Re-Visioning Dickens: Phiz and the Bleak House Illustrations


Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), “The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory,” illustration for Bleak House (1853)

I’ve been thinking about the Bleak House illustrations a lot recently, mostly due to my Victorian literature and visual culture seminar.  I’d like to thank my students for helping me articulate a connection between Esther and the creepy doll I discuss below.

Of the forty illustrations Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) completed for Charles Dickens’s 1853 Bleak House, Esther Summerson—our sometimes-narrator—appears in seventeen. Of these seventeen appearances, however, she is completely effaced in ten, and only presented in profile or shadow in seven.  Phiz takes an active role as illustrator, effacing this narrator long before Dickens effaces her with pockmarks halfway through the text.  As Michael Steig puts it, the illustrations are “at once an expression of Dickens’ intentions and Browne’s interpretation, at once a visual accompaniment to the text and a commentary upon it.”  I would argue that in Bleak House the illustrations at times move beyond interpretation to outright revision.

In the illustration above, “The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory,” Mr. Krook spells out “Jarndyce” on the wall for Esther.  On the right side of the image, a doll hangs ominously but is easily overlooked amidst the clutter of Krook’s shop.  This doll reappears two more times in the illustrations—in “The Appointed Time,” just after Krook has spontaneously combusted, and in “Tom All Alone’s,” that wretched alley of London.  A doll also appears in Dickens’s narrative: “Dolly” is Esther’s only friend, the single solace she finds for a lonely childhood.

The figure of the doll is comforting in Dickens’s text, but sinister in Phiz’s illustrations.  Phiz works it into scenes of dilapidation and death, thereby forging a formal tie between Esther and these darker elements of the text.  The doll becomes a stand-in for Esther, going well beyond Dickens’s textual evidence.  Critics have charged Esther with false modesty, but rather than coy or genuine self-effacement Phiz suggest through his illustrations that Esther has malevolent motivations for cultivating obscurity.  Phiz does not just efface Esther—he rewrites her.

One thought on “Re-Visioning Dickens: Phiz and the Bleak House Illustrations

  1. Dear Susan,
    Thank you for this. It is something that I had not noticed before. I found it fascinating. It was shocking to see the doll in ‘Tom All Alone’s’. I need to go back to the novel and think about it.

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