Election for Beadle." One might therefore assume that Frost deliberately chose a scene that Cruikshank had not attempted. Perhaps he found the premise of "The Four Sisters" irresistibly absurd, namely that all four Willises are going to able to marry the Mr. Robinson.
Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Barnard, J. "Fred" (il.). Charles Dickens's Sketches by Boz, with thirty-four illustrations. The Works of Charles Dickens: The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. Volume 13.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman & Hall, 1836.
Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book, 1910. Vol. 1.
Dickens, Charles. Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz and American Notes. Illustrated by Thomas Nast and Arthur B. Frost. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877 (copyrighted in 1876).
Last modified 9 April 2019