The Birds in the Cage (facing p. 6) — Phiz's initial illustration for Dickens's Little Dorrit, Authentic Edition (London), 1901 [revision of the 1868 edition]. The illustration serves as a visual introduction to a figure right out of Victorian melodrama, the villainous wife-murderer Rigaud. Steel engraving for Book the First, "Poverty," Chapter 1, "Sun and Shadow" (originally Part 1, December 1855), 9.2 cm high x 12.8 cm wide, framed. Scanned image by Simon Cooke; 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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.

Passage Illustrated: Fellow Prisoners Rigaud and Caveletto in Marseilles

The man who lay on the ledge of the grating was even chilled. He jerked his great cloak more heavily upon him by an impatient movement of one shoulder, and growled, "To the devil with this Brigand of a Sun that never shines in here!"

He was waiting to be fed, looking sideways through the bars that he might see the further down the stairs, with much of the expression of a wild beast in similar expectation. But his eyes, too close together, were not so nobly set in his head as those of the king of beasts are in his, and they were sharp rather than bright-pointed weapons with little surface to betray them. They had no depth or change; they glittered, and they opened and shut. So far, and waiving their use to himself, a clockmaker could have made a better pair. He had a hook nose, handsome after its kind, but too high between the eyes by probably just as much as his eyes were too near to one another. For the rest, he was large and tall in frame, had thin lips, where his thick moustache showed them at all, and a quantity of dry hair, of no definable colour, in its shaggy state, but shot with red. The hand with which he held the grating (seamed all over the back with ugly scratches newly healed), was unusually small and plump; would have been unusually white but for the prison grime.

The other man was lying on the stone floor, covered with a coarse brown coat.

"Get up, pig!" growled the first. "Don't sleep when I am hungry."

"It's all one, master," said the pig, in a submissive manner, and not without cheerfulness; 'I can wake when I will, I can sleep when I will. It's all the same."

As he said it, he rose, shook himself, scratched himself, tied his brown coat loosely round his neck by the sleeves (he had previously used it as a coverlet), and sat down upon the pavement yawning, with his back against the wall opposite to the grating.

"Say what the hour is," grumbled the first man.

"The mid-day bells will ring — in forty minutes." When he made the little pause, he had looked round the prison-room, as if for certain information.

"You are a clock. How is it that you always know?"

"How can I say? I always know what the hour is, and where I am. I was brought in here at night, and out of a boat, but I know where I am. See here! Marseilles harbour;' on his knees on the pavement, mapping it all out with a swarthy forefinger; "Toulon (where the galleys are), Spain over there, Algiers over there. Creeping away to the left here, Nice. Round by the Cornice to Genoa. Genoa Mole and Harbour. Quarantine Ground. City there; terrace gardens blushing with the bella donna. Here, Porto Fino. Stand out for Leghorn. Out again for Civita Vecchia, so away to — hey! there's no room for Naples;" he had got to the wall by this time; "but it's all one; it's in there!"

He remained on his knees, looking up at his fellow-prisoner with a lively look for a prison. A sunburnt, quick, lithe, little man, though rather thickset. Earrings in his brown ears, white teeth lighting up his grotesque brown face, intensely black hair clustering about his brown throat, a ragged red shirt open at his brown breast. Loose, seaman-like trousers, decent shoes, a long red cap, a red sash round his waist, and a knife in it. — Ch. 1, "Sun and Shadow," pages 3-4.


The opening scene in the prison Marseilles is in the artistic mode of the dark plates, in which here as in Bleak House in particular, Phiz's viewer struggles to understand what is happening in the darkened cell, and, after reading the accompanying text in Book One, Chapter 1, to discern the faces of the jailor and his young daughter as well as those of the mismatched cellmates. The style of the illustration, the obscuring and baffling but also highly atmospheric mode of the dark plate whose potential for reader engagement, Phiz had explored extensively in Bleak House, prepares the reader for the scenes in the Marshalsea and the complicated plot involving the criminal suppression of a will:

What would usually be background is now the centre of interest. Human figures, when present, are small and insignificant, while of the ten dark plates the first four and last two have no figures at all . . . On Browne's part the development of this mode shows the depth of his response to Dickens's writing at this time, for it is ideally suited to conveying the oppressive gatherings of fog and darkness in human affairs so powerfully presented in the novel. Browne's small fugitive figures reflect not only Lady Dedlock's situation [in Bleak House, but also the novel's general intimation of the pitiable helplessness and isolation of hounded human beings. [Harvey 152, 153]

In contrast, in Harry Furniss's re-interpretation, the pen-and-ink drawing reverses foreground and background, as the jailor and his child become the central figures in the pen-and-ink drawing, and the prisoners mere faces at the bars in Feeding the Birds. Daring to begin is sequence of forty illustrations that leaves the viewer literally in the dark, Phiz emphasizes the impenetrable gloom and uncomfortable dankness of the prison cell even at noon, setting the key-note for the experience of the Dorrits in the Marshalsea.

The prisoners Rigaud and Caveletto are, likewise, the focal point in Felix Octavius Carr Darley's frontispiece entitled Feeding the Birds, a title that suggests that the American illustrator was sharpening Phiz's original conception. Whereas Darley emphasizes the villainous Rigaud, a satanically-bearded, gentlemanly accused murderer who in England adopts the pseudonym "Blandois," and becomes an associate of Mrs. Clenham and Henry Gowan, Phiz has the reader experience extreme puzzlement as to the nature of scene and the cause of the incarceration of two very different prisoners. Phiz later shows Rigaud in Gowan's studio (Book Two, Chapter 6), Instinct Stronger than Training and with the Clenhams' crusty servant in Mr. Flintwich Receives the Embrace of Friendship (Book Two, Chapter 10), and both Rigaud and "Mr. Baptist" in In the Old Room (Book Two, Chapter 28). However, Phiz introduces the two foreigners of very different national and social backgrounds as mere caged beasts.

A rather different interpretation of the ill-sorted pair of prisoners occurs in the 1867 Diamond Edition by Sol Eytinge, Jr. illustration Rigaud and Cavaletto (Chapter One, "Sun and Shadow"). Although Phiz's images of Rigaud are acceptable for establishing the novel's dominant tone, Eytinge's character study captures more of Rigaud's robustness and deviousness, qualities which render him a foil to the good-hearted peasant, Cavaletto, who will become an associate of Arthur Clenham. The American editions of the 1860s appear not to have influenced such later British interpretations as James Mahoney's in the 1870s Household Edition, the full title for the wood-engraving being In Marseilles that day there was a villainous prison. In one of its chambers, so repulsive a place, that even the obtrusive stare blinked at it, and left it to such refuse of reflected light as it could find for itself, were two men. — Book I, chap. 1. Like Harry Furniss in his 1910 narrative-pictorial sequence for the novel, Darley floods the scene with light. However, in the Furniss composition, the illustrator shows the same scene from outside the prison bars, as if Rigaud and Giovanni Battista are animals in a cage, and the jailor and his daughter visitors at a zoo. To aid the reader in focussing on the passage in chapter one realised in the dark plate, Phiz has referred to Rigaud and Cavalletto as "birds" and their cell as a "cage," thereby dehumanizing them. Furniss and Phiz show the upper-class villain and elemental Italian as equals in their captivity, despite the differences in diet that wealth and poverty create even in prison. Ironically, the Frenchman accused of killing his wife fares better in captivity than the Italian brought up on charges of smuggling.

The dark plate in the original edition has a strong diagonal in the shaft of light that crosses the cell from the bars in the window, upper left, highlighting the head of Blandois, looking out the cell window, to the lower right, the glum expression on Cavaletto's face and the repast on the stone floor. The arch becomes a proscenium, suggesting a theatrical opening, with these initial speakers as a kind of antiphonal chorus. The expectant, alert, slender figure of Blandois suggests hope; the closed posture and sad expression on the Italian prisoner's suggest resignation.

Rigaud and Cavaletto in various editions, 1863-1910

Left: F. O. C. Darley's frontispiece for the first of four 1863 volumes, Feeding the Birds (Household Edition, New York). Centre: Harry Furniss's revision of Phiz's original illustration, with the Marseilles prisoners behind the bars, and the jailor and his daughter in front, Feeding the Birds (1910). Right: Sol Eytinge, Junior's interpretation of the Marseilles prisoners as a dual portrait, Rigaud and Cavaletto (1867). [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Above: Mahoney's reinterpretation Phiz's original serial illustration of the Marseilles prisoners, In Marseilles that day there was a villainous prison. In one of its chambers, so repulsive a place, that even the obtrusive stare blinked at it, and left it to such refuse of reflected light as it could find for itself, were two men. — Book I, chap. 1 (1873). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Last modified 8 February 2019