In 1980, Vladimir Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature, one of which concerns Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It’s a book, says Nabokov, in which the author uses a type of representative called “the so-called perry, possible derived from periscope, despite the double r, or perhaps from parry in vague connection with foil as in fencing. But this does not matter much since anyway I invented the term myself many years ago. It denotes the lowest kind of author’s minion: the character or characters who, throughout the book, or at least in certain parts of the book, are so to speak on duty; whose only purpose, whose only reason for being, is that they visit the places which the author wishes the reader to visit and meet the characters whom the author wishes the reader to meet. In such chapters the perry has hardly an identity of his own. He has no will, no soul, no heart, nothing – he is a mere peregrinating perry although of course he can regain his identity in some other part of the book. The perry visits some household only because the author wants to describe the characters in that household. He is very helpful, the perry. Without the perry a story is sometimes difficult to direct and propel; but better kill the story than have a perry drag its thread about like a lame insect dragging a dusty bit of cobweb.”
Nabokov goes on to commend Dickens’ description of the ships on the sea at Deal, quoting his two phrases that “when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea”, “these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed”. Nabokov likes Dickens’ way of talking about sunlight glinting off the water, for stylistic and plot purposes.
Bleak House was published in serial form between 1852 and 1853, with illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, known as ‘Phiz’, rendered through the medium of etching on steel plates. See here for the full set of 40.
These etchings were based on his own original pencil and wash drawings, which are brilliant, in a way that crosses Piranesi and Pat Marriott. Here are two, from the collection, given by William McIntire Elkins in 1947, to the Free Library of Philadelphia. (Round about 1948, Mervyn Peake did his own set of sixty or so illustrations for the book, but they weren’t published in a new, text edition.)
Knight Browne’s pencil drawings are much darker than the etchings derived from them, to the extent that they bring to mind photographer Don McCullin, a man of great Dickensian sensibility, whom I’m sure I read once as commenting on his landscape photos that, yes, the images are dark, “But it’s a dark world we live in.” I couldn’t find this particular quotation, but here’s the Don on his influences, published in Tate Etc, in Jan 2019.
“I have always loved Josef Sudek’s work. […] Sudek lost his right arm while in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War and had to load his film with one hand, sometimes using his teeth. War must have made him feel he had to turn his disadvantage into the poetically beautiful: photographs of condensation on the windows of his Prague flat, flowers, the tree in his garden in winter. He was a bit like me in one way, because he started experimenting with darkness, and in the end his pictures looked as if he had just got a felt-tip pen and made a square of black. He was entrenched in that moment of darkness, like a wave of his past coming back to him.”