Restoration of mutual confidence between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). September 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for Chapter LII, "I Assist at an Explosion," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), Volume Two, facing page 390. 10.6 x 16.1 cm (4 ¼ by 6 ¼ inches), vignetted. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Commentary: Domestic Harmony Restored in advance of Australian Emigration

The first illustration for the seventeenth monthly number, issued in September 1850, strikes a mood of triumph in contrast to the domestic melodrama and sentimentality of August's complementary illustrations for Chapters 47 through 50. For this first September illustration, Phiz focuses not on the highly charged scene of Micawber's and Traddles' dramatic revelations of Uriah Heep's financial chicanery at Heep and Wickfield, Canterbury, but rather on the happy consequences of Micawber's having cleared his conscience at having become the odious Heep's reluctant accomplice. According to J. A. Hammerton (1910), the illustration of the happy "Restoration" of the Mr. Micawber to his family may be specifically associated with the following passage:

Mr. Dick, my aunt, and I , went home with Mr. Micawber. . . . . His house was not far off; and as the street-door opened into the sitting-room, and he bolted in with a precipitation quite his own, we found ourselves at once in the bosom of the family. Mr. Micawber exclaiming, "Emma! my life!" rushed into Mrs. Micawber's arms. Mrs. Micawber shrieked, and folded Mr. Micawber in her embrace. [Vol. 2, 391]

In fact, Phiz has synthesized far more text than that in this ebullient celebration of the Micawbers' domestic felicity which is the chief comic strain of the Bildungsroman. On the broad stage of the full-page plate Phiz has captured the poses, juxtapositions, and emotions of ten characters in an almost Baroque tableau reminiscent of the Cratchit family's celebration in A Christmas Carol (1843), with both families having as their common point of origin the relationship of Dickens's parents, John and Elizabeth:

Miss Micawber, nursing the unconscious stranger of Mrs. Micawber's last letter to me, was sensibly affected. The stranger leaped. The twins testified their joy by several inconvenient but innocent demonstrations. Master Micawber, whose disposition appeared to have been soured by early disappointment, and whose aspect had become morose, yielded to his better feelings, and blubbered. [Vol. 2, 391].

Phiz has disposed the figures as the text suggests, with Mr. Dick doffing his hat in the doorway, and Aunt Betsey and David to his immediate left (at the extreme right of the scene, the shading placing them very much in the background as the audience), leaving the viewer to focus on the joyful reunion of Emma and Wilkins Micawber (centre), the latter a gigantic figure just having come from the conquest and abasement of the devilish Heep. Indeed, Phiz has deliberately had Micawber keep his hat on, though indoors, to increase his height and dwarf everyone else in the scene. The effect is especially telling for the form and figure of Mrs. Micawber in her second appearance in the narrative-pictorial sequence, for she seems far less matronly and more girlish here than in Mr. Micawber delivers some Valedictory Remarks, and both shorter and thinner than her adolescent daughter, who has grown into a young woman of much the same mould since her last appearance. So kinetic is the moment recorded that Phiz shows Mrs. Micawber's hat in mid-air, and one of the twins (also considerably grown) in mid-leap. To the right, Mrs. Micawber rushes into her husband's embrace, knocking over her workbox near the chair on which she has been sitting. The strong horizontal lines in her dress emphasize her rapid movement from right to centre. The action, however, grows less frantic as we move toward the left-hand register with teenaged Miss Micawber holding up her infant brother and the pillar-like Master Micawber end-stopping the action, not "blubbering" as Dickens states, but aloof and uncertain as to how to respond to his father's latest emotional outpouring of optimism as he jubilantly welcomes the prospect of "misery, . . . homelessness, . . . hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary" (391).

