Mr. Wickfield and his partner wait upon my Aunt

Mr. Wickfield and his partner wait upon my Aunt by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). April 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 35, "Depression," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan 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 person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]

Commentary

For the first illustration in the twelfth monthly number, which was issued in April 1850 and comprises chapters 35 through 37, Phiz elaborates upon the much altered outward condition of Betsey Trotwood, dramatizing the damaged psyche of her old friend and business agent, Mr. Wickfield. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), Phiz has realized the following moment:

When he came in, he stood still; and with his head bowed, as if he felt it. This was only for a moment; for Agnes softly said to him, "Papa! Here is Miss Trotwood — and Trotwood, whom you have not seen for a long while!" and then he approached . . . . [vol. 2, 96]

The picture, like the one preceding it, "My Aunt astonishes me" (the second illustration for March), is set in David's sitting-room and contains five figures: Uriah Heep (left), David Copperfield, Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes (centre) and slightly to the rear of the scene, Aunt Betsey, the only character seated, with her cat on her ottoman, again as in the previous plate. Significant background details include two paintings (upper centre), two birdcages (upper right),and two potted plants (centre right). Translated directly from Dickens's text are Uriah Heep's blue bag (left), Uriah's shaking hands with David, who has just admitted him and his legal partner, and Aunt Betsey's inscrutable (or, as the writer describes it, "imperturbable") countenance as she studies Mr. Wickfield, curiously abstracted, as if he is unaware of the presence of the others or even his surroundings.

Phiz's added vista of smoking chimneys and St. Paul's. [Click on thumbnail for larger image/]

Much of the composition of the plate has been suggested to Phiz directly by the text, in particular, David's "easy chair imitating [his] aunt's much easier chair in its position at the open window" (94) and the pair of bird-cages "hanging, just as they had hung so long in the parlour window of the cottage" (94) near Dover. These details, then, are significant in showing Aunt Betsey's attempt to synthesize her former existence with David's London life-style. The green fan that the text mentions as "screwed on to the window-sill" (94-95), however, Phiz has transposed to Aunt Betsey's lap. Phiz has also added the vista of smoking chimneys and the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral to contrast the plants on the window-sill, which recall her interrupted gardening in the earlier illustration "I make myself known to my Aunt"; these potted plants, which closely resemble those in the lower-right-hand register of that September plate, seem intended to emphasize the old, "green" life that her financial reversal has forced Betsey Trotwood to renounce.

Those familiar with the geography of London would recognize the improbability of the vista outside David's window at York House in the Adelphi block on Buckingham Street, adjacent to the north side of the Thames, including the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. The "Dickens' London" map on David Perdue's website confirms that a window fronting the Thames in the Adelphi buildings, about a block from Warren's Blacking, would not have commanded a view of St. Paul's Cathedral, some half-mile away to the east (the Doctors' Commons, where David is articling as a Proctor, is in Old St. Paul's churchyard, and therefore was an easy walk from the Adelphi buildings). If the window were on the east rather than the south side of David's residence, the dome of St. Paul's would have been a significant aspect of the vista.

The physical situation of David's Adelphi rooms is a strongly autobiographical element in the quasi-autobiographical novel in several ways. First of all, David procures a bed for Mr. Dick around the corner from his apartments, in a chandler's shop in Hungerford Market, on the Thames. David recalls that the market was "a very different place in those days" (opening of ch. 35), because it was largely rebuilt in 1831; as a boy Dickens probably knew the market well because it was adjacent to Hungerford Stairs, where the imfamous blacking warehouse was located. In the second place, as a young shorthand reporter Dickens occupied rooms in York House on Buckingham Street, and this building most critics propose is the "model for Mrs. Crupp's residence" (Guiliano and Collins 355).

The painting of Dover Castle. [Click on thumbnail for larger image/]

The paintings, which Phiz juxtaposes to the heads of Mr. Wickfield, Agnes, and Aunt Betsey, are other conspicuous added details. The import of the smaller picture, a portrait of a woman, is unclear. However, through the larger picture Phiz further heightens the contrast between London and Dover, for this larger, central painting might be entitled "Sunrise at Dover," since it depicts a man-made and a natural landmark, Dover Castle (left) and the white cliffs (right), in sharp contrast to the polluted scene outside David's window. The placement of the painting also draws the eye forward to the contrasting heads of Mr. Wickfield and his devoted daughter. While he seems utterly detached from the scene, Agnes's expression suggests her solicitous concern for his health. She, like Betsey Trotwood, studies him, but David's aunt seems by comparison shocked at the profound changes she sees in her old friend, whose expression exemplifies the title of the chapter, "Depression."

References

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins. "Notes to Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. The Annotated Dickens, vol. 2. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Hammerton, J. A., ed. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrations. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978.


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Last modified 2 January 2010