My Uncle Mobberley's Will is read by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), eighth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 4 (March 1852), Chapter XIII, "In which My Uncle's will is read, and I experience the truth of the proverb, that 'There's many a slip 'txixt cup and lip'." [Click on the illustration to enlarge it.]

Bibliographical Note

The illustration in both the original Chapman and Hall serial and the later Routledge volume was a steel etching, 9.6 cm high by 15.3 cm wide, facing page 104 in volume. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the fourth serial instalment by Chapman and Hall in March 1852. This instalment originally comprised Book the First, Chapters 12, 13, 14, and 15. So unsuccessful were the monthly sales of this fourth instalment that Chapman and Hall abandoned the project entirely. Publication resumed in December 1857 with George Routledge and Sons.

The first part of the Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe — 'part of a whole, yet in itself complete' — is now concluded. Some delay will probably occur in the continuation of the Story. The Author regrets it, but the delay is unavoidable on his part. Unforeseen circumstances are likely to compel him to suspend, for awhile, his pleasant task; — pleasant, because many of the incidents and characters have been supplied to him by his own personal recollections, while the scenes in which the events are placed have been familiar to him since childhood. Ere long he hopes to meet his friends again; bidding them, meanwhile, a kindly farewell! — March 1852 [cited in Vann, 27-28]

Context of the Illustration: Another Group Scene

Mr. Gripper adjusted his spectacles, and giving a preliminary cough, all eyes were immediately fixed upon him, except those of those of Simon Pownall, which I felt were maliciously riveted upon me.

"Before I commence," Mr.Gripper sententiously observed, "may I remark that my late respected friend and client, Mr. Mobberley, whose will I am about to read, considerately — very considerately I may say — thought proper to destroy several bonds and securities lent by him to different parties, most of whom being here present, may consider themselves thereby fully released from their liabilities; but I think it right to observe that such discharges must be considered in the light of legacies."

Mr. Evan Evans, who had held his trumpet to his ear to catch the purport of this speech, exchanged glances with his co-executor.

I took advantage of the pause to whisper to Dr. Sale that I had seen his bonds destroyed by my uncle.

The doctor looked considerably relieved, and said, "Very kind in the old gentleman, indeed."

Some of the other interested parties did not express equal satisfaction, but, on the contrary, groaned audibly.

Mr. Gripper proceeded:

"With regard to what I have to lay before you, I may observe, in limine, that, in the course of my practice, I have prepared two wills for my late respected friend and client; one during the lifetime of his excellent wife, and about the time when she had the misfortune to lose a favourite cat (glancing at me), disposing of his property in a particular manner (glancing at Malpas, who returned a look of angry impatience); and another immediately after Mrs. Mobberley's death, entirely altering the disposition of his property (anothcr glance at me) — as regards the person chiefly concerned, though, in other respects, the second will was a mere transcript of the first. One of these wills Mr. Mobberley destroyed on the day preceding his death. It is not for me to remark upon the conduct of my respected friend and client, which an interested party might consider to be the caprice of old age. It is sufficient for me to state the fact. Without further preamble, I shall therefore proceed to read the will, which, as the only one left, is necessarily the only one that can be acted upon."

Unfolding the document, he then began to read it. But just at this moment there was some confusion at the door, which caused him to stop. Silence being restored, Mr. Gripper went on.

Slowly and calmly he read the will, as if it was no matter to anybody.

Every countenance, however, changed, and looks and gestures of the utmost surprise were interchanged, as it was announced that the person nominated by the testator as his heir, and to whom the bulk of his property was left, was no other than — MALPAS SALE.

Scarcely able to believe what I heard, I interrupted Mr. Gripper, exclaiming:

"Have you read the name aright, sir?"

I saw Pownall's malicious eyes fixed on me, enjoying my confusion.

Malpas, if possible, was still more surprised than myself. He endeavoured to maintain a semblance of composure, and to appear unconcerned, but his flushed cheek and nervously-excited frame betrayed his extraordinary agitation. In a voice of forced calmness, he inquired:

"Are you in earnest, sir?"

"Mr. Malpas Sale," Mr. Gripper replied, with great gravity, but, at the same time, extreme suavity of manner, "I announced to you, and to every one present, that one of your uncle's wills was destroyed. That was the later will, by which Mr. Mervyn Clitheroe was declared to be his heir. But the instrument I hold in my hand must now be acted upon, and by it you take the property." [Chapter XIII, "In which My Uncle's will is read, and I experience the truth of the proverb, that 'There's many a slip 'txixt cup and lip'," 103-104.

Commentary: Distinguishing the Principal and Supporting Characters

Illustrators in the Victorian period habitually found group scenes such as this a compositional problem, partly because they required illustrators to distinguish as individuals a great many characters, and partly because creating focal characters around which to construct the scene was not necessarily supported by the accompanying text. In this case, however, the author has singled out several characters for the focus of the illustration: the heirs (Mervyn, centre, and Malpas, right, beside the fireplace), and the attorney (seated at the head of the table, regarding several folio sheets). Phiz has also been able to realise several other characters, whose iudentities become apparent after scrutinizing the text. The hard-of-hearing Mr. Evan Evans, must be the elderly farmer to the extreme right, although he is lacking an ear-trumpet and is merely cupping his hand in order to discern what the lawyer is saying. Dr. and Mrs. Sale, partly by process of elimination, must be the couple seated next to Mervyn, who has risen in surprise to address Mr. Gripper for clarification — we are aided in making the determination by the fact that Mervyn has just made a remark to Dr. Sale. The attorney's clerk, Elkanah, must be one of the other middle-aged men at the table, another of them being the executor, Cuthbert Spring. Simon Pownall, Malpas's confidant, as in the text, is standing immediately beside the nominated heir, apparently delighted that Mervyn has been done out of the estate.

The passage illustrated enables the reader to make sense of Phaleg's mysterious utterance in the previous illustration, since it seems likely that he has stolen the other will, and that Uncle Mobberley did not in fact destroy it as Gripper has surmised. The reading of the will, therefore, crystallizes the lost will plot which pits Malpas against Mervyn — a Cane-and-Abel plot that Ainsworth will develop some six years later when serialisation resumed. Thus, the March 1852 illustrators make plain that Ainsworth had already mapped out the resolution of the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist as the surly Gypsy will eventually reveal the contents of the will he has stolen from the dead man's bedroom.

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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1851-2; 1858). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). London: Routledge, 1882.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

Vann, J. Don. "William Harrison Ainsworth. Mervyn Clitheroe, twelve parts in eleven monthly installments, December 1851-March 1852, December 1857-June 1858." New York: MLA, 1985. 27-28

Created 23 November 2018

Last modified 17 March 2021