Passage Illustrated: The Elderly Brighton Child-Minder, Mrs. Pipchin
At this exemplary old lady, Paul would sit staring in his little arm-chair by the fire, for any length of time. He never seemed to know what weariness was, when he was looking fixedly at Mrs. Pipchin. He was not fond of her; he was not afraid of her; but in those old, old moods of his, she seemed to have a grotesque attraction for him. There he would sit, looking at her, and warming his hands, and looking at her, until he sometimes quite confounded Mrs. Pipchin, Ogress as she was. Once she asked him, when they were alone, what he was thinking about. [Chapter VIII, "Paul’s Further Progress, Growth and Character," 81]
Commentary: Dickens "distressed" by Phiz's representation of Mrs. Pipchin
The best subject for the third number, Dickens had decided, was a "quiet odd thing, Paul, Mrs. Pipchin, and the Cat, by the fire." ["To Forster," 4 November 1846]. Unaware perhaps that Browne usually made two or three sketches for each one that he sent to Lausanne, Dickens earnestly but unfairly implored the artist to think this subject worth extra effort. Shortness of time probably forced Dickens to forward the relevant text directly to the artist this once and prevented him from seeing Browne's drawing before it was etched. [Cohen, 91]
The problems of interpretation and review were compounded by Dickens's being abroad (in Lausanne, Switzerland) and Browne being well outside London, in Croydon. Dickens had to communicate his criticisms through Forster, and was not aware of all the technical difficulties that Browne faced. He would do the multiple drawings necessary, send the best to Dickens for approval, and then would send the final pair for each monthly instalment to his assist, Robert Young, who would do the actual engravings, but not the titles, for which Young had to send the bitten steels to yet another artist. Jane Rabb Cohen notes that Dickens seems to have been oblivious to the hurdles that he himself had created for Browne, as well as those other issues that Browne faced each month in producing the Dombey and Son illustrations in 1846.
Valerie Browne Lester, Jane Rabb Cohen, and Michael Steig all devote some considerable to space to discussing the justice of Dickens's highly condemnatory response to the illustration, made too late to John Forster to prevent its appearing in the third monthly number. The author's reaction is worth repeating in its entirety:
I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs. Pipchin and Paul. It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark. Good Heaven! in the commonest and most literal construction of the text, it is all wrong. She is described as an old lady, and Paul's "miniature armchair" is mentioned more than once. He ought to be sitting in a little arm-chair down in a corner of the fireplace, staring up at her. I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented. I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of the book. He never could have got that idea of Mrs. Pipchin if he had attended to the text. Indeed I think he does better without the text; for then the notion is made easy to him in short description, and he can't help taking it in. [Pilgrim IV: 671; cited in Cohen, 122, and Lester, 131]
In his initial letter to John Forster regarding his conception for this illustration on 4 November 1846 Dickens seems to dwell upon a miniature armchair (not a conventional child's high-chair) to suggest Paul's adult-like forthrightness and his ability to frame acute observations succinctly. Dickens does not make it clear, however, that the nature of the chair and Mrs. Pipchin's advances age are important; they are merely the chief features of the picture he has in mind. Lester and Cohen both regard Dickens's assessment as incorrect, and even culpable since at such a remove from the scenes of production the writer had not first inspected the drawing or a proof of the plate before it went to the printer's. Even the editors of the Pilgrim edition of the Letters note that Dickens has misrepresented Paul as looking "up at" Mrs. Pipchin as they sit by the fire. Browne gave Dickens a conventional child's high-chair because Dickens was not sufficiently specific in his description of the "miniature armchair"; and Browne did not make Mrs. Pipchin stoop enough because she is seated. However, the general consensus among critics is that Phiz was correct in reducing Mrs. Pipchin's advanced age and making her seem physically more active and mentally sharper. "The real trouble no doubt was the the author had a clear picture in his memory of a particular person" (132). Lester concludes that in Mrs. Pipchin as Browne describes her here Dickens failed to see a reflection of the actual woman he had in mind, Mrs. Roylance, his landlady at Lant Street, where he stayed while his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea for debt in 1824. All agree that the illustrator has made his subject sufficiently "witch-like," drawing the connection between the child's fairy-tale world of witches and imprisoned children and the actual world of little Paul, a small, precocious boy without a mother. Continues Lester:
Paul and Mrs. Pipchin became a popular image with the public, and in August of 1847, John Leech made it notorious in a cartoon for Punch. He replaced Paul's face with that of John Russell, the prime minister, and put Sir Robert Peel in Mrs. Pipchin's chair, having dressed and coiffed him to look like Mr. Dombey. 
