Horatio Sparkins. Drawn by A. B. Frost. Wood engraving. For "Tales: V, 'Horatio Sparkins,'" in Dickens's Sketches by Boz Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-Day People, page 230. Wood-engraving; 4 ¼ by 5 ½ inches (10.6 cm high by 13.5 cm wide), framed. This half-page illustration occurs on the same page as the unmasking of Samuel Smith an an impostor, so that readers encounter the climactic moment twice in a brief space.

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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.]

Bibliographical Note

"Horatio Sparkins," fifth of the stories in the 'Tales' section of the collected edition of Sketches buy Boz. Originally published in The Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1834. Describes how Sparkins, posing in society as a fashionable young gentleman, imposes on the snobbish Malderton family, who are horrified to discover by accident that he is, in fact, merely as draper's assistant. [Bentley et al., 123]

That Frost has made the young shopman with aspirations to join high society the subject of the title-page vignette, as well as the subject of a separate illustration which describes his unmasking at the climax of the tale, suggests that the American illustrator saw this particular character, an audacious impostor and social upstart, as central to the themes and issues of the 1836 collection of London sketches. Cruikshank chose the climactic unmasking of Mr. Smith in the draper's shop as the subject of his copper-plate engraving, and Fred Barnard in the British Household Edition depicted "Horatio Sparkins" at a social function, looking not a little like a slender Lord Byron, and attracting the attention of numerous juvenile young women of the upper middle class.

Passage Illustrated: The Recognition Scene

"Lor! ma, what a place you have brought us to" said Miss Teresa; "what would Mr. Sparkins say if he could see us!"

"Ah! what, indeed!" said Miss Marianne, horrified at the idea.

"Pray be seated, ladies. What is the first article?" inquired the obsequious master of the ceremonies of the establishment, who, in his large white neckcloth and formal tie, looked like a bad "portrait of a gentleman" in the Somerset-house exhibition.

"I want to see some silks," answered Mrs. Malderton.

"Directly, ma’am. — Mr. Smith! Where is Mr. Smith?"

"Here, sir," cried a voice at the back of the shop.

"Pray make haste, Mr. Smith," said the M. C. "You never are to be found when you’re wanted, sir."

Mr. Smith, thus enjoined to use all possible despatch, leaped over the counter with great agility, and placed himself before the newly-arrived customers. Mrs. Malderton uttered a faint scream; Miss Teresa, who had been stooping down to talk to her sister, raised her head, and beheld — Horatio Sparkins! ["Tales," Chapter V, "Horatio Sparkins," p. 230]

Commentary: A Man about Town on a Minimum of Income

Since in the short story cloth and clothing take on an emblematic meaning of superficial and spurious (as opposed to genuine) identity, both Household Edition illustrators have chosen thematically significant scenes. Fred Barnard takes us to the story's opening scene, the assembly, a pseudo-aristocratic world of glittering appearances and superficial sentiments in which "Horatio Sparkins," the draper's assistant, pulls the wool over the fashion-conscious eyes of the Maldertons precisely because they trust so much to appearances and "very fine words" (225). Dickens's initial description of the family at the ball emphasizes fashion and appearance over character and achievement. As Paul Schlicke, points out, what distinguishes this little tale from the previous London sketches in "Our Parish," "Scenes," and "Characters" is the contribution of all elements of setting, character, and costume to the plot; like Cruikshank, Frost provides a sense of this shabby commercial establishment that serves as the backdrop for the comic recognition scene.

In the earlier Cruikshank illustration to which Frost seems to have been responding here, the gestures of the three female Maldertons at the draper's counter suggest their shock and disbelief as they discover that "Horatio Sparkins" is an imposture — and are caught out buying inferior silks at "a dirty-looking ticketed linendraper's shop" (229) in order "save a shilling." In the first edition, Cruikshank forty years earlier had organized the scene from the perspective of the three Malderton ladies, so that the reader in his plate is looking over their cartoon-like shoulders, as it were, to study Samuel Smith's surprise at being unmasked. Cruikshank compels readers to study him, and not the stunned customers, who are mere overblown cartoon figures.

A. B. Frost, on the other hand, has re-thought the juxtaposition of the figures so that readers focus on the angry face of Mrs. Malderton and the stunned expressions of her daughters, rather than on Smith's startled expression. Because of his chosen perspective, Cruikshank could not show the facial expressions of the three customers, and therefore had to resort to melodramatic gestures. Conversely, Frost's revealing the scene from the impostor's perspective allows him to depict the women's faces; he reveals Samuel Smith's total surprise only through his spread fingers. In the Cruikshank engraving, the elegantly dressed, smooth-faced youth with the mutton-chop sideburns wears a shocked expression that betokens a mutual recognition between himself and Miss Teresa Malderton, centre. In the Frost composition, the reader can only guess at the chagrined expression on the young shopman's face. However, as in Frost's title-page vignette for the entire volume, his Horatio for the 1870s sports lavishly unruly mutton-chop whiskers, reflecting a change in the fashion for facial hair that resulted from the military look which young men cultivated after the Crimean and American Civil Wars of the 1850s and 1860s.

Frost has responded to the original Cruikshank by recomposing it, rethinking the perspective by realizing the same moment. Barnard, on the other hand, has reacted in a very different way by electing to illustrate Dickens's introduction of the protagonist at the reception with which the sketch opens with a description of Horatio in a "beautifully made coat" (225): "How like Lord Byron!" murmured Miss Teresa (226) permits Barnard to show a handsome, smooth-faced, elegantly dressed Byronic youth whose looks were very much in vogue in the 1830s.

Relevant illustrations from other 19th editions, 1836-1877

Left: George Cruikshank's caricatural rendering of the revellation of the Horatio in his true identiy, Horatio Sparkins at the linen-draper's counter (1839). Centre: The pretentious, Prince Leopold-like appearance of the protagonist at the Maldertons' dinner-party, Title-page Vignette (1877). Right: Fred Barnard's depiction of the devious Mr. Samuel Smith disguised as "Horatio Sparkins" in society, "How delightful, how refreshing it is, to retire from the cloudy storms, the vicissitudes, and the troubles of life, even if it be but for a few short fleeting moments!" (1876).


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Last modified 3 April 2019