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.

On Visualizing—Not Viewing—Nineteenth-Century Novels

A confession: no, I have not seen the recent film version of Jane Eyre.  Or the one before it.  Or any of them, come to think of it.  This might be interpreted as a carryover from an intense graduate school qualifying exam paranoia—a fear that, if I allowed myself to luxuriate in film adaptations while preparing for the exam, I might (for instance) inadvertently reference “Reese Witherspoon” in answering a question about Vanity Fair.  But I am no longer studying for my quals—those days and that anxiety are behind me.  Yet I remain reluctant to rent the new Jane Eyre, or to stay up and watch an older adaptation on late-night TV.  This reluctance has long been my shame, an embarrassing omission on my part, something I hide.  “Ah yes,” I nod knowingly in conversation with colleagues or students, “the David Lean Oliver Twist.  The BBC Little Dorrit.”  It’s all a disgraceful lie.

I think my recalcitrance has something to do with a formative experience with Wuthering Heights.  I watched the William Wyler adaptation of the film on repeat as an adolescent, and was thus confused when I first read Brontë’s novel in college.  I could not reconcile the novel with the film.  Even as I pictured Laurence Olivier while reading about Heathcliff, I knew this mental picture was wrong.

Since I have admitted this much, dear reader, I may as well let you in on a related conundrum, this one having to do with book covers.  For the longest time, I thought the painting of the dark haired woman on my Penguin copy of Jane Eyre was Jane—an actual artist’s representation of the character.  I felt a bit deflated when I learned that there was apparently no connection, aside from the fact that the woman in the painting vaguely conformed to Brontë’s plain governess.

Sometimes there are connections between cover art and text, however complex.  My old Penguin edition of Mary Barton makes one such connection through its cover, a detail of Hubert von Herkomer’s painting “Hard Times.”  The title of the painting evokes Dickens’s novel by that title, not Mary Barton.  Dickens, of course, appreciated Mary Barton so much that he solicited North and South, which he published in his Household Words after the serialization of Hard Times.  The choice of this painting as cover art for Mary Barton subtly references the relationship between Gaskell and Dickens, contextualizing Gaskell’s text in a broader condition-of-England tradition.  Yet there is also something of a misdirect going on here as well: the family in the painting is not the Barton family—the scene of the man standing along the road while his wife and children rest is nowhere to be found in Gaskell’s text.  The image is interesting, if potentially misleading.

Lest you think I’m just a generally cranky person, let me admit that I agree with the appropriate rejoinder to this critique: this kind of cover art does what precious little cover art does—it gives us a feel for the novel, representing themes explored therein, and offering an interdisciplinary cultural context.  This is undoubtedly true and helpful particularly for the undergraduate classroom, where students often encounter texts with only the vaguest sense of the larger history surrounding those texts and/or their authors.  But often this larger point about contextualization is buried somewhere in the 6pt font of the image’s attribution.  It becomes an implicit point, nearly obscured.

Photography complicate matters further still.  As Paul Fyfe recently commented to me at the 2011 Victorians Institute Conference, photographic cover art is potentially troubling, particularly when texts that predate photography incorporate such cover art.  For instance, a recent edition of Millennium Hall cover features an anachronistic Victorian photograph of a group of women gathered, as though to represent the women in the novel.  As with the Herkomer painting, there is no direct connection to the novel.  Unlike the painting, however, I would argue this photograph—precisely by being a photograph—problematically effaces the disconnect between image and text.  A photograph is not a painting; the latter is, by virtue of its medium, more transparently mediated.  Photography, for all our questioning, critiquing, and troubling of the limit between reality and representation, makes us feel we are looking at something more or less real.  When I look at Millennium Hall’s cover, then, I am more jarred than I would be by a painting of the same subject and at the same remove from the novel.  This is because the photograph on the cover implies that there is a connection between this eighteenth-century subject and this nineteenth-century technology.  The larger issue for me is that there are people in these photographs, people whose identities are effaced as they come to represent people in the book—fictional characters.

Literary realism achieves its reality-effect through appeals to vision and visualization, as critics such as Nancy Armstrong, Peter Brooks, and Audrey Jaffe explore and complicate in their respective works.  What happens, though, when that visualization is short-circuited for readers?  Let me explain that I love photography, I write about it, and I attempt to practice it.  But in being asked to see a photographic image of a person out of context and compare it to a character in a novel, I worry that we are not only obscuring the identity of the person in the image—I worry we might be missing some of the point of literary realism itself.

We are a visual culture, and it is easy to allow a painting, photograph, or film representation to help us visualize a literary character, particularly if we have seen the film or cover art before we read the text.  I wonder, though, if in this process we are circumventing some of the work a novel asks us to do.  Like a good Victorianist, I feel a duty to work, and in the case of the novel, I feel a duty to work at visualizing what Gaskell, Thackeray, Dickens, Brontë, Eliot, or any other novelist describes.  What do we miss when we no longer have to picture Jane Eyre, or for that matter Becky Sharp—when we are no longer called upon to do this work?  What do we lose in our need to see everything with our eyes, not our mind’s eye?

On the Phiz Illustrations

I have assigned my Victorian Literature and Visual Culture class the task of analyzing a Bleak House illustration, so I’ve been thinking about my own illustration.  My mother gave me an original 1853 copy of “A New Meaning in the Roman”:

I was elated; I had requested it as part of my acquisition-of-old-things campaign.  Now it sits by my desk, waiting to be framed.  And as I stare at it, I find myself troubled: have I just made some first edition that much less valuable?  I’m assuming, of course, that the image comes from a rare and valuable first edition.  But as I write this, I realize I’m not quite sure.  The image is old, to be sure, with the telltale signs of a nineteenth-century print: yellowed paper, foxing around the edges, etc.  The image also seems to have been cut out of a book, and inexactly cut at that.  Other than that, the illustration is just kind of there, undocumented, not contextualized in any other way, its point of origin erased or effaced–a commodity fetish, if I want to get all Marxist about it.

What gives this image value is the history it implies: it sells itself as an illustration cut from the text of Bleak House.  It is troubling and magnificent at once to own such a piece.  Next task: to hunt down an edition of Bleak House conspicuously missing its illustrations.

About Me

I am Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where I teach composition and eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century British literature.  I hold a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an M.A. and B.A. in English from Boston College.  Before moving to Manchester in 2011, I taught at Bemidji State University and the University of South Florida.  

Right now I’m particularly interested in the intersection of photography and nineteenth-century novels.  I’m also working on another project all about muffins and other baked goods in Victorian literature.  My favorite Victorian author is Charles Dickens and my favorite Victorian novel is Bleak House, though the Sookie Stackhouse novels are my current guilty pleasure.  When I’m not working on classes or research, I like to dabble in photography, play violin, and skate in the local roller derby league.  I moved to New Hampshire from Minnesota this summer with my husband and my bearded dragon and we are all loving Manchester.