The Child in Her gentle slumber by engraver Samuel Williams, after George Cattermole. Alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child lay asleep, smiling through her light and sunny dreams. Wood engraving, 3 1/8 x 4 ½ inches (8 cm by 11.4 cm, vignetted), tailpiece for Chapter 1, The Old Curiosity Shop, p. 46. Date of original serial publication: 25 April 1840 (second plate in the series) in Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 4. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated

But all that night, waking or in my sleep, the same thoughts recurred and the same images retained possession of my brain. I had ever before me the old dark murky rooms — the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly silent air—the faces all awry, grinning from wood and stone — the dust and rust and worm that lives in wood — and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams. [Chapter I, 47]

Commentary by Jack Tan

In the number plan for one of the final chapters of the novel, one which does not feature Nell, Dickens reminds himself to “Keep the child in view” (OCS, Appendix B, 571), as if afraid that the central figure of the child might be forgotten when she does not appear on the page. With the pair of strategically-placed illustrations of the sleeping/dead Nell, she is indeed always kept “in view” because she is the first and the final image readers see. Because she is inert in sleep and death, she is also fixed within her illustration, lying still and, in a way, suspended in time for the reader to gaze at. Their prominent positions as unmoving symbols allow them to be allegorical figures of alienation, set apart from their surroundings, in Dickens’s act of idealization. The two images separate Nell in different ways, each suggesting that they do not belong to the real world. In the first, Nell is an innocent and defenseless sleeping girl amidst a cluttered bedroom bristling with oppressive masculine energy. In the second illustration, she is in her sleep of death, belonging to heaven and removed from the fallen world.

In the first image by Samuel Williams, The Child in Her gentle slumber . . . , the solitary figure of Nell is asleep in bed within her grandfather’s shop of curiosities. It is a bedroom cluttered with broken furniture, a knight’s armour, a crucifix and other ancient and menacing-looking objects, surrounding the young girl in deep sleep. Chris Brooks describes Nell’s bedroom within the Curiosity Shop as having a “claustrophobic atmosphere”, where Nell is “alienated” within the “accumulating oppressiveness of the world of physical objects.” (Brooks, 28) While the youthful Nell clearly appears hemmed in by the unwieldy items around her, what Brooks does not say is Nell, too, is very much objectified. She is, after all, meant to “exist in a kind of allegory”, “the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng”, according to Dickens’s text and vision