The drawing may have its shortcomings, but these lie in the fact that Phiz could not have realised in every detail the scene as Dickens described it: "Had Paul been placed in the fireplace corner, with his face shadowed by the black drapery as the text specified, the problems of composition and light would have been almost insuperable. Dickens might have complained with more justification that Browne stressed the "quiet" features of the scene at the expense of the "odd." In fact, Mrs. Pipchin is too benign, her sinister parlor too cheerful, her witch's cat too tame, and her plants not animalistic enough" (Cohen, 91). In other words, in producing a pleasing fireside study of the child-minder and the inquisitive boarder Phiz has robbed Mrs. Pipchin of her witch-like qualities: even her cat is too benign, and Phiz has reduced her traditional witch's broomstick (more evident in the 1910 colour lithograph) to a mere sweeper for the fireplace.
Michael Steig on Paul and Mrs. Pipchin (Dec. 1846)
The thematic contrast of the first two plates is carried farther in the illustrations for Part II, "The Christening Party" (ch. 5) and "Polly rescues the Charitable Grinder" (ch. 6). While the first pair compares the newest Toodle and the newest Dombey, in the second the infant Paul is juxtaposed to Polly's oldest son, Biler, who is about to be saved by his mother from a hostile mob of children. Since both boys are under the aegis of Mr. Dombey (who has arranged for Biler's education and thus for his consequent humiliation), perhaps the point is as much an ironic parallel as a contrast: on the surface the difference between the loved and pampered child of a rich man and a coldly patronized poor man's child is shown, but on another level we see in both the tendency of the Dombey influence to blight and wither.
This tendency is illustrated in the first of several plates dealing with Paul's childhood, Paul and Mrs. Pipchin (ch. 8), perhaps the most celebrated etching in the novel, if only because Dickens is on record as having been violently disappointed with it [the much-quoted letter to Forster is in The Letters of Charles Dickens (1938, 3 vols.), edited by Walter Dexter, 1: 809]. Dickens seems to have objected because Paul is sitting in the wrong kind of chair, and Mrs. Pipchin should be stooped and much older, although according to Mrs. Leavis, the whole atmosphere is not uncanny enough, the witchlike and magical qualities of the text insufficiently realized (Leavis, pp. 352-53). Yet Browne was presented with special problems as an interpreter. The description of Mrs. Pipchin is, if taken straight, quite extravagant: she is a "marvelously ill-favored, ill-conditioned old lady, of a stooping figure, with a mottled face, like bad marble, a hook nose, and a hard grey eye, that looked as if it might have been hammered at on an anvil without sustaining any injury"; she is an "ogress and childqueller" who likes hairy, sticky, creeping plants, and whose waters of gladness and milk of human kindness had been pumped out dry" (ch. 8, p. 72). The description of the scene depicted in the fifth plate concludes that "the good old lady might have been — not to record it disrespectfully — a witch, and Paul and the cat her two familiars, as they all sat by the fire together" (pp. 75-76). Dickens may have been upset because the plate (whose drawings he evidently did not get to see) failed to match his own inner vision. Forster remarks that Dickens "felt the disappointment more keenly, because the conception of the grim old boarding-house keeper had taken back his thoughts to the miseries of his own child-life, and made her, as her prototype in verity was, a part of the terrible reality" (2: 29). Browne can certainly be faulted for not getting the chair right, but one must ask how an illustrator is to deal with semifacetious suggestions of the uncanny and supernatural when he is illustrating a purportedly realistic novel. Surely he is faced with the problem of embodying a sense of the author's description without suddenly shifting his style into a more fantastic one.
