Charles Dickens – Little Dorrit, 1857

C Dickens Little Dorrit

Chapter 17. Nobody’s Rival.

The latter part of the day turning out wet, they were fain to keep 
the house, look over Mr Meagles’s collection, and beguile the time 
with conversation.  This Gowan had plenty to say for himself, and 
said it in an off-hand and amusing manner.  He appeared to be an 
artist by profession, and to have been at Rome some time; yet he
 had a slight, careless, amateur way with him–a perceptible limp,
 both in his devotion to art and his attainments–which Clennam 
could scarcely understand.

He applied to Daniel Doyce for help, as they stood together, 
looking out of window.

‘You know Mr Gowan?’ he said in a low voice.

‘I have seen him here.  Comes here every Sunday when they are at 

‘An artist, I infer from what he says?’

‘A sort of a one,’ said Daniel Doyce, in a surly tone.

‘What sort of a one?’ asked Clennam, with a smile.

‘Why, he has sauntered into the Arts at a leisurely Pall-Mall
 pace,’ said Doyce, ‘and I doubt if they care to be taken quite so 

Pursuing his inquiries, Clennam found that the Gowan family were a 
very distant ramification of the Barnacles; and that the paternal
 Gowan, originally attached to a legation abroad, had been pensioned
 off as a Commissioner of nothing particular somewhere or other, and
 had died at his post with his drawn salary in his hand, nobly
 defending it to the last extremity.  In consideration of this
 eminent public service, the Barnacle then in power had recommended
 the Crown to bestow a pension of two or three hundred a-year on his 
widow; to which the next Barnacle in power had added certain shady 
and sedate apartments in the Palaces at Hampton Court, where the
 old lady still lived, deploring the degeneracy of the times in
company with several other old ladies of both sexes.  Her son, Mr
 Henry Gowan, inheriting from his father, the Commissioner, that
 very questionable help in life, a very small independence, had been
 difficult to settle; the rather, as public appointments chanced to 
be scarce, and his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that 
exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the 
cultivation of wild oats.  At last he had declared that he would
 become a Painter; partly because he had always had an idle knack 
that way, and partly to grieve the souls of the Barnacles-in-chief
 who had not provided for him.  So it had come to pass successively,
 first, that several distinguished ladies had been frightfully 
shocked; then, that portfolios of his performances had been handed 
about o’ nights, and declared with ecstasy to be perfect Claudes,
perfect Cuyps, perfect phaenomena; then, that Lord Decimus had
 bought his picture, and had asked the President and Council to 
dinner at a blow, and had said, with his own magnificent gravity,
’Do you know, there appears to me to be really immense merit in 
that work?’ and, in short, that people of condition had absolutely 
taken pains to bring him into fashion.  But, somehow, it had all
 failed.  The prejudiced public had stood out against it 
obstinately.  They had determined not to admire Lord Decimus’s 
picture.  They had determined to believe that in every service,
 except their own, a man must qualify himself, by striving early and 
late, and by working heart and soul, might and main.  So now Mr
Gowan, like that worn-out old coffin which never was Mahomet’s nor 
anybody else’s, hung midway between two points: jaundiced and 
jealous as to the one he had left: jaundiced and jealous as to the
 other that he couldn’t reach.

Such was the substance of Clennam’s discoveries concerning him, 
made that rainy Sunday afternoon and afterwards.

Charles Dickens, 1812-1870

Little Dorrit, 1857

Image: “Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gowan,” the tenth full-page illustration for the volume by Sol Eytinge, Jr. 1871. 7.4 cm high by 9.9 cm wide. The Diamond Edition of Dickens’s Little Dorrit (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871), facing page 283. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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