The Spirit's Flight — The soul of Little Nell ascending
3 ⅜ x 2 ⅞ inches (9 cm high by 7 cm wide)
Chapter 73, The Old Curiosity Shop, Part 40. 6 February 1841, "Chapter the Last" (seventy-second and final plate in the serial), tailpiece, page 223.
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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Again something of the same sensation as before — an involuntary chill — a momentary feeling akin to fear — but vanishing directly, and leaving no alarm behind. Again, too, dreams of the little scholar; of the roof opening, and a column of bright faces, rising far away into the sky, as she had seen in some old scriptural picture once, and looking down on her, asleep. It was a sweet and happy dream. The quiet spot, outside, seemed to remain the same, saving that there was music in the air, and a sound of angels’ wings. After a time the sisters came there, hand in hand, and stood among the graves. And then the dream grew dim, and faded. [Chapter LII, 88-89]
Like the plate depicting the dead Little Nell at peace, this illustration continues Cattermole's representation of the young girl as a holy figure by borrowing the iconography and composition of the Ascension of Mary. [GPL]
Adina Ciugureanu draws on Dickens' having experienced the loss of his beloved, young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth (1820-37) just three years prior to writing The Old Curiosity Shop to explain the feelings that the writer is attempting to elicit in his readers at the death of the innocent, inspiring Nell Trent, who is a parallel, asserts Ciugureanu, to Dante's Heavenly guide, Beatrice:
The sorrow produced by the death of Beatrice [in Dante's "Paradiso"] is similar, in its intensity, to the sorrow which Dickens's narrator described at the death of Nell and which Dickens himself felt at the death of Mary Hogarth. Both writers had visions of their ideal figures, both compared them with the Madonna, both saw them in Heaven with the angels, both imagined them as the incarnations of love. [Ciugureanu, 126]
Ciugureanu points to the alternative illustration of the beatific passing of the heroine, At Rest, to show the influence of Dante on Dickens at the conclusion of The Old Curiosity Shop in Cattermole's evoking "the spirit of Catholicism, with the crucifix on the nightstand, the image of the Virgin Mary above Nell's bed and the general impression that Nell is likened to the Virgin Mary" (127) in her sexual purity and her innocence that makes even the itinerant thespians revere her. "Nell becomes the quintessence of purity and love through her transubstantiation from a human being to the idealistic embodiment of mother and child as one indestructible unity" (128). Nell offers her erring grandfather not only directional guidance throughout the narrative, but ultimately, after his temptation to rob Mrs. Jarley, spiritual guidance; she is, ultimately, too good for this mortal coil. She is rumoured to have consorted with angels before her death, and is born aloft by the heavenly music of an angel's harp. "Nell's deserted place after death is obviously Heaven, where she is brought and comforted by angels. Her ascent to Heaven is foretold by the oldest people in the village, who whispered that she had already been in communication with angels" (125) in Chapter LXXII.
Local Shropshire tradition has for over a hundred and fifty years identified the Collegiate Church of St. Bartholomew in the village of Tong as the setting for Nell's death. The origin of this tradition may be that, when Dickens went to Tong Castle to visit his grandmother, who was the housekeeper there, he wrote the closing lines of the novel at the village.
About 1910, George Bowden, the church's verger, inserted a forged entry into the parish register to the effect that a fourteen-year-old "Nell Gwyn" had been buried in the churchyard on 1 February 1841, just after Chapman and Hall had published the penultimate instalment of the novel. However, perhaps because he not especially afraid of his "forgery" being detected, Bowden had used Post Office ink rather than the normal ink with which a verger would make entries the register. Bowden went so far as manufacturing a spurious grave which he subsequently displayed to literary visitors as Little Nell's final resting-place. This grave has moved around in the last century as real people had to beinterred in the churchyard. "Despite being a fake and also that Nell is a fictitious character, the grave has attracted many visitors including some from as far afield as America" (BBC: "Shropshire Verger in Tong faked grave of Dickens' Little Nell").
Ciugureanu, Adina. "Dantean Echoes in The Old Curiosity Shop." Dickens Quarterly, 52, 2 (June 2015), 116-28.
Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock. Illustrated by Phiz, George Cattermole, Samuel Williams, and Daniel Maclise. 3 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1841; rpt., Bradbury and Evans, 1849.
"Shropshire Verger in Tong faked grave of Dickens' Little Nell." BBC Shropshire. 20 January 2010.
Created 4 January 2006
Last modified 5 December 2020