The drawings for Paul and Mrs. Pipchin give evidence that Browne worked hard to get this illustration right. The initial sketch (Dexter) is a free ink drawing, with the figures facing the same way as in the printed etching (the sketch is reproduced in the Clarendon edition, fac. p. 866); the number of comparable drawings extant is small enough so it seems reasonable to assume that when Phiz did make such a sketch he was especially concerned about the left-right arrangement, as in the vignette title for Martin Chuzzlewit. In this case a look at the working drawing, reversed as usual, reveals that the placement of the figures makes some difference. With Paul on the left, as in the etching, he catches our attention first, and only then do we notice Mrs. Pipchin; with the figures reversed, Mrs. Pipchin dominates: looking from left to right we see first her creepy plants, then her looming figure, and only third little Paul. The printed version and the initial drawing cause us to see Mrs. Pipchin more through Paul's eyes; the author's description of her then may be understood to take some of its fairy tale quality from that viewpoint. Browne seems to me to have been as successful as possible in his attempt to combine a realistic with a fantastic atmosphere, and it should be mentioned that Mrs. Pipchin's expression is a good deal more frightening and witchlike in Steel B than in Steel A, though it is the latter which most resembles the working drawing — suggesting that Browne was still experimenting with La Pipchin down to the last minute. [Chapter 4, 89-90]
Relevant Illustrations by Leech, Eytinge, Barnard, and Furniss for Ch. 8 in Dombey and Son
Left: John Leech's notorious political satire, Lord Russell as Paul Dombey (1846). Left of centre: Harry Furniss's impressionist revision of the same scene, Paul Puzzling Mrs. Pipchin (1910). Centre: Paul's only escape from the dreary halls of the child-minder's Brighton establishment is accompanying his sister to the beach in Chapter 8, as depicted by Fred Barnard in the 1877 Household Edition: Listening to the Sea (1877). Right: Sol Eytinge, Junior's study of the ogress and Florence Dombey's devoted but sharp-tongued maid: Mrs. Pipchin and Susan Nipper (1867).
Related Material, including Other Illustrated Editions of Dombey and Son
- Dombey and Son (homepage)
- O. C. Darley's Frontispiece in the New York edition (Vol. 1, 1862)
- O. C. Darley's Frontispiece in the New York edition (Vol. 2, 1862)
- O. C. Darley's Frontispiece in the New York edition (Vol. 3, 1862)
- Sol Eytinge, Junior's 16 Diamond Edition Illustrations (1867)
- Fred Barnard's 61 Illustrations for the Household Edition (1877)
- Groome's illustrations of the Collins Pocket Edition (1900, rpt. 1934)
- Kyd's five for Player's Cigarette Cards (1910)
- Harry Furniss's 29 illustrations for the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)
- Harold Copping's Captain Cuttle's Bright Idea (1924)
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.]
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Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The London Edition, Volume 4. London: Caxton & Ballantyne, 1901.
__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"). 8 coloured plates. London and Edinburgh: Caxton and Ballantyne, Hanson, 1910.
__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"). The Clarendon Edition, ed. Alan Horsman. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr., and engraved by A. V. S. Anthony. 14 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. III.
__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. 61 wood-engravings. The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877. XV.
_________. Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. IX.
Hammerton, J. A. "Chapter 16: Dombey and Son."The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Library Edition.Illustrated by Harry Furniss. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Co., 1910. Vol. 17, 294-337.
Kitton, Frederic George. Dickens and His Illustrators: Cruikshank, Seymour, Buss, "Phiz," Cattermole, Leech, Doyle, Stanfield, Maclise, Tenniel, Frank Stone, Landseer, Palmer, Topham, Marcus Stone, and Luke Fildes. Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1972. Re-print of the London (1899) edition.
Lester, Valerie Browne. Ch. 12, "Work, Work, Work." Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004, pp. 128-160.
Steig, Michael. Chapter 4. "Dombey and Son: Iconography of Social and Sexual Satire." Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. 86-112.
Vann, J. Don. Chapter 4. "Dombey and Son, twenty parts in nineteen monthly installments, October 1846-April 1848." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. 67-68.
Created 8 August 2015
Last modified 28 January 2021