The Duel on Crabtree Green by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), tenth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 5 (December 1857), Book the Second, Chapter IV, "Recounting My First Hostile Meeting, and, it is to be hoped, My Last," facing page 160.

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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. 10.5 cm high by 16.5 cm wide, framed. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the fifth serial instalment by George Routledge & Sons. This instalment originally comprised Book the Second, Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4. "Routledge reissued the first four parts in wrappers to match the later parts" (Vann, p. 28). The illustration shown above would be the first of a dozen dark plates that Phiz created with a method borrowed from illustrator John Franklin.

The Passage Illustrated and Its Immediate Context: The Nocturnal Duel on Crabtree Green in a Dark Plate

Hearing sounds as of persons approaching along the lane leading to the green, I returned to Cuthbert Spring, whom I found on a perfectly bare piece of ground, about fifty paces in front of the scathed oak. Mr. Rushton was stinding by himself, a little way off, nearer the cottage, with a case of instruments under his arm.

The next moment, Colonel Harbottle and Malpas Sale were seen advancing, and as they drew near they both saluted us ceremoniously, and we returned the greeting in the same formal manner. Colonel Harbottle then took Mr. Spring aside, and conferred with him for a few moments.

While this was passing, I glanced at Malpas, who stood opposite to me in a careless attitude. The moon was shining full upon us, and it might be the effect of its pallid light, but I thought his features looked ghastly.

Presently, the seconds returned, and Colonel Harbottle approaching me, inquired in a very courteous manner if there was any possibility of the matter being accommodated. I answered sternly in the negative, and as I spoke Malpas cast a sharp look at me. He then stood erect, with compressed lip, and knitted brow.

The seconds now retired, and the pistols were loaded. This done, the distance was measured; we were respectively placed, and the weapons were delivered to us. It was arranged that the signal to fire should be a white handkerchief waved by Colonel Harbottle.

Once more the seconds withdrew. Just then, two ravens flew over our heads, croaking hoarsely and angrily, evidently disturbed from their roost in the scathed oak-tree. I could not help glancing at them, and, in doing so, perceived that another couple of ravens had put the legitimate occupants of the old oak-tree to flight. The younger gipsy, Obed, it seemed, had climbed the antique tree, and taken up his station on one of its mighty arms. Phaleg himself was standing beneath, leaning against the massive trunk and watching us composedly. I should have drawn the attention of the seconds to these unlicensed intruders, but ere I could do so Colonel Harbottle coughed loudly to call attention. On the instant I became fixed, with my eye upon my antagonist, yet watching for the signal. It was a trying moment, and I could scarcely draw breath. But I never swerved from from the resolution I had formed while gazing at the river.

The handkerchief was waved, and we both fired at the same moment adversary; but I no such intention. I raised my arm aloft, and discharged my pistol into the air.

The seconds ran towards us, making anxious inquiries, accompanied by Mr. Rushton, who had drawn near before the encounter took place.

I was hit. A sharp knock, just above the right elbow, had quite numbed my arm, and the pistol dropped from my grasp. [Book the Second, Chapter IV, "Recounting My First Hostile Meeting, and, it is to be hoped, My Last," page 160.]

Commentary: The Pistol Duel at the Eleventh Hour at the Fifth Instalment's Curtain

Although readers of the volume edition of Mervyn Clitheroe may not have been aware of the fact, all twelve of the dark plates in the novel belong to the latter stage of its serialisation, when Ainsworth and Phiz picked up the threads of the narrative for a new publisher over five years after Chapman and Hall cancelled the project as a result of poor monthly sales. The first of these is the logical extension of the running quarrel between Mervyn and Malpas that had resulted in the "altercation" in the previous illustration over Malpas's undermining Mervyn's relationship with Apphia and manipulating her mother into compelling her daughter into agreeing to marriage. In short, having stolen the Mobberley inheritance, Malpas has just stolen Mervyn's childhood sweetheart. The upshot is the duelling scene, appropriately etched in Phiz's new dark-plate technique. Although the illustration gives nothing away as it captures the precise moment at which the impetuous adversaries fire upon one another, it builds the suspense of the instalment as serial readers would have studied the plate prior to reading this first instalment of the new series. What Phiz errs in showing is both adversaries' levelling their pistols at each other, for, signalling his intention not to take the life of his persecutor, Mervyn discharges his pistol into the air — as the Gypsies, Phaleg and his son, Obed (neither of their figures being obvious) watch from the tree in the foreground. Phiz takes no pains whatsoever to distinguish either the adversaries or their supporters and the attending surgeon, leaving these matters to Ainsworth entirely.

A rather chubby, and usually jolly Colonel Harbottle delivers Malpas's challenge to Mervyn at the Palace Inn, not far from the Anchorite's, Mrs. Mervyn's residence. "No man of honour," remarks the messenger, "could pass unnoticed" (154) the insult that Mervyn has delivered to Malpas, but Harbottle offers to deliver Mervyn's apology, should he wish to make one and thereby avoid a duel. Mervyn adamantly refuses to retreat from his denunciation of Malpas as a manipulative scoundrel, and in fact had already approached Cuthbert Spring to act as his second at the duel, which the seconds now arrange for 11:00 P. M. that very day on Crabtree-green, by the light of a full moon. Thus, that evening the young adversaries settle the affair of an honour, not in the time-honoured manner, with rapiers at close quarters, but in the new mode, with pistols at thirty paces.

Here, then, is an action scene that an illustrator would relish in any event, but Phiz doubly so because the text affords him an opportunity to try out the new engraving technique that he had developed for Dickens's Bleak House (1853), the pertinent illustrations relative to this December 1857 dark plate being The Ghost's Walk and The Mausoleum at Chesney Wold. But here Phiz is not merely providing an ominous atmosphere; he is also implying violent emotions and turmoil beneath the surface, for which he employs as a symbol the massive, gnarled tree to the right. The writhing "scathed oak-tree" (160) with its bare, serpentine arms and highlighted bole suggests the ugly, malignant character of the satanic Malpas Sale.

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Right: Phiz's 1853 atmospheric steel-engraved dark plate for Chapter 36 of Dickens's Bleak House, The Ghost's Walk and for Chapter 66 The Mausoleum at Chesney Wold.


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.

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

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. Pp. 27-28

Last modified 8 August 2019