The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture

The Brook


Frontispiece to the 1852 T. Nelson & Sons Reprint

A scene from The Wide, Wide World in which Ellen falls into a brook after attempting to cross precariously on a log stretched across the expanse at the urging of Thirwall’s notoriously naughty Nancy Vawse made multiple appearances in the illustrations of the novel. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became, like the ship, a symbol of transatlantic relations as Ellen’s brook crossing came to represent, in some cases, a crossing of the Atlantic. Some illustrations also revealed cultural disparities as it contrasted Ellen, an Anglo-American child, with Nancy, the grandchild of a Swiss immigrant. Their roles as representatives of either America or Britain and their positions of dominance in the various depictions of the brook shift depending upon the publisher’s perspective.

The first appearance of the brook, however, did not feature Nancy and, in fact, did not even depict Ellen’s tumble into the water. T. Nelson & Sons, a British publisher based in Edinburgh, printed an edition of the novel in 1852 that featured a frontispiece depicting the brook for the first time. In the bucolic, sepia-toned illustration, Ellen stands in the foreground, contemplating the brook, which is small and surrounded by lush vegetation, while cattle graze nearby. In the background, a solitary figure stands in a field with a herd of sheep. A small house and fence can be seen at the edge of the field. DeSpain claims that Thomas Nelson was “more optimistic about the possibilities for emigration” than many other publishers of the time, which led him to portray “the same stream merely as an idyllic icon of American landscape” without connecting it to Ellen’s fall.[1] Through his optimism, Nelson turned the brook into a symbol of the American ideal, a meeting of untouched nature, as seen in the foreground of the illustration, and the pastoral landscape, as seen in the background.

In the nineteenth century, Americans were torn between the desire to preserve the natural beauty of their country and to develop the land for commercial use. The conflict can be seen in the contrasting foreground and background of Nelson’s illustration. It was also during this time that conflicting views arose between the United States and Britain regarding the landscape. The development that the American landscape was undergoing created a source of transatlantic tension, as John E. Dean explains when he states, “the English valued the American picturesque, informed by the English countryside, while the Americans valued utility in landscape. American insensitivity to landscape was revolting to the English while the English lack of commercial imagination was criticized by Americans.”[2] The British, whose major commercial developments had already taken place and who were attempting to create a picturesque country largely through the use of gardens, looked upon America’s natural landscape as something to be valued and preserved. 


Frontispiece to the 1853 H.G. Bohn Reprint

Pastoral scenes, such as the one depicted in the background of Nelson’s illustration, became popular at this time because they reflected a middle ground between the development of the land and an integration of nature into human space. In The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830, Richard H. Gassan explains that these scenes were “an expression of a kind of utopian longing for an ordered landscape, a striving for perfection, something that was, of course, impossible through human agency.”[3] These pastoral scenes were an ideal that could not be achieved, especially as the land continued to be destroyed and exploited for commercial use. Landscape art tried to strike a balance between the development that was necessary in order for an organized, protected society to take shape in the new country and the natural beauty that was already present in nature. Nelson explores this human impact on natural landscapes in his frontispiece.

Intriguingly, unlike its description in the text of the novel, the brook sits small and still in the foreground of the illustration as a figure that likely represents Ellen (although the figure could also be Nancy), stands next to it in contemplation. Barbara Novak explains in Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, that “when we see pockets of still water in nineteenth-century American landscape we may speak of a contemplative idea, a refuge bathing and restoring the spirit.”[4] In the novel, Ellen finds the brook during a time when she is struggling to remain hopeful and patient in her new life with her Aunt Fortune. In Nelson’s illustration, Ellen’s discovery appears to be a spiritual restoration when she comes across the pure, still water of the brook and manages to escape the bustling development of the American landscape. In this moment of respite, she enters into a purer version of nature that is slowly slipping from the grasp of the American consciousness.

