Month 12 (April 1865): Reading Illustration

This guest post was contributed by Dr Bethan Stevens, Lecturer in English and Creative & Critical Writing at the University of Sussex.

Throughout our reading of Our Mutual Friend, its illustrations have punctuated our experience; in each part, they precede the text, focusing anticipation on what’s to come. If the text of this novel is emphatically single-authored (as Pete Orford said in his post, we’re expecting ‘something Dickensian’), illustration was a fundamentally collaborative process. The illustrations in the wrappers of Our Mutual Friend had input from Dickens as author, Chapman and Hall as publishers, Marcus Stone as designer, and the Dalziel Brothers and W. T. Green as wood engravers (by the 1860s, recent technical advances had made wood engraving the only really viable commercial medium).

Short deadlines meant that the whole process had to be completed fast, even though wood engraving was an extremely laborious process; this may have been one reason why each month’s illustrations were equally divided between two engraving firms; you’ll notice, in almost all the month’s illustrations, that one is signed ‘Dalziel’ and the other ‘W. T. Green’. Speed and short deadlines were as crucial to the style of the illustrations as they were to Dickens’s text, resulting in a selective and impressionistic approach. The intense physical labour of working on boxwood meant that the engravers would never have been able to mimic the intricate style of the work they had both done for the Moxon Tennyson (1857), for example, with its famous Pre-Raphaelite detail.

Critical analysis of these illustrations tends to focus on Marcus Stone’s relationship with Dickens (Schelstraete 2012, Cohen 1880), and the wood engravers are usually only mentioned in relation to anxieties about their ability to replicate drawings. But of course, wood engraving is a completely different medium, with its own style; it could never really replicate a drawing. The Dalziels and W. T. Green were guided by the lines of Marcus Stone. But it is they and not he who created these images; all the lines in them are theirs, carved in hard boxwood in a way that interprets or mediates the drawings. A competing authorship can be seen in the way all these artists signed the work. Stone’s contribution is cited in letterpress on the wrappers and title pages, which don’t mention the engravers. On the woodblocks, however, the flourishing signatures of the engravers are seen at bottom right, while Stone’s name does not appear. The collaborating or competing artists sign in a different arena, as if their contributions come from completely different worlds – Marcus Stone shares in the work of the novel, where Green and the Dalziels claim the pure line of the image.

While Dickens’s name linked his text to a whole oeuvre of other books, the engravers’ signatures performed a similar function. The Dalziels, for example, signed the promotional image for The Pickwick Papers that appears after this month’s illustrations (see the bottom left of the design, under the chair seat), and their signature linked numerous illustrated books in the period, from the Moxon Tennyson (1857), to other major texts of 1864-5, such as Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her, and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


Illustration 1: ‘Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman

Textually, this month’s chapters present books as objects that foreclose vision (even as they accentuate it). For Bella, watching Rokesmith being humiliated in Mr Boffin’s room, the book becomes a screen behind which to refuse vision, or at least to pretend not to see what she sees. In response to what she perceives as Boffin’s shameful behaviour, her eyes ‘drooped over her book’ (35). And when she notices Mrs. Boffin’s discomfort, ‘Bella’s eyes drooped more engrossedly over her book, and she turned the page with an air of profound absorption’ (35).

To droop into reading is hardly an encouraging verb for a reader to come across; do we comfort ourselves that our own reading is more buoyant, more attentive, and more active than this? Are we being encouraged to interrogate the way we use books? The scene continues. Instead of giving an opinion, when asked for one, Bella pretends to be reading: ‘A deceiving Bella she was, to look at him with that pensively abstracted air, as if her mind were full of her book, and she had not heard a single word!’ (36). Boffin’s response to this distraction is to comment that Bella was ‘better employed than to attend to’ the scene (36). Boffin’s rather clichéd characterisation of reading as always a ‘better employment’ of course actually highlights Bella’s rather different use of this book; she is not absorbing its content for intellectual self-improvement, but instead wielding it physically to ward off social conflict (is she tactful in this? cowardly?). Blind to its textual content, Bella uses the book as a prop, a shield to avoid seeing.

