"My son!" rejoined the woman; and fell senseless at his feet. (wood-engraving). 1876. 13.2 cm high x 17.9 cm wide, framed. — Fred Barnard's melodramatic response a psychological "Tale of Terror" of the kind he would have read in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. This is the second of two illustrations that Barnard prepared for the short story that Dickens composed specifically for the 1836 two-volume Macrone anthology, but which Dickens's chief illustrator at this point, George Cruikshank, elected not to realise in either the 1836 or the 1839 editions. Although he utilizes the story for two engaging illustrations, Fred Barnard does not explore the psychological ramifications of the quasi-supernatural account, but is clearly intrigued by its ability to arouse suspense through a gradual darkening of the mysterious atmosphere. In the first illustration, at the head of the story, the uncanny visitor attempts to enlist the young doctor's help; in this second illustration, set in a remote cottage in Walworth (one of only two full-page plates in the 1876 volume), the physician turns from the son's enshrouded body to the prostrate figure of the deranged woman who has somehow hoped the doctor capable of raising the dead.

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 person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Passage Illustrated

The surgeon turned his face towards the bed, and bent over the body which now lay full in the light of the window. The throat was swollen, and a livid mark encircled it. The truth flashed suddenly upon him.

"This is one of the men who were hanged this morning!" he exclaimed, turning away with a shudder.

"It is," replied the woman, with a cold, unmeaning stare.

"Who was he?" inquired the surgeon.

"My son," rejoined the woman; and fell senseless at his feet.

It was true. A companion, equally guilty with himself, had been acquitted for want of evidence; and this man had been left for death, and executed. To recount the circumstances of the case, at this distant period, must be unnecessary, and might give pain to some persons still alive. The history was an every-day one. The mother was a widow without friends or money, and had denied herself necessaries to bestow them on her orphan boy. That boy, unmindful of her prayers, and forgetful of the sufferings she had endured for him — incessant anxiety of mind, and voluntary starvation of body — had plunged into a career of dissipation and crime. And this was the result; his own death by the hangman’s hands, and his mother's shame, and incurable insanity. ["Tales," Chapter​ 6, "The Black Veil," pp. 181-82]


To fill up the first two volumes of Sketches by Boz Dickens proposed to Macrone that they use several pieces heretofore unpublished out some nine or ten pieces he had already written. In fact, so good were three of these pieces that Dickens and Macrone omitted eight of the sketches published before 1 November 1835 in order to accommodate "The Great Winglebury Duel," which Dickens had written with the Monthly Magazine in mind, and the two darker pieces written specifically for Macrone, the sketch "A Visit to Newgate" and the short story "The Black Veil." The latter is a landmark in Dickens's short fiction, as Peter Ackroyd remarks:

— the saga of a hanged man and his mother — occurred to him [after his 5 November 1835 visit to Newgate Prison], and he set to work on what is really his first proper story; it is no longer a sketch or a scene or a farcical interlude but a finished narrative. Thus we see, in miniature, the formation of the artist, reacting to the events of the life around him, using them and being used in turn. [170]

The Barnard illustration enables the reader to assess the mental and emotional states of the two living characters by means of their physical poses, as the doctor tentatively reaches out a hand, not sure how to assist the afflicted woman, and the mother, doubled over in grief, still turns a=her face away from the reader, as in the first illustration. The physician's Regency costume underscores the fact that this is a reminiscence from some thirty years earlier. The cracked window, crazed glass, and tattered curtain imply not merely the poverty of the place, but the mother's deranged mental state in which the light of reality is distorted by most deeply cherished but unreasonable desire to see her son brought back to life and restored to her . Most significantly, however, the illustrator has placed the son's corpse in a luminous shroud, implying a sense of the metaphysical and of the miraculous — even though the surgeon (just a puzzled and inexperienced young man, and not a miracle-worker) is powerless to enact the desperate woman's desires. As both a memento mori and a memorable illustration of a climactic narrative moment, this is Barnard's strongest work in the 1876 volume.

The previous "tale" in the 1836 and 1839 editions, the farcical exposure of a Romantic pretender, "Horatio Sparkins, involves the artist's placing the climactic illustration at the head of the story, to compel the reader's thoughtful consideration as to what must be the outcome of the protagonist's imposture. Cruikshank might have attempted something similar here, perhaps immediately before the physician's discovery of the rope marks and the mother's falling into unconsciousness — something akin to The Last Chance in Oliver Twist. However, perhaps because the subject is less melodramatic and more psychological, Cruikshank did not attempt to illustrate this story. In contrast, Fred Barnard obviously felt strangely attracted to the eerie tale, realising both the opening and closing moments.

Although Deborah A. Thomas contends that Dickens's primary interest in the story is not the development of suspense so much as the "careful cultivation of the motif of the 'disturbed imagination'" (17) of both the doctor and his mysterious client, who appear in both the introductory and concluding illustrations, in The Black Veil, Barnard dwells upon the enigmatic appearance of the woman at her initial interview with the doctor and the realistic rather than psychological resolution of her peculiar request when the physician discovers the rope marks on the neck of the corpse. In the former illustration, self-willed and determined, she is a black pillar; here, Again, the Barnard illustration does not attempt even to suggest the mother's face, is a ruined pillar, fallen to earth, never to rise again. But Barnard focuses on the intense gaze of the doctor as he studies the prostrate form before him, unsure of how to respond to an illness obviously not of the body. Although crime-and-punishment is also the theme of an earlier Barnard illustration, The Prisoners' Van, the effect here is quite the opposite of the comic byplay between the crowd of onlookers, the plucky prisoner, and the police.

Viewed in the context of Dickens's other tales, however, the striking feature of "The Black Veil" is not its plot but the stress that it places on the subject of mental aberration. At the end of the story, overwhelmed by grief, the hanged man's mother collapses into madness. — Deborah A. Thomas, "Imaginative Overindulgence," p. 16.

Relevant Illustrations of Other Crime Sketches in the Original Edition

Left: George Cruikshank's​ caricatural rendering of the apprehension of a petty criminal at Covent Garden, A Pickpocket in Custody. Centre: A physical altercation about to break out in one of the meanest of London's neighbourhoods, Seven Dials. Right: Cruikshank's depiction of the house of detention for debtors, The Lock-up house. Significantly, Cruikshank did not illustrate the companion sketch about crime and criminality, "A Visit to Newgate." [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

The Relevant Illustration from The Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910)

Above: Harry Furniss's psychologically-oriented lithograph of the opening scene of The Black Veil (1910). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Bentley, Nicholas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens: Index. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z. The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark and Facts On File, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. "Tales," Chapter 6, "The Black Veil," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by George Cruikshank. London: Chapman and Hall, 1839; rpt., 1890. Pp. 279-88.

Dickens, Charles. "Tales," Chapter 6, "The Black Veil," Christmas Books and Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875 [rpt. of 1867 Ticknor & Fields edition]. Pp. 431-37.

Dickens, Charles. "Tales," Chapter 6, "The Black Veil," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. Pp. 176-82.

Dickens, Charles. "Tales," Chapter 6, "The Black Veil," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 1. Pp. 358-69.

Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Chapter 3, "Sketches by Boz." Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012: Charles Dickens. San Rafael, California: Insight, 2011. Pp. 12-15.

Schlicke, Paul. "Sketches by Boz." Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999. Pp. 530-535.

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 2009.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and the Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Last modified 23 May 2017