The Stranger at the Grave by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), fifteenth serial illustration for William Harrison Ainsworth's Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe, Part 8 (March 1858), Book the Third, Chapter I, "How the Two Wizards of Owlarton Grange Raised a Spirit that they did not Expect," facing page 254. Steel etching, 10 cm high by 17.7 cm wide, framed. Source: Ainsworth's Works (1882), originally published in the eighth serial instalment by George Routledge and Sons, London. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated: Another Dramatic Confrontation in the Graveyard

The shades of night had fallen when I rose to take leave of my humble but hospitable entertainers. I had left my horse at the Nag's Head in the village, and Ned offered to row me across the mere and land me at the foot of the church, which would save me a mile's walk; besides, as tbe night was extremely fine, with bright moonlight on the water, he thought I should prefer that plan. I gladly accepted the proposal. Nothing could be more exquisite than the appearance of the mere as our little bark clove through the shining waters. Before us towered the old church amidst its trees — its square tower illuminated by tLe silvery radiance. Leaning back in the boat, I did not address I word to Ned, who plied his oars in silence. In spite of the beauty and tranquility of the scene, sad feelings stole over me. 1 thought of the dead — and of one who was as if dead to me: of my mother in her grave in the adjacent churchyard, and of my father, whom I had never seen, in India. Melancholy musings like these engrossed me, until the boat reached the strand, when I leaped ashore, and taking leave of Ned, climbed the hill, and entering the precincts of the churchyard, proceeded towards my mother's grave. The white head-stones, the grassy mounds, the humble wooden rails, and the more imposing monuments, were all bathed in bright moonlight. Amidst them, an old black yew-tree, with outstretched boughs, had a spectral effect. I was just turning the angle of the church, when, to my surprise, I perceived a tall man wrapped in a cloak standing near my mother's resting-place. I could not be mistaken, for I knew the exact situation of tbe grave, and, as the moonlight fell full upon the flat stone, I could almost read its inscription from where I stood. The person I beheld was extremely erect in deportment, and had a military carriage. His cap was removed, and I saw that he was grey-haired and partially bald, with a lofty forehead, but his features being in the shade, I could not clearly distinguish them. So far, however, as they were discernable, they were entirely strange to me. Yet, somehow, I felt that I ought to know him. Who was he? Why should he visit my mother's grave at such an hour? Why display such emotion?

My curiosity being greatly aroused, I stood still to gaze at him. Indeed, I did not like to disturb him, so impressed was I by his appearance.

More than once I saw his lips move as if in prayer. After heaving many deep sighs, and beating his breast, he put on his cap, and thinking he was about to depart, I resolved to address him; but not wishing o take him by surprise, I coughed slightly to announce my approach. He no sooner noticed me than he hurried out of the churchyard, and I watched his tall dark figure speeding rapidly across the fields, until it disappeared from my sight. 'I felt half disposed to follow him. Yet, to what end? He evidentiy shunned observation. Wherefore should I intrude upon his grief? [Book the Third, Chapter I, “How the Two Wizards of Owlarton Grange Raised a Spirit that they did not Expect,” pp. 253-254]

Commentary: A Gothic Scene

Sissy has recovered her wits to keep house again for her husband, Ned, but has lost her sparkle and wit as a result of her sobering experience with Malpas Sale. The quest for Sissy having been resolved and Malpas's part in her disappearance having been proved, Ainsworth introduces a digression before he continues the story of the rivalry between Mervyn and Malpas for the hand of Apphia Brideoake. Having exhausted the runaway wife plot but continuing with the missing will plot, Ainsworth now introduces Mervyn's long-absent father. Mervyn catches a glimpse of an elderly stranger who is inexplicably visiting the grave of Mervyn's mother in the village churchyard, anticipating the frontispiece for the novel that was issued in the last, double number (June 1858).


The scene in the churchyard in which, coming around the Gothic tower of the village church, Mervyn sees the elderly stranger at his mother’s grave, represents a first draft for Phiz. The illustrator revisits the churchyard for the frontispiece, but tidies up the composition by eliminating the body of the church, in effect, reconfiguring the building so that the white bell-tower, immediately overlooking the mother’s grave, produces a sharp contrast to the yew tree, the headstones, and the two figures. In the March 1858 horizontal plate Phiz throws much of the scene into mere obscurity, placing the stranger closer to the viewer and a much-reduced figure of Mervyn observing the visitor from the lower right register. The overall effect of the March dark plate is to obscure all the elements of the scene in which Ainsworth introduces Mervyn’s father, returned from his posting in India after an absence of a quarter of a century. With muted chiaroscuro Phiz emphasizes the reflected moonlight on the water (which Mervyn has just crossed in Ned’s boat), the gable and tower of the church, and, just right of centre, the grave, immediately in front of the stained-glass window of the choir.

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

Last modified 23 November 2018