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Illustrations pursue Dickens

Many Victorian novels, when they first appeared, had illustrations. The pictures enabled readers to visualize characters and incidents - indeed, they often proved to be indelible images from which the novel itself could scarcely escape afterward. In our period, these massive stories provide fine material for TV dramas. In fact, it might be argued that in their translation into a powerfully visual medium (with words mainly reduced to quick dialog), Victorian illustration has finally come into its own and taken over the writing.

In the 19th century, illustrations knew their place. They were secondary to the text - even if they quite often extended particular details of a narrative further than the words did.

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The 30-year partnership - a professional arrangement and a friendship - between Charles Dickens and his prolific (though not exclusive) illustrator Hablot Knight Browne showed that this novelist considered illustration much more than a necessary evil. For the novel "David Copperfield," Browne designed 40 etchings. As many novels were, this one was issued in monthly installments (from May 1849 to Nov. 1850), each illustrated. Although the novelist gave Browne - who adopted the name "Phiz" - a fair amount of independence, he did choose what would be illustrated.

The episode illustrated by "My First Fall in Life" has David Copperfield describing how, just after leaving school, he makes a journey instigated by his aunt and benefactor. The trip is intended to help him grow up and make some decisions about his future.

Something happens on the coach, however, that shows him he is trying a little too hard. Despite his speaking gruffly in order to seem to be a man of the world, Copperfield finds his place on the box next to the coachman suddenly supplanted by a "shabby man." The man had been sitting behind Copperfield but the coachman plainly preferred him as a chattering companion.

Phiz pictures the event with characteristic humor and energy, He perfectly tunes in to David's ability to laugh, with a touch of discomposure, at his younger self. It is hard to imagine an illustration closer to the lighthearted but sensitive touch of this novel's narrative.


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