The illustration ‘Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman’, designed by Stone and engraved by the Dalziels, picks up on this idea that books might have a blinding function. We see Bella and Boffin shopping for books on misers. The image is vignetted; formally, it is open in the extreme, with loose, sketchy, interrupted lines that make the city landscape dissolve into the sky. The only extended and emphatic straight line is the strong vertical of the bookseller’s wall on the right-hand side, towards which Bella and Boffin stare. This formal structure could suggest that attachment to books involves a wilful blindness to the rest of the world, as Boffin points Bella’s gaze to the wall before them. The use of a vignette assists: if the whole image were framed by a black line, as are many of the illustrations to Our Mutual Friend, Bella and Boffin’s walled gaze wouldn’t appear quite so uncomfortable or foolish. This idea that books become a kind of physical screen offers an interesting way of seeing the novel as a material object.

One of the urban sights that Bella and Boffin miss by looking towards a wall of books is the comical top-hatted figure who stares sideways at them as he walks down the street. This observer doesn’t appear in the novel. Who is he meant to be? A reader (a more observant reader than Bella and Wegg)? Maybe Rokesmith, whom we’ve seen in a bearded disguise in one of the earlier images? Or maybe it’s a playful sketch of Charles Dickens himself, or the designer of the illustrations, Marcus Stone? Or maybe, in the precise way the pupils are engraved to gaze left, and the line of the cane mirrors the line of the bookseller’s wall, we have the figure of the engraver.

For me, this observer, extraneous to the text, stands as a figure for the extra view that illustration offers on narrative. And our inability to name or identify this observer mirrors a problem with authorship in book illustration. While the text, as Orford says, must offer ‘something Dickensian’, the authorship of the images are much harder to pin down.

Evil GeniusDutch Bottle

Illustrations 2-3: ‘The Evil Genius of the House of Boffin’ and ‘The Dutch Bottle’

Bella isn’t the only blind reader in this installment. The familiar figure of Wegg appears later on, and his comical misreadings (the ‘Animal Register’ instead of the ‘Annual Register’) offer instances of blind reading that are at once creative examples of cultural resistance, and morally questionable. Presenting a kind of vision that is false, perverse, limited or even hallucinatory, can be an interesting challenge for the illustrator. To some extent, this installment’s second illustration, ‘The Evil Genius of the House of Boffin’, by Green after Stone, is also about not seeing. Wegg is foregrounded as the (wicked) observer here, but whereas the text shows him making more-or-less significant observations of Bella, Rokesmith, and Mr and Mrs Boffin, the other figures who appear in the illustration (Mrs Boffin and the coachman) are sketchily executed, offering very little. The windows are one of the most striking formal aspects of the picture, so it is significant that the silhouette of Boffin – so crucial in the text – doesn’t even appear. Whether this is down to deliberate design, or to the demands of fast image-making, what the image actually presents us with is Wegg engaged in a close observation that yields very little.

Finally, we might briefly consider the illustration that is missing in this installment. The wood engraving ‘The Dutch Bottle’, by Green after Stone, illustrates the climactic moment in chapter 6, when Wegg and Venus spy on Boffin as he digs in his mounds, with the help of his dark lantern. The whole idea of a dark lantern brings together other themes in this month’s text and images, by summoning both enlightenment and ignorance, illumination and darkness. This wood engraving belongs with this month’s installment, but doesn’t appear until parts 19-20, where it’s included as the frontispiece to volume two (I know that these blog posts aren’t supposed to include spoilers, but isn’t it strange how information about an illustration doesn’t quite feel as if it counts as a spoiler? Part of the pleasure of viewing illustrations is leafing through a book to see them in advance). I find it curious that readers who approach the novel in parts have their vision of this image delayed till the very end of the reading experience, whereas readers of the volumes will get it in advance as a frontispiece. It is a hesitation between revelation and withholding, vision and secrecy, that dramatises some of the novel’s visual and textual concerns in the material fabric of the book.


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