Feeding the Birds.
Felix O. C. Darley
9.1 x 8.2 cm vignetted
Frontispiece for Dickens's Little Dorrit, volume 1, in the Sheldon & Co. (NewYork) Household Edition (1863).
[Click on illustration to enlarge it.]
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham from his personal collection.
[You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
The other man spat suddenly on the pavement, and gurgled in his throat.
Some lock below gurgled in its throat immediately afterwards, and then a door crashed. Slow steps began ascending the stairs; the prattle of a sweet little voice mingled with the noise they made; and the prison-keeper appeared carrying his daughter, three or four years old, and a basket.
"How goes the world this forenoon, gentlemen? My little one, you see, going round with me to have a peep at her father's birds. Fie, then! Look at the birds, my pretty, look at the birds."
He looked sharply at the birds himself, as he held the child up at the grate, especially at the little bird, whose activity he seemed to mistrust. "I have brought your bread, Signor John Baptist," said he (they all spoke in French, but the little man was an Italian); "and if I might recommend you not to game —"
"You don't recommend the master!" said John Baptist, showing his teeth as he smiled.
"Oh! but the master wins," returned the jailer, with a passing look of no particular liking at the other man, "and you lose. It's quite another thing. You get husky bread and sour drink by it; and he gets sausage of Lyons, veal in savoury jelly, white bread, strachino cheese, and good wine by it. Look at the birds, my pretty!"
"Poor birds!" said the child.
The fair little face, touched with divine compassion, as it peeped shrinkingly through the grate, was like an angel's in the prison. John Baptist rose and moved towards it, as if it had a good attraction for him. The other bird remained as before, except for an impatient glance at the basket.
"Stay!" said the jailer, putting his little daughter on the outer ledge of the grate, "she shall feed the birds. This big loaf is for Signor John Baptist. We must break it to get it through into the cage. So, there's a tame bird to kiss the little hand! This sausage in a vine leaf is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again — this veal in savoury jelly is for Monsieur Rigaud. Again — these three white little loaves are for Monsieur Rigaud. Again, this cheese — again, this wine — again, this tobacco — all for Monsieur Rigaud. Lucky bird!" — Vol. 1, Ch. 1, "Sun and Shadow," p. 16-17.
The scene is a prison cell in Marseilles about 1820 in the month of August, and the characters depicted in the Darley frontispiece are Monsieut Rigaud, a wealthy Frenchman accused of murdering his wife, and John Baptist Cavalletto, a Genoese smuggler, for whom the turnkey and his daughter have radically different meals as Rigaud can afford to supplement the spartan prison diet with a number of luxuries. The illustration makes it clear that the novel begins inside a prison cell, the first of a number of such institutions and buildings in Little Dorrit, whose central symbol is the Marshalsea, the notorious debtors' prison in which the novelist's own father, John, was incarcerated in the 1820s. Not evident in the cavernous darkness of Phiz's The Birds in the Cage (Book One, Chapter 1), the jailor and his young daughter, faces at the bars, are subordinated in Darley's frontispiece to the villainous Rigaud, a gentlemanly murderer who later adopts the pseudonym Blandois, an associate of Mrs. Clenham and Henry Gowan. Although Hablot Knight Browne in the monthly parts, December 1855 through June 1857, does not provide Darley a useful model for this scene, he does show Rigaud in Gowan's studio (Book Two, Chapter 6), Instinct Stronger than Training and with the Clenhams' crusty servant in Mr. Flintwich Receives the Embrace of Friendship (Book Two, Chapter 10), and both Rigaud and "Mr. Baptist" in In the Old Room (Book Two, Chapter 28). Albeit a secondary character, Darley's Rigaud is a realistic version of the bearded, satanic foreigner, an "other" to the novel's smooth-faced Englishmen.
A rather different interpretation of the ill-sorted pair of prisoners occurs in the 1867 Diamond Edition by Sol Eytinge, Jr. illustration Rigaud and Cavaletto (Chapter One, "Sun and Shadow"). Although Phiz's images of Rigaud are acceptable for establishing the novel's dominant tone, Darley's frontispiece captures more of Rigaud's robustness and deviousness, qualities which render him a foil to the good-hearted peasant, Cavaletto, who will become an associate of Arthur Clenham. The American editions of the 1860s appear not to have influenced such later British interpretations as James Mahoney's in the Household Edition, for the wood-engraving In Marseilles that day there was a villainous prison. In one of its chambers, so repulsive a place, that even the obtrusive stare blinked at it, and left it to such refuse of reflected light as it could find for itself, were two men. — Book I, chap. 1 seems to be directly derived from Phiz's original dark plate The Birds in the Cage — Book One, Chapter One (December 1855). Darley's technical triumph becomes apparent when one regards these parallel illustrations, for Darley's composition contains enough plausible illumination to show the prisoners, and also contains the figures with whom we enter the scene in the text, the jailor and his four-year-old daughter, an angelic visage juxtaposed against the satanic face of the gentlemanly murderer of his wife, Rigaud.
Rigaud and Cavaletto in various editions, 1855-1873
Left: Phiz's original serial illustration of the Marseilles prisoners, a dark plate communicating little other than atmosphere, The Birds in the Cage (1855). Right: Sol Eytinge, Junior's interpretation of the Marseilles prisoners as a dual portrait, Rigaud and Cavaletto (1867). [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Of the forty plates, we learn from Kitton that Phiz etched five in duplicate, namely, "Floating Way," "The Ferry," "The Birds in the Cage," "Visitors at the Works," and "The Room with the Picture." Eight of the etchings show the effective use of the ruling machine. — J. A. Hammerton, p. 399.
Above: James Mahoney's realistic interpretation of the Marseilles prison cell, Rigaud and Cavaletto (Household Edition, 1873). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
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F. O. C.
Last modified 10 November 2015