My Altercation with Malpas Sale by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), ninth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 5 (December 1857), Book the Second, Chapter III, "Despite Mr. Spring's advice I make a scene, and not improve my position." [Click on the illustration to enlarge it.]

Bibliographical Note

The illustration in both the original monthly serial and the later Routledge volume edition was a steel etching, 10.1 cm high by 15.3 cm wide, facing page 149 in volume. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the fifth serial instalment in the new series by George Routledge and Sons. This instalment originally comprised Book the Second, Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4. Having been dropped by Chapman and Hall four years and eight months previous, serial publication resumed in December 1857 with George Routledge and Sons. Ironically, this resumption was heralded in an early serial instalment of Charles Lever's Crimean War novel Davenport Dunn: The Man of the Day, which Chapman and Hall published with illustrations by Phiz from July 1857 through April 1859.

Passage Illustrated: Malpas confronts Mervyn

"Now, sir," Malpas said, laying aside his mocking air: and assuming an insolent tone of authority, "stand aside!" I laughed contemptuously.

"Then, by Heaven, I will make you."

He raised the whip, but in an instant I had snatched it from his grasp, while with the other hand I seized him by the collar of his braided coat.

"It is not the first time I have chastised you," I cried, furiously.

And I was about to apply the whip when the inner door suddenly opened, and Mrs. Mervyn, supported by Dr. Sale, followed by Apphia, tottered into the room. At same time Mr. Comberbach and the surly-looking man-servant, summoned in all haste by Mrs. Brideoake's vigorous application to the bell, rushed in from the opposite door, and stood staring at us in astonishment.

On seeing me thus engaged with Malpas, Mrs. Mervyn uttered a feeble cry, and Dr. Sale, surrendered her to Apphia, hurried forward to separate us, discharging a volley of angry exclamations against me. Poor Apphia, who was quite as agitated as Mrs. Mervyn, could only render her very indifferent assistance.

The sight of my offended relative restored me to reason, and I relinquished my hold of Malpas, who lost not a moment in turning the occurrence to my disadvantage; and indeed it must be owned that I had given him ample opportunity of damaging me without any departure from the truth. I saw by his gestures to Mrs. Mervyn that he was throwing the whole blame upon me.

She was greatly changed — more than I should have thought it possible she could be in a year's time; — her once upright figure was bowed; and her movements betokened extreme debility. [Book the Second, Chapter III, "Despite Mr. Spring's advice I make a scene, and do not improve my position," page 149]

1title1 1title1

The Metamorphosis of Phiz's Style

Phiz's style had changed subtly between David Copperfield and Bleak House, an evolution evident in Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket (April 1853) and continued to develop in response to the new taste for realism in illustration over the 1850s, particularly in terms of domestic interior backgrounds, as is evident in the continuation of the Mervyn Clitheroe illustrations. He replaces the cartoon-like figures of his early period with more credible figures, but will still render odd characters such as Flintwinch and Affery as caricatures as late as Mr. Flintwinch has a mild Attack of Irritability in the August 1856 number of Little Dorrit. In this change in style Phiz emphasizes three radically different and even opposing elements: background detailism, realistic landscapes, and dark plates (of which Phiz executed twelve for the Routledge seriaslisation of 1857-58).

"Routledge issued the first four parts in wrappers to match the later parts" (Vann, p. 28), so that the first four monthly instalments exist in two forms, the first set being issued by Chapman and Hall from December 1851 through March 1852. So unsuccessful had been the monthly sales of the first four instalments that Chapman and Hall abandoned the project entirely. By the time that Phiz took the new commission, he had illustrated a further two dozen books, including Charles Lever's The Daltons (1852) The Dodd Family Abroad (1854), and The Martins of Cro'Martin (1856),Charles Dickens's Bleak House (March 1852 through September 1853) and Little Dorrit (December 1855 through June 1857), and had recently completed work on Ainsworth's The Spendthrift (Janary 1855 through January 1857). In short, he was a vastly more experienced illustrator, and had veered way from the caricatural style of Cruikshank by the time he returned to Mervyn Clitheroe for the seven remaining numbers, commencing in December 1857.

The Rivalry between Mervyn and Malpas Becomes More Intense

In Mervyn's defiance of the bully, Phiz seems to have found a subject more congenial than his previous group study, the reading of the will, which he had completed for the last of the Chapman and Hall instalments five years earlier. Whereas that previous illustration filled in no blanks in the story and made little contribution to the reader's assessment of Mervyn's feelings of betrayal and disbelief as attorney Gripper announces that the Mobberley heir is not the deserving Mervyn but the malignant Malpas, here Phiz conveys to the reader a fuller understanding of the "altercation" between the two young men who seem to have grown up in the intervening period.

Phiz has chosen to set confrontational scene in the library and family portrait gallery — since Ainsworth mentions its being "upstairs," it cannot be either the drawing-room or the parlour drawing-room at the Anchorite's, the only home which Mervyn has known since his mother's death. However, under orders from Mrs. Brideoake, Apphia's mother, the servants have attempted to prevent Mervyn from entering, but he has barged past them, intent on justifying himself with Mrs. Mervyn and then on compelling Apphia to break the engagement that Cuthbert Spring had announced to Mervyn as a fait accomplis on the previous day in Cottonborough. Despite her mother's injunctions, Apphia decides to receive Mervyn, asking his foregiveness for having agreed to an engagement she obviously finds distatesteful.

As the Mobberley ancestors watch from the gallery's walls, their descendants carry on the quarrels of adolescence into adulthood — Ainsworth gives Mervyn's age as twenty-one, and that of his nemesis as twenty-five, one year shy of his majority, when he will gain full control of the Mobberley estate. Phiz achieves a sharp focus on the "altercation" announced in the caption by subordinating all elements in the room to the figures of the fashionably dressed young men, the one in the military style, frogged coat being Malpas. The illustration comes as the climax to Mervyn's ordeal in trying to glean the truth about the intercepted correspondence between himself and Apphia, and his confronting both the girl's mother and Malpas about their devious conduct in undermining his relationship with Apphia.

Since Ainsworth specifies that the drawing-room has to doors, one leading to the interior of the house (left) and the other to the foyer (right), Phiz has positioned the antagonists exactly in the centre of the composition, and in the middle ground between the two open doors. To the left, Dr. Sale and Apphia have escorted a decrepit and shaken Mrs. Mervyn in her dressing gown into the room, but Phiz has placed them to one side as a self-contained group of passive spectators — indeed, all that Apphia can do is wring her hands as a sign of indecision and enforced passivity. To the right of the antagonist, the alarmed butler, Mr. Comberbach and the sinister (rather than merely "surly") man-servant complement the dark-haired, slender, youthful-looking Mrs. Briodeoake as blocking figures who all seem to have a stake in the outcome of the quarrel. In his momentary panic, Malpas has dropped his cap on the floor beside him as he fears that Mervyn is about to throttle him with his own riding-whip.Although Phiz has excelled in depicting Mervyn's righteous indignation, a terrified Malpas lacks supercilious smirk of contempt which Ainsworth describes, and the youthful-looking Mrs. Brideoake is simply not sinister enough.

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 3 August 2018

Last updated 24 September 2021