In 1853, three different representations of the brook were introduced by H.G. Bohn, James Nisbet, and George Routledge, each inserting Ellen and Nancy into the illustrations. Featuring darker representations of the brook and emphasizing the fractured relationship existing between America and Britain, the publishers first used these illustrations in a decade that was overflowing with active debate about religion, commercial development, and American-British relations. The debate extended throughout the nineteenth century, influencing the illustrations that first appeared in 1853 as they were altered for various purposes in reprints of the novel as late as the first decade of the twentieth century.


Frontispiece to Volume One of the 1853 James Nisbet, Hamilton, Adams & Co. "New Edition" Reprint

The first illustration of the brook to appear in 1853 was in H.G. Bohn’s reprint, published in January of that year.[5] The image, which also appeared in G.P. Putnam and Co.’s reprint later that year, highlights Ellen’s vulnerability as she attempts a crossing of the brook. The black and white illustration depicts Ellen, clad in a delicate white dress, walking carefully along a log that extends over the brook. The illustration places each girl into a position to represent a certain section of American society, Ellen standing in for an upscale British-American and Nancy representing a working-class immigrant population. In the image, Ellen reaches her hand out to Nancy, who leans apathetically against a tree, holding her shoes in one hand as she watches Ellen’s precarious walk. Nancy, sporting dark hair and clothing, stands in stark contrast to the pure, white Ellen, accentuating the vulnerable position of the latter. Nancy stands aloof in the illustration and is unwilling to aid the helpless Ellen. Ellen acts as a source of connection to Great Britain (even more so as the child of a Scottish immigrant) and exemplifies the distance that exists between those who were clinging to the traditions established by the former colonizer and those who wished to break completely free and establish a country built on the varied traditions of the immigrants that had entered a land of opportunity and religious tolerance. Ellen attempts to reach out to the representative of the immigrant citizens of the United States, but fails in her attempt to connect with them. This suggests that, in Bohn’s eyes, the upper class, who still retained British traditions, and the working class, those who attempted to establish new American norms, were failing to reconcile their differences. Bohn appears to be suggesting that America’s diverse immigrant population was eager to flaunt the vulnerability of the more upscale British-American way of life and distinguish itself as more self reliant and independent. The illustration does not, however, leave the viewer with a completely pessimistic view of this relationship because it includes a bridge, something that, as Jay Appleton explains in his book Symbolism of Habitat: An Interpretation of Landscape in the Arts, “is a powerful symbol of opportunity.”[6] The insertion of the bridge (albeit a very precarious one) into the illustration suggests that there is still a chance for the varied cultures to overcome their differences and to create a mutually advantageous relationship; but first, America’s developing independence must extend its hand to those wishing to retain some British traditions.


Illustration on Page 118b of the 1853 G. Routledge & Co. Reprint

The illustration in James Nisbet’s 1853 reprint of the novel, first advertised in February of that year,[7] created by George Dalziel and appearing as the frontispiece to Volume One of Nisbet’s two volume reprint, depicts the brook rushing calmly under Ellen’s feet as she sits at its edge, her hands folded in her lap. Nancy stands to her right, contemplating the water. Nisbet’s illustration does not place the girls as representatives of certain cultural groups, choosing instead to focus on their position in nature. DeSpain explains Nisbet’s choice of illustration when she states:

James Nisbet chose to represent the brook at an earlier point in the text when Nancy first comes across Ellen contemplating the rushing water and where it leads—in this illustration the girls are on the same side of the water and one is not culturally superior to the other in age or dress. The more equalizing position of Ellen and Nancy in Nisbet’s illustration mirrors the publishers own optimism about the American landscape as a site for the growth of evangelicalism. Nisbet’s refusal to emphasize class or cultural distinction is indicative of Nisbet’s distaste for effete London civilization.[8]

Nisbet’s depiction reflects a level of sympathy toward Americans, even those who are considered uncouth Yankees such as Nancy. Although DeSpain suggests that the girls are placed as cultural equals in the illustration, Nancy’s position suggests some superiority as she stands above Ellen, as well as to her right, a place that evokes dominance as Yi-Fu Tuan explains when he states:

In nearly all the cultures for which information is available, the right side is regarded as far superior to the left…. In essence, the right is perceived to signify sacred power, the principle of all effective activity, and the source of everything that is good and legitimate.[9]  

Nancy’s position on Ellen’s right side may suggest, in Tuan’s words, that she is a “legitimate” American, one that has found comfort in nature and that moves freely through and across the terrain. Although she is depicted in the text as an uncivilized pest, Nancy possesses a level of ease in the landscape that Ellen has not yet acquired.

