Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 10 (May 1858), Book the Third, Chapter VI, "Showing What Success Attended the Stratagem," facing p. 297. Steel etching, 9.3 cm high by 17.1 cm wide, framed. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the tenth serial instalment by George Routledge and Sons, London. [Click on image to enlarge it.]by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), nineteenth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's
Passage Illustrated: Another Legal Document in Play
"But we are losing time talking. Where have I put my keys?"
"They are usually placed under your pillow," Apphia observed, searching for them as she spoke. "Yes, here is the black silk bag containing them."
"And here is the key of the closet," Mrs. Mervyn said, giving it to her. "You will find the deed in the little case of drawers with some other papers — the third drawer from the top, I think." And as Apphia flew to execute her orders, the good lady said to me, "There are writing materials on that table, Mervyn — bring me a pen. And draw back the curtains and let some light into the room, that we may see what we are about."
I hastened to obey her, praying internally that Mrs. Brideoake might not arrive to interrupt us. After drawing back the window-curtains as directed, I was proceeding to take up the other articles she required, when Apphia called out from the closet that she had opened all the drawers, but could not discover the deed.
"Not discover it!" Mrs. Mervyn cried. "It must be there. Search more carefully, child. I am sure I put it in the third drawer."
"Perhaps this may be it," Apphia cried, coming forth with a packet tied with red tape in her hand. "But it does not seem to relate to me."
And so eager was she to obtain possession of the packet, that she leaned forward and almost snatched it from Apphia. She then proceeded to untie the tape, and, taking out the deed, motioned us to stand aside, while she examined it in order to find out the place where the alteration in the name ought to be made. Having succeeded in her object, she bade me give her the pen, and she had scarcely taken it from me, when the door was gently opened, and Mrs. Brideoake entered, followed by Dr. Foam. The pen dropped from the poor lady's grasp, and she sank back, swooning, upon the pillow. [Book the Third, Chapter VI, "Showing What Success Attended the Stratagem," 296-297]
Commentary: Deceiving Apphia's Mother
The presence of the physician, Dr. Foam, and Apphia's interfering mother, Mrs. Brideoake (who has blocked Mervyn's access to her daughter and favoured the suit of the devious Malpas Sale), strongly suggests that the scene in Mrs. Mervyn's room in the illustration occurs at the very close of Book III, Chapter VI — at the opening of the curtain for the May 1858 instalment. This, then, is one of the scenes which Phiz and Ainsworth wished their readers to keep in mind as they awaited the final monthly instalment as the illustrator and author manoeuvered to wind up the serial in the June 1858 double number (Parts 19 and 20). This illustration leaves the reader hanging in suspense as to whether Mrs. Mervyn will recover and adjust the "deed of settlement" in Mervyn's favour as she had intended, or whether Mrs. Brideoake will succeed in defending Malpas's interests over those of the protagonist. However, the reader may query Phiz's placing the disguised Mervyn immediately beside the window, since the formidable Mrs. Brideoake should certainly be able to see that the young man at Mrs. Mervyn's bedside is patently not Captain Sale. In fact, this is precisely the awkward position in which Ainsworth places his hero in the text, apprehensive about Mrs. Brideoake's penetrating his false persona.
However, Phiz does not usurp the narrator's prerogative in detailing Mrs. Mervyn's precarious medical condition in the closing lines of the chapter in that in the plate Mrs. Mervyn is still examining the document as Mrs. Brideoake and the physician re-enter, right. Phiz has therefore organized the partially-dark plate as if it were a scene on stage, with Mervyn (disguised as Malpas), centre. The "stratagem" of which Mervyn speaks in the chapter title implies that Mrs. Mervyn intends to adjust the deed of settlement, effectively cheating Malpas, should he become Apphia's husband, of his "coveture," that is, his right to control her property (enshrined in law until the Married Women's Property legislation of 1870 and 1882). That Mervyn is dressed in a frogged frockcoat of military cut is Phiz's visual allusion to another aspect of the "stratagem" in which Mervyn must impersonate Malpas. He gains admission to Mrs. Mervyn's darkened sick-room with the connivance of the cunning servant Molly Bailey and the affable butler, Mr. Comberbach, who help him to persuade Mrs. Brideoake that Captain Malpas has come to pay the patient a call, as he has already sent a letter announcing his imminent arrival. While her mother is out of the room, Apphia has appealed to Mrs. Mervyn to destroy the deed of settlement since it names Malpas as Apphia's husband and therefore invests in him control of her property after marriage. Mrs. Mervyn in the picture is about to go one step further, proposing to change the name of the future husband to "Mervyn Clitheroe" in order to cheat Malpas, and perhaps even prevent his marrying Apphia. However, at the critical moment, as she is about to effect the change, she collapses. The reader ponders such questions as "Will Mrs. Mervyn recover? Will Apphia be forced to marry Malpas after all? Or will the deed on the bedspread continue to impede Mervyn's fortunes both monetarily and romantically?"
Adjusting the Deed of Settlement: Circumventing Malpas's Designs
Following Westminster's passing the Married Women's Property Act (1882), the provision of a deed of settlement to protect the disposition of the bride's dowry fell rapidly into disuse. At the time of Ainsworth's writing this part of the novel, any personal property acquired by the wife during the marriage, unless specified that it was for her own separate use, went automatically to her husband. The First Married Women’s Property Act (1870) allowed wives to retain earned income and property acquired after marriage. As a writer with considerable legal training, Harrison Ainsworth could appreciate the injustice of a married woman's having to cede all property rights to her husband, no matter how poorly he might treat her. Since the second Married Women's Property Act (1882) entitled married women to retain separate ownership of any property they owned even before their marriage, the issuing of a Deed of Settlement was no longer necessary. That Mrs. Mervyn is being somewhat secretive here suggests that she does not wish Mrs. Brideoake, Apphia's mother and Malpas Sales' champion, to know that she is attempting to protect Apphia's inheritance, and, in effect, make marrying the girl far less appealing since Malpas will no longer be named as the future husband.
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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.
Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1851-2; 1858). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). London: Routledge, 1882.
Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.
Vann, J. Don. "William Harrison Ainsworth. Mervyn Clitheroe, twelve parts in eleven monthly installments, December 1851-March 1852, December 1857-June 1858." New York: MLA, 1985. 27-28
Last modified 23 November 2018