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 home.’
‘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 coolly.’
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.