In April 1853 a third representation of the brook appeared in a G. Routledge & Co. reprint.[10] The illustration, created by William Harvey and George Dalziel, is found on page 118b of the novel and was the first illustration to depict Ellen’s fall into the brook as she reaches up toward Nancy from her place in the water in a prayer-like position. In this image, the girls are placed in roles similar to the ones utilized for Bohn’s illustration as Ellen stands in for Anglo-Saxon culture, providing a contrast to Nancy, who represents working-class European immigrants. In the illustration, Nancy, leaning over the helpless Ellen, appears to taunt her from the shore. Ellen’s white dress and kneeling position demonstrate her purity and innocence, standing in contrast to the dark, spiteful Nancy, who appears to be amused at Ellen’s distress. The contrast of light and dark in the image echoes Bohn’s illustration. Ellen is completely at the mercy of the wicked Nancy, emphasizing her vulnerability, which is stressed even more as she is surrounded by a shadowy, sinister-looking forest. Harvey, known for his use of cross-hatching in his illustrations, which caused his landscapes, as DeSpain notes, to “appear unruly and unkempt,”[11] likely used this technique to emphasize the menacing nature of the forest, turning it into a dangerous aspect of the American landscape, as it looms behind the two girls. Not only is the distinction between America and Britain emphasized more through the positioning of the girls, but Nancy’s superiority and the threat she poses is accentuated through Harvey’s style. Routledge chose a site for the brook that highlighted the hazards of the terrain instead of depicting the picturesque aspects of the American landscape.


Illustration on Page 122b of the [1885] Ward, Lock & Co. "Home Treasure Library, Complete Edition" Reprint

In this illustration, Nancy acts as a specific symbol as DeSpain explains when she states, “Nancy symbolizes the working class European immigrant, [while] Ellen stands in for an Anglo-Saxon purity that is threatened by the unbounded cultural assimilation of America. Nancy is not part of a religious family united around Ellen’s body in this illustration but rather an immigrant-other who does not wish to assimilate with Anglo-tradition.”[12] The illustration echoes the disparity between British and American culture that is also present in Bohn’s illustration, but Routledge’s depiction enhances the disparity as it places Ellen in a position of undeniable inferiority. Ellen—here a representative of America—struggles, reaching up to Nancy, the symbol of European immigrants, proving her inability to survive the harsh landscape of America without the aid of Europe. When seen in this light, it appears Routledge, a British publisher based in London, was simultaneously interested in reclaiming some of Britain’s former superiority by depicting Nancy as the dominant figure in the illustration and in undermining America’s strength by showing Ellen to be a powerless victim of her own naivety.