Wilkins Micawber, Jr (detail). [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Looking somewhat sheepish and uncertain how to respond to his quixotic parent, Wilkins Micawber, Jr., stands beside sheet music ("Warble" is clearly printed on the cover) and a flute lying discarded on the floor at his feet. The significance of the music and instrument quickly become apparent when Micawber mentions that he had hoped to arrange for his oldest son to join the Canterbury Boys' Choir (reminiscent of Dickens's sister, Fan, having musical inclinations, and having attended the London School of Music prior to marrying Henry Burnett). Meantime, as was the case with young Charles Dickens in Chatham, the father tells Copperfield that his boy "has contracted a habit of singing in public-houses, rather than in sacred edifices" (392). Thus, the instrument in the illustration prepares the reader for the subsequent revelation that Micawber's son is destined to be a performative musician, in which character he will gain distinction in the community of Port Middlebay as both singer and dancer, noted by the local newspaper as being "Among the votaries of Terpsichore, who disported themselves until Sol gave warning for departure" (527, the flowery language replete with classical allusions suggesting that this reportage is by Wilkins Micawber, Senior) at a public dinner held in honour the recently installed District Magistrate. The flute, apparently a trivial detail in the illustration, becomes first a signifier of the youth's talent and then a foreshadowing of his being acclaimed an artist in his adopted country. One must therefore assume that Dickens took Phiz into his confidence about his plans for the social and material success that the Micawbers would enjoy abroad. However, the flute also constitutes an extension of the text because Dickens nowhere mentions young Master Micawber's interest or proficiency in instrumental music. Phiz may have decided that using an object to signify his vocal talent would have been difficult, and opted for a more obvious signifier of musical ability. In short, in this illustration Phiz shows more than Dickens tells.

The picture's sense of motion and renewal prepares the reader for the debt-ridden Micawbers' scheme to make a fresh start by emigrating to Australia, proposed and financed by Betsey Trotwood through her recently recovered fortune. The notion of emigration had been much on Dickens's mind since his founding together with philanthropist Angela B urdett-Coutts of Urania Cottage, a refuge and training centre for reformed prostitutes. The wind of optimism that blows through this illustration will sweep the Micawbers across the seas to the other "land of opportunity," Australia, which is the destination of Mr. Moddle in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843) and later of Magwitch in Great Expectations (1861). When writing David Copperfield, Dickens was an enthusiastic supporter of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, which a Mrs. Caroline Chisholm (afterwards whom he lampooned as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House) established specifically to help English families such as the Micawbers to emigrate to the farthest corners of the Empire, but especially to Australia. In the initial (March 1850) number of Household Words, about six months before writing this seventeenth instalment of the novel, Dickens published letters from such "assisted emigrants" to advertise the benefits of this emigration scheme, the editors of these letters being Dickens and Mrs. Chisholm. In his working notes, Dickens had written for this sequence of chapters "Clear the way for Emigration." Perhaps Dickens's interest in emigration led him to propose that this scene rather than that of Heep's denunciation be the subject of the first of the two illustrations for September 1850, whereas, for example, in illustrating these chapters Fred Barnard in the Household Edition chose the other, far more dramatic moment for realisation in Chapter 52's Approach me again, you — you — you heep of infamy," gasped Mr. Micawber, "and if your head is human, I'll break it. Come on, come on!"

In this initial plate for Chapters 51 through 53, Phiz comments upon the comic scene that results from Heep's receiving his comeuppance by inserting telling background details that do not detract from the focal point of the scene, the reunion in confidence of the Micawbers. The principal of these non-textual elements include an apparently smiling clock (a fine piece of pathetic fallacy), a child's hanging puppet (which may suggest either Micawber's former dependence on Heep, or Heep's having been taken up by the officers of the law), and a New Testament print (immediately behind Micawber's hat) of the return and forgiveness of the Prodigal Son (the theme involved in Dan'l Peggotty's reclamation of his niece). Although Michael Steig in Dickens and Phiz does not comment upon this illustration, it offers a number of parallels with other interior scenes which he has taken pains to analyse, including Mr. Peggotty's dream comes true and Our Housekeeping. Again, the chairs, right and left, serve as bookends to the theatrical scene, and Phiz employs embedded book titles, pictures, and domestic realia to offer comments upon his narrative material. As Steig notes of the mask motif seen in "Mr. Peggotty's dream comes true": "That the mask may signify the return to one's true self is suggested by its presence in the first illustration for the next monthly part, Restoration of mutual confidence between Mr. and Mrs. Micawber (ch. 52), where it clearly signifies Micawber's dropping his role as Uriah's toady, exposing the villain and returning to his own natural expansiveness" (129).

Realisations of Heep's Nemesis and its Consequences (1850 and 1872)

Left: Both the Household and Charles Dickens Library Editions realise the scene in which Micawber denounces Heep for his fraudulent legal chicanery: Fred Barnard's Household Edition equivalent lacks Phiz's comic dynamism: "And the name of the whole atrocious mass is — Heep!" (1872). Right: Harry Furniss has chosen to use Barnard rather than Phiz as his model in Mr. Micawber achieves the Downfall of Heep (1910).

Related Resources

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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980.

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

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

Kitton, Frederic G. Dickens and His Illustrators. 1899. Rpt. Honolulu, Hawaii: U P of the Pacific, 2004.

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

Created 16 February 2010

Last modified 19 March 2022