The so-called dark plates of Hablot K. Browne's illustrations for Charles Dickens's Bleak House advance an atmospheric, haunting style while they still include Hogarthian emblems that dominate earlier plates. John Harvey describes these moody plates as divergent from those that largely portray characters:
What would usually be background is now the centre of interest. Human figures, when present, are small and insignificant, while of the ten dark plates the first four and last two have no figures at all . . . On Browne's part the development of this mode shows the depth of his response to Dickens's writing at this time, for it is ideally suited to conveying the oppressive gatherings of fog and darkness in human affairs so powerfully presented in the novel. Browne's small fugitive figures reflect not only Lady Dedlock's situation, but also the novel's general intimation of the pitiable helplessness and isolation of hounded human beings. [152, 153]
This mode allows Browne to universalize Lady Dedlock's situation, to abstract her narrative to the level of humanity. The reader can more easily form a generalized emotional connection with faceless figures than with the defined characters in Browne's more satiric portraits. The emphasis upon tone in the dark plates gives rise to a greater feeling of pathos.
Though the dark plates eschew Hogarthian characters, they do contain emblems which flesh out their thematic connection to the text. It is difficult to tell in "The Morning," for example, if the outstretched figure in the foreground is human or not. The striking contrast between light and dark here obscures an easy reading of the character portrayed. Similarly in the text, Dickens hides the true identity and condition of the figure until the last sentence of the chapter: the reader does not know if it is Lady Dedlock or Jenny, alive or dead. The wrought iron gate through which the prostrate figure reaches its hand, however, provides an emblematic clue to help the reader extract meaning from the scene. It emphasizes the imagery given in the text: "She lay there, with one arm creeping round a bar of the iron gate, and seeming to embrace it" (Chapter 59). The closed gate acts in a similar way to the aging aristocrat's family tree, gouty foot and bodily pose in the first scene of Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode. It demonstrates the iron barrier which stands between Lady Dedlock and her lover, and, by extension, between classes in Britain. Lady Dedlock cannot dissolve the separation even in death, which would seem to equalize all. She has come to fully embody the stasis that her name implies: now dead and still locked away from that which she loves, her lover and her daughter. The intense darkness of the graveyard beyond the gate also shows that Captain Hawdon lies in an impenetrable realm. The gate becomes an emblematic embodiment of, specifically, Lady Dedlock's affair with and subsequent estrangement from Captain Hawdon and, more generally, the upper class's inability to reach the lower classes.
Which style — that of the dark plates or that of the more character-based plates — works more effectively with Dickens prose and themes?
What impact does the dark plate's emphasis upon landscape, tone, and mood have upon the text?
The same graveyard and iron gate appear in an earlier illustration entitled "Consecrated Ground." What are the differences and similarities in technique between these two illustrations?
What do you think of John Harvey's thoughts on the dark plates' function, as quoted above?
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans. Bouverie Street, 1853.
Harvey, John. Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970.
Ousby, Ian. "The Broken Glass: Vision and Comprehension in Bleak House." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29. 4 (1975): 381-392.
Steig, Michael. "The Critic and the Illustrated Novel: Mr. Turveydrop from Gillroy to Bleak House." The Huntington Library Quarterly 36.1 (1972): 55-67.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978. [e-text in Victorian Web.]
Last modified 15 November 2007