In an [1885] reprint,[13] Ward, Lock and Co. used the illustration that had originally appeared in the 1853 James Nisbet, Hamilton, Adams & Co. reprint in their “Home Treasure Library, Complete Edition.” The black and white illustration occurs on page 122b alongside the scene of Nancy finding Ellen at the brook, but Ward, Lock and Co. inserted a caption below the illustration that reads, “‘Look here Nancy!’ cried Ellen,” a quote taken from page 123 of the text. Ellen’s energetic outcry stands in conflict to the stillness of the two girls in the image as they quietly contemplate the brook beneath them because, as Novak explains, “The visual corollary of silence is stillness.”[14] This scene’s stillness is disturbed by Ellen’s inserted exclamation. The caption, although awkward in its intensity, does provide a connection between the two girls as it suggests Ellen speaking to Nancy, an interaction that would not exist otherwise. In some sense, this causes Ellen to move closer to Nancy as Nancy moves physically closer to Ellen, approaching her as she sits quietly by the brook. This is significant because, as Sara Ahmed explains, “Orientations involve directions toward objects that affect what we do, and how we inhabit space. We move toward and away from objects depending on how we are moved by them.”[15] Nancy’s movement toward Ellen, and Ellen’s attempt to move closer to Nancy through her exclamation, suggests that the girls will affect each other in important ways after the moment at the brook. As seen later in the text, this is only the first of many meetings between the two girls that ultimately results in the significant growth of each. This growth and the influence the girls have on each other parallels the possible effects the United States and Britain experienced in relation to each other near the end of the nineteenth century. The two nations, like Ellen and Nancy, were in the process of overcoming their differences in an attempt to comprehend the developing values and culture of the other—an instance of give and take that would help the countries create a stable, mutually beneficial relationship in the twentieth century.


Illustration on Page 118a of the 1887 James Nisbet & Co. "Golden Ladder Series, New Edition" Reprint

An 1887 James Nisbet & Co. “Golden Ladder Series” reprint was the first to feature an illustration of the brook in color, a variation that signaled the subsiding of the derisive images of the 1850s. The four-color illustration, the same as the image that appeared in the 1853 James Nisbet, Hamilton, Adams & Co. reprint and the [1885] Ward, Lock and Co. reprint, is placed on page 118a and includes a caption that reads “The Charmed Spot.” The bright colors of the illustration and the alluring caption add a level of optimism to the illustration not seen earlier. Nisbet, also the first to introduce a color illustration of the ship, displayed, once again, his sympathy toward America and its landscape and people as he introduced an illustration featuring bright green trees, an open green meadow, rushing water, and a light blue sky. The gentleness and stillness of the two girls is complemented by the caption, which lends itself to a positive interpretation of what the brook represents. Here, the brook is given religious significance as it features clear, bright water. Novak explains that “[c]lear, pure water has always been an obvious Christian symbol.”[16] Both Ellen and Nancy are contemplating the brook in the illustration, but Ellen sits close to the edge of the water while Nancy stands somewhat apart. This makes sense as Ellen has already begun to cultivate her faith, while Nancy remains distant from God and religion. The fact that both are drawn to the water, though, suggests that both will grow into a greater understanding of their connection with religion and God, which proves true in the novel as Ellen obtains a deep devotion to Christianity and helps Nancy begin to develop an appreciation of religion when she gives her a Bible for Christmas.

The girls’ dress is also accentuated more through the color illustration found in Nisbet’s reprint. Nancy’s simple dress and apron contrast Ellen’s bright red jacket and white hat. DeSpain explains that this clothing is part of a pattern found in the illustrations of The Wide, Wide World: “Compared to the gentility of the British characters, the immigrants from other nationalities wear simple, provincial dress.”[17] Ellen’s proper dress connects her to the citizens of Great Britain, while Nancy’s humble outfit, highlighted in the color illustration, pinpoints her as a member of a lower class with immigrant status, someone resilient enough to tackle the hard life demanded by the American landscape. In this illustration, then, Ellen is the one somewhat out of place as she has not settled into the demands made by the new landscape that surrounds her.


