"She Stooped Down On The Grass At His Side, And Bent Over Him."
10.1 cm wide x 13.7 cm high
Illustration for Dickens's Hard Times for These Times in the British Household Edition, p. 121
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham
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In Cassell's Magazine of Art (1890), well-known artist George Du Maurier likened the process of book-illustration to staging a dramatic adaptation:
To have the author's conceptions adequately embodied for [readers] in a concrete form is a boon, an enhancement of their pleasure. Their greatest pleasure of all, of course, is to see it all acted on the stage. . . . . But the stage is not always at one's command, and failing this, the little figures in the picture are a mild substitute for the actors at the footlights. They are voiceless and cannot move, it is true. But the arrested gesture, the expression of face, the character and costume, may be as true to nature and life as the best actor can make them. Within the limits assigned, these little dumb motionless puppets . . . may continue to haunt the memory when the letter-press they illustrate is forgotten. [349-50]
This is precisely the effect that Harry French has created in the seventeenth plate for the Household Edition of Hard Times. With Stephen's last words amounting almost to a peroration on the ills of industrial society, one might describe the scene as "operatic." As with the death of any significant figure in grand opera, there must be a large accompanying chorus to echo the lamentations of the principal grievers. Indeed, Dickens describes the bystanders as a "throng" (III: 6), among whom a number of women form a chorus of anguish which antiphonally plays behind the parting words of Rachael and Stephen. Not so in the onlookers depicted in French's plate, in which there are only two women (Louisa and Sissy) and a small number of men, some in workers' caps, others in middle-class top-hats. However, French effectively employs Stephen's "pale, worn, patient face" to evoke recollections of Renaissance paintings of the crucified Christ. Since Stephen has already called both Sissy and Rachael to his side, the caption "She Stooped Down On The Grass At His Side, And Bent Over Him" is not entirely accurate. Although Louisa and her father are present at that moment, we are not aware of Gradgrind's presence until later in the chapter. In the plate, however, French has accorded father and daughter a place of prominence, the light from the torches throwing a chiaroscuro across their pensive countenances. By placing their left hands at their chins French is suggesting that they are endeavouring to solve a riddle, perhaps how Stephen fell into the shaft, and even perhaps whether he was involved in the bank robbery at all. French may have conflated two narrative moments, Rachael's taking Stephen's hand (as the caption indicates) and Stephen's responding to Gradgrind's "troubled" countenance by suggesting the father consult Tom in order to clear Stephen of the robbery accusation.
Du Maurier, George. "The Illustrating of Books. From The Serious Artist's Point of View.--I." The Magazine of Art, 23 (1890): 349-371.
Last modified 17 April 2002