Illus. 62, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Coming home from church

VICTORIAN NOVELISTS AND THEIR ILLUSTRATORS

 

            In the plate ‘Coming home from Church’ (illus. 62) we notice that while Dombey should be in the middle, the crowd has the middle position, and he and his wife are very much to one side. We are made to feel Dombey’s serene indifference to low life: he holds aloof, turns his back on it, and takes a step above everyone else. He is literally a step up, for he has entered his massive doorway, a portico which the illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) seems literally to have detached from the house, so as to make it seem very little a doorway and very much a frame or niche for Dombey. But thought separate, framed and aloof, Dombey does not impose, and he is here very clearly what Dickens also represents him as being: the inferior of the onlookers in vitality and character. While Dombey holds his head high, his bride Edith looks down, and her thoughtful, subdued look is more telling and ominous than a simple portrayal of the Proud Beauty would be. This small touch of reality reminds the reader that Browne wants him to regard the plate as scene taking place before his eyes: the reader has a pavement to stand on and a place in the front row of an invisible nearside crowd; and he is invited to notice the rich variety of life, however scruffy and seedy, which is going on all round Dombey, and from which he is quite cut off. Further away there is the other marriage-tableau of a Punch and Judy show. In the far background a hearse, driving away, serves as an unobtrusive reminder of the two deaths on which this marriage is founded – those of Dombey’s first wife, and his only son. But the hearse has a more immediate, severe and thrilling purpose, for it associates with the wedding-party’s coach and makes the point which Blake made in his phrase ‘marriage-hearse’. The effect is evidently calculated the reader of novels who also ‘read’ pictures: the hearse is not likely to be noticed in the first glance at the plate, and the ‘reader’ was presumably intended to experience a shock of realization as the barb in the illustration suddenly pulled.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

  • Facebook
  • Twitter