Miss Flite’s Birds

Miss Flite’s Birds

She partly drew aside the curtain of the long, low garret window and called our attention to a number of bird-cages hanging there, some containing several birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches–I should think at least twenty.

“I began to keep the little creatures,” she said, “with an object that the wards will readily comprehend. With the intention of restoring them to liberty. When my judgment should be given. Ye-es! They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again. I doubt, do you know, whether one of these, though they are all young, will live to be free! Ve-ry mortifying, is it not?”

Although she sometimes asked a question, she never seemed to expect a reply, but rambled on as if she were in the habit of doing so when no one but herself was present.

“Indeed,” she pursued, “I positively doubt sometimes, I do assure you, whether while matters are still unsettled, and the sixth or Great Seal still prevails, I may not one day be found lying stark and senseless here, as I have found so many birds!”

Sketches and comments

Miss Flite is characterized as an “oracle” of sorts in the course of the story. Though she describes herself as “a little M, (mad) you know”, her chilling vision of the future is perhaps the most clear-eyed of anyone in this sprawling story.

This image is one of many where I decided that not every illustration needed to be a literal interpretation of a scene from the book. I had begun this project as a series of full-page images based on scenes, but then a funny thing happened. When I started laying out the book as a test project, I discovered that as a reader, I didn’t enjoy the full-pagers as much as I did smaller images tucked into the text. My eye as a reader wanted to see something other than what my hand as an artist wanted to create!

The solution, as always, was simple: follow your instincts. The benefits were immediate: I could do images in a week or so, as opposed to a month for the big pieces. The smaller ones required less research and less sweating over details, since they would be smaller on the page.

I had this image in my head for several days and I did exactly one sketch, shown here. I knew I didn’t want or need to draw twenty-odd birds to match the text. I wanted mainly to show a jumble of birdcages. I also felt from a purely design standpoint, a negative-style image would have more weight graphically and would just look classier. I did a minimal amount of research, looking mainly at Victorian-era birdcages.

Now, at this point it’s important to understand the limits of cutting linoleum. The first rule is, you can remove black, and you can add white, but you can’t add black or remove white.

The second rule is, it’s way easier to create white lines than black lines. In cutting linoleum, it’s like you’re creating a big rubber stamp. So a black line needs to be carved away on both sides. Trust me, it’s a lot of work. Cutting a white line takes one stroke, more or less.

So in designing an image of birdcages, making it a negative image was not just a great design decision, it made my work easier by a mile.

The imagery of birds in BLEAK HOUSE is a major motif and has been studied as a main theme by Dickens scholars. As stated by Emma Brodey in her essay “Birds and Cages in Bleak House”:

“In reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, one cannot help but notice the enormous significance of birds. The word ‘bird’ alone appears 72 times in Bleak House, and this large number is no coincidence. Miss Flite’s mysteriously named birds play a large role in the plot as thought-provoking symbols. Ten of the major characters in Bleak House are at some point described as birds, and these descriptions are remarkably diverse … In Bleak House, real birds offer comfort and family to those whom society has forgotten. Miss Flite’s birds are kept in real cages; however, to Miss Flite, these cages symbolize her own cage: Chancery. 

“Throughout Bleak House, birds and cages reveal neglect, isolation, injustice, and hidden evil in Victorian society. What makes the ending of Bleak House so very powerful, however, is the release of those birds and the opening of some of those cages. Miss Flite’s birds are set free when the day of judgment comes, and the cage of Chancery is opened for her and for Richard.”

If you’d like to comment on this or any of my posts, you can email me at dickens@mooneyart.com. Thanks for stopping by!

Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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