Illustration on Page 152d of Volume One of the 1888 J.B. Lippincott Co. Reprint

An 1888 reprint by Philadelphia publisher J. B. Lippincott introduced a new set of illustrations created by Frederick Dielman. The images, also used by the British publisher Hodder Stoughton in 1896, had a transatlantic appeal. The set included a new representation of the brook. Appearing on page 152d, the black and white illustration depicts Ellen with her arms out as she attempts to cross the brook while Nancy stands on the opposite bank, leaning against a tree and pulling at her sock. Both girls are clothed in prairie dresses and bonnets, and a fence sits along the background of the illustration, suggesting that civilization is close by. Unlike earlier images, both girls are branded as American through their clothing and do not stand in contrast as members of conflicting cultures. The girls’ dress hints at the growing interest of the pastoral in the American consciousness, and the fence in the background, an encroachment on the natural surroundings, points to increasing development. Dean explains that, at this time, “Americans believed that in clearing land for habitation and commercial exploitation, they were rescuing the land from the wilderness.”[18] The wilderness, although valued for its beauty and purity, proved useless in the pursuit of commercial growth and capitalism. As the United States attempted to catch up monetarily with its former colonizer, it recognized the apparent necessity of eliminating some of the wilderness in order to replace it with homesteads, farms, cities, and tourist attractions. The fence that spreads across the background of Lippincott’s illustration is evidence of this replacement. In the image, Ellen moves away from the fence and civilization and toward the danger and uncertainty that Nancy represents. As Dean explains, “The nineteenth‐century English traveler viewed American landscape in a romantic light, imposing her picturesque perception or poetic imagination onto it in order to value or enjoy it. The American, on the other hand, was generally insensitive to his landscape. He saw in it the potential for commercial exploitation.”[19] At this time, the British were critical of the destruction of the American landscape as they saw it as a crime against the natural beauty of the country. In the illustration, Lippincott seems to align with the British, featuring a nostalgic image that reached back to a specific moment when America was a country full of peaceful, pastoral spaces on the verge of development but not yet capitalized.


Illustration on Page 128a of the [1907] Grosset and Dunlap Reprint

A final depiction of the brook occurred in a [1907][20] Grosset and Dunlap reprint. The yellow and black offset print depicts Ellen teetering as she attempts to cross the brook as Nancy half-heartedly extends her hand to help her. A caption below the illustration quotes a passage from page 127, “Slowly and fearfully and with as much care as possible,” echoing Ellen’s anxious expression. Grosset and Dunlap’s illustration was the first to feature Nancy with an outstretched hand, as if in an attempt to help Ellen. The illustration, which appeared in the early twentieth century, reached back to earlier illustrations that aligned Ellen with British traditions and Nancy with developing American independence, paralleling the increasingly friendly relations between America and Britain with Nancy’s outstretched hand. Indeed, less than a decade later, the United States would support Britain in the First World War.

The brook developed into an important setting in the novel during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as it came to represent ideas about immigration, transatlantic relations, and class distinctions. As DeSpain explains, “Ellen’s almost fatal tumble into a brook orchestrated by the conniving Nancy becomes one of these remixed illustrations that comically concentrates and even caricatures the transatlantic crossing…. These representations of the brook offer dramatic unrealized opportunities for solidarity.”[21] Solidarity is not achieved at the brook in the text of the novel, but over time the illustrations moved closer to ideas of solidarity, eventually depicting Nancy attempting to help Ellen across the water, aligning with the camaraderie that America and Britain were developing at the end of the twentieth century, after more than a century of discord.




[1] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 74.

[2] John E. Dean, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape,” 8.

[3] Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 53.

[4] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 41.

[5] The earliest advertisement for the 1853 Bohn reprint appeared in The Morning Post (London,

England), January 28, 1853, 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[6] Jay Appleton, Symbolism of Habitat: An Interpretation of Landscape in the Arts. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 70.

[7] The earliest advertisement for this 1853 Nisbet reprint appeared in The Athenaeum, February 5, 1853.

[8] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 74.

[9] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 43.

[10] The earliest advertisement for this 1853 Routledge reprint appeared in Daily News (London, England), April 8, 1853.

[11] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 79.

[12] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 71.

[13] The date for the [1885] Ward, Lock and Co. reprint is based on an entry in the The English Catalogue of Books for 1885.

[14] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 165.

[15] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 27-28.

[16] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 41.

[17] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 79.

[18] John E. Dean, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape,” 13.

[19] John E. Dean, “Nineteenth-Century English and American Views of American Landscape,” 8.

[20] The date for the [1907] Grosset and Dunlap reprint is based on several books on Google Books with advertisements for editions of The Wide, Wide World dated between 1905 and 1907.

[21] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 71.