[Alfred in the Neatherd's Cottage]
Engraver: E. Dalziel
1862, rpt. 1910
8.5 cm wide by 13 cm high
Frontispiece, referring to "England Under The Good Saxon, Alfred," chapter 3 in Dickens's A Child's History of England in the Centenary Edition
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
[You may use this image 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.]
This great king, in the first year of his reign, fought nine battles with the Danes. He made some treaties with them too, by which the false Danes swore they would quit the country. They pretended to consider that they had taken a very solemn oath, in swearing this upon the holy bracelets that they wore, and which were always buried with them when they died; but they cared little for it, for they thought nothing of breaking oaths and treaties too, as soon as it suited their purpose, and coming back again to fight, plunder, and burn, as usual. One fatal winter, in the fourth year of King Alfred's reign, they spread themselves in great numbers over the whole of England; and so dispersed and routed the King's soldiers that the King was left alone, and was obliged to disguise himself as a common peasant, and to take refuge in the cottage of one of his cowherds who did not know his face.
Here, King Alfred, while the Danes sought him far and near, was left alone one day, by the cowherd's wife, to watch some cakes which she put to bake upon the hearth. But, being at work upon his bow and arrows, with which he hoped to punish the false Danes when a brighter time should come, and thinking deeply of his poor unhappy subjects whom the Danes chased through the land, his noble mind forgot the cakes, and they were burnt. "What!" said the cowherd's wife, who scolded him well when she came back, and little thought she was scolding the King, "you will be ready enough to eat them by-and-by, and yet you cannot watch them, idle dog?" ["England Under the Good Saxon, Alfred," chapter 3]
There is something about Stone's Alfred that, despite his plain habit, bespeaks a monarch; like Shakespeare's Lear upon the heath, Alfred in the peasant's cottage is still "every inch a king," despite his very human blunder of letting the cakes burn (since the illustrator depicts neither cakes nor hearth, the reader's imagination must supply these). Although he has made the embattled King of the West Saxons look much older than his twenty-seven years, Stone has imagined the scene vividly: the plainly clothed peasant woman, having just returned from gathering fardels in the forest, gestures phlegmatically, while Alfred, suddenly brought out of his reverie by the woman's rebuke, swings around to converse with her. The plain wooden stool upon which he sits reiterates the rough-hewn timbers of the rafters supporting the thatched roof. The smokey interior lacks any form of decoration, as befits the humble dwelling in which the disguised monarch has sought refuge. As is characteristic of the eight illustrations he executed for the Library Edition in 1862, Stone's composition focusses on two figures between whom there exists a dramatic tension and a sharp contrast, often in terms of social status. Here, the king of an occupied land and therefore a monarch without power must accept the just criticism of a mere peasant, to whom he owes a moral obligation as her guest. Like Dickens, Stone exploits the dramatic irony of a mere cowherd's wife chastising a forgetful king, who for the moment is an elderly man on the run.
Whereas historians generally try to present their material in an unbiased, objective manner, Dickens — in theory, inculcating solid "Anglo-Saxon" values to his own children through "morally improving" historical anecdotes — often denigrates monarchs and foreigners such as the Danish invaders of Alfred's kingdom. However, in treating Anglo-Saxon England, Dickens is unrestrained in his praise of Alfred as an exemplar of the just and scholarly ruler who tempered justice with mercy. Thus, Stone's choice of subject (undoubtedly sanctioned by Dickens himself) is somewhat ironic in that the illustration shows a good king, but one who is nevertheless flawed in that he forgets the task his hostess set him. Dickens praises Alfred for sponsoring literacy, but seems to enjoy creating a hero who is absent-minded — and through Stone's illustration draws this flaw to the reader's attention.
In his fifteen Household Edition illustrations, McLean Ralston omits Alfred entirely and focuses instead on the savagery of the Danish invaders in three-quarter page initial illustration "The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Danes — Chap. iv." To Ralston the Archbishop exemplifies Anglo-Saxon courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity in the face of brutal extortion and certain death at the hands of his foreign captors. The group scene is highly dramatic, charged by the contrast between the unarmed but unflinching priest and his barbarous, well-armed captors, and set in a great stone hall; it is therefore more sensational than Stone's 1862 scene of ironic turnabout in a humble cottage.
In his 1910 frontispiece and title-page vignettes for A Child's History of England, in the third volume of The Charles Dickens Library Edition, Harry Furniss relegates the learned and wise Alfred to the upper-right corner of the title-page (showing Alfred, wearing his crown, writing at a desk), and elevates the allegorical figure of Britannia (identified by her trident) the central position of the frontispiece. Other notable English monarchs, including Charles the Second and Henry the Eighth, are discernible in the background, but clearly matter less to Furniss than the spirit of the English-speaking peoples.
Avery, Gillian, ed. Charles Dickens: "A Holiday Romance" and Other Writings for Children with All the Original Illustrations. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1995.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England. Il. J. McLean Ralston. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England in Works. Centenary Edition. 36 vols. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910-12.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England, il. Marcus Stone in the Illustrated Library Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1862.
Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England, il. Harry Furniss in the Charles Dickens Library Edition, vol. 3. London: educational Book, 1910.
Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.
Last modified 11 March 2013