Rigour of Mr. F's Aunt (p. 194) — Phiz's illustration for Dickens's Little Dorrit, Authentic Edition (New York), 1875. Steel engraving for Book Two, "Riches," Chapter 9, "Appearance and Disappearance" (originally Part 13, December 1856). Particularly evident in this illustration is Phiz's use of a mechanical roller to create horizontal dots running across the area behind the figures, and deliberating excluding the mirror above the mantlepiece. Vignette: 9.3 cm high x 13.4 cm wide.

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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Passage Illustrated: Method in her Madness

"None of your eyes at me," said Mr F.'s Aunt, shivering with hostility. "Take that."

"That" was the crust of the piece of toast. Clennam accepted the boon with a look of gratitude, and held it in his hand under the pressure of a little embarrassment, which was not relieved when Mr. F.'s Aunt, elevating her voice into a cry of considerable power, exclaimed, "He has a proud stomach, this chap! He's too proud a chap to eat it!" and, coming out of her chair, shook her venerable fist so very close to his nose as to tickle the surface. But for the timely return of Flora, to find him in this difficult situation, further consequences might have ensued. Flora, without the least discomposure or surprise, but congratulating the old lady in an approving manner on being "very lively to-night," handed her back to her chair.

"He has a proud stomach, this chap," said Mr F.'s relation, on being reseated. "Give him a meal of chaff!"

"Oh! I don't think he would like that, aunt," returned Flora.

"Give him a meal of chaff, I tell you," said Mr. F.'s Aunt, glaring round Flora on her enemy. "It’s the only thing for a proud stomach. Let him eat up every morsel. Drat him, give him a meal of chaff!"

Under a general pretence of helping him to this refreshment, Flora got him out on the staircase; Mr. F.'s Aunt even then constantly reiterating, with inexpressible bitterness, that he was "a chap," and had a "proud stomach," and over and over again insisting on that equine provision being made for him which she had already so strongly prescribed.

"Such an inconvenient staircase and so many corner-stairs Arthur," whispered Flora, "would you object to putting your arm round me under my pelerine?"

With a sense of going down-stairs in a highly-ridiculous manner, Clennam descended in the required attitude, and only released his fair burden at the dining-room door; indeed, even there she was rather difficult to be got rid of, remaining in his embrace to murmur, "Arthur, for mercy's sake, don’t breathe it to papa!"

She accompanied Arthur into the room, where the Patriarch sat alone, with his list shoes on the fender, twirling his thumbs as if he had never left off. The youthful Patriarch, aged ten, looked out of his picture-frame above him with no calmer air than he. Both smooth heads were alike beaming, blundering, and bumpy.

"Mr. Clennam, I am glad to see you. I hope you are well, sir, I hope you are well. Please to sit down, please to sit down." — Book the Second, "Riches"; Chapter 9, "Appearance and Disappearance," p. 461.


This situation in the Patriarchal madhouse is utterly baffling for a reader who merely "drops into" the pages of text involved — in any event, whereas Phiz's pair of illustrations appeared at the front of instalment thirteen (and in the volume very near this comic dialogue), the others are not so well situated that the reader construes the angry blathering of Mr. F.'s Aunt in the context of Chapter 9, in which ArthurbClennam, having followed Miss Wade and Tattycoram to the "Patriarchal mansion" of Mr. Casby (Flora Finching's father), encounters the demented aunt by marriage who fears losing her devoted nurse and companion — in other words, her apparently irrational diatribe against Clennam, underscored in the original Phiz illustration, is clearly motivated and, in its own way, an understandable response to a potential threat, although the reader may not interpret the bizarre behaviour of Mr. F's aunt in such a light upon first reading this scene. However, even the unreflective reader would likely regard the tea-time confrontation as epitomizing so much of the book as normative characters such as Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit (Austenian True Wits) encounter a metropolis teaming with False Wits in a Comedy of Manners translated from the stage to the novel.

The illustrator's description of yet another pallid Dickens hero, Arthur, is all the more effective for his being juxtaposed against such a singularly odd and barely comprehensible a character as Mr. F.'s Aunt, whom the illustrators Eytinge, Phiz, Mahoney, and Furniss have costumed not as in her dotage, but as a perfectly respectable middle class matron of advanced years, complete with oversized hat and large linen napkin. Although none of the illustrations of this scene makes the situation completely clear, Mrs. F.'s Aunt has just thrust a piece of toast into Arthur's hand and is demanding that he finish for her, just as Flora would, were she present. With his nice sense of comic timing, Phiz has an oblivious Flora about to intervene, so that the viewer of the Phiz illustration is compelled to revert to the text to learn how she will handle this extremely awkward situation so that she mollifies her aunt-by-marriage, without driving a potential suitor away. Arthur, apparently a young, respectably dressed bourgeois, reacts with mild shock and surprise to the elderly lady's aggressive behaviour, which is clearly intended to drive the rival for Flora's affections out of the house, never to visit middle-aged Flora again. Critic J. A. Hammerton imposed beneath the Phiz engraving reproduced in The Dickens Picture-Book (1910) the caption "Flora found him in this difficult situation" (419) to alert the reader to Flora's impending dilemma.

Contemporary American illustrator Sol Eytinge, Junior, following Phiz's lead, depicted Flora Finching as vacuous and Mr. F's Aunt as senile, but pliable in the 1867 Diamond Edition wood-engraving Flora and Mr. F's Aunt — a dual character study that, like the 1863 frontispiece by Sir John Gilbert, is based on Phiz's steel-engraving for Part 13 (December 1856) illustration. The social realist James Mahoney in the Household Edition's fifty-eight illustrations does not include this scene, choosing instead to realise Clennam's shadowing Miss Wade and Tattycoram in He stopped at the corner stopped at the corner, seeming to look back expectantly up the street as if he had made an appointment with some one to meet him there; but he kept a careful eye on the three. When they came together, the man took off his hat, and made Miss Wade a bow — Book 2, chap. ix. Mahoney's treatment of Flora in "What nimble fingers you have," said Flora, "but are you sure you are well?". . . "Oh yes, indeed!" Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thorough good romantic disclosure. — Book 1, chap. xxiv. The illustrator betrays little sympathy for the querulous, old woman in the Furniss illustrations for the twelfth volume of The Charles Dickens Library Edition, Mr. F's Aunt, described as mildly ridiculous in Book One, Chapter 13:

There was a fourth and most original figure in the Patriarchal tent, who also appeared before dinner. This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr F.'s Aunt. — Volume One, page 236.

Awkward, surly, and even demented as Mr. F's Aunt may appear in the work of these 19th c. illustrators, their characterisation of her are consistent both with Dickens's text, although Furniss conveys something more of her imperious nature and self-importance, whereas Phiz is concerned with her tendency towards histrionics. All of these illustrations are studies in dementia, but Phiz's situates the episode dramatically, as if it were on stage, with the commanding aunt pointing vigorously to support her accusation (centre), the stupified straight man, Arthur Clenham (left of the centre), and Flora Finching, blissfully unaware of what has transpired, entering from stage right, as it were, into a fully dressed stage set. The machine-ruled, horizontal lines complement the strong vertical of the three figures, the chairs, and the fireplace. Whereas in most Victorian parlours, the presiding presence in the the family portrait would be a distinguished-looking male, but Phiz has placed a female portrait above the piano, right.

Relevant Illustrations of Mr. F's Aunt from Other Editions, 1863-1910

Left: Sol Eytinge, Junior's unflattering Flora and Mr. F's Aunt. Centre: Sir John Gilbert's frontispiece for the third volume of the Sheldon & Co. "Household" Edition, "He's too proud a chap to eat it. . . ." Right: The Harry Furniss characterisation of Mr. F's Aunt as The Empress of Toast, Mr. F's Aunt. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

James Mahoney's 1873​composite woodblock-engraving of Flora Finching and Amy Dorrit, "What nimble fingers you have," said Flora, "but are you sure you are well?". . . "Oh yes, indeed!" Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thorough good romantic disclosure. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Last modified 27 January 2018