Monday, December 18, 2006

Book Review: "Phiz"

The improbably-named Hablot Knight Browne (aka, with good reason, "Phiz") is the subject of a recent biography by Valerie Browne Lester - Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Illustrator extraordinaire, Phiz was responsible for the engravings which accompanied many of Dickens' works in their original serialized form: it is his images of such timeless characters as Uriah Heep, Mr. Pickwick, and Dr. Manette in the Bastille that have engraved themselves on our collective literary memory. I thought this time of year would be quite appropriate for a read of it (I'm also having my semi-annual read-through of A Christmas Carol).

Lester's biography is the tale of the relationship (business and personal) between Phiz and Dickens, but also of his works with other authors less well-known today (Charles Lever, Harrison Ainsworth, and many more). It also aptly tells the story of Phiz' family life and other endeavours. Although Lester's position as her subject's great-great-granddaughter kept much criticism from the work (if Phiz had any faults, you won't learn of them here), it is nonetheless a fascinating look at Victorian literary culture.

It's an awful shame that both Dickens and Phiz destroyed much of their correspondence; from the letters which survive and are quoted here, it is reasonable to assume that those burned missives would be both hilariously witty and copiously illustrated with little sketches. A most unfortunate loss. This biography is, however, nicely illustrated with copies of various Phiz engravings - which complement the text beautifully - as well as sections of photographs.

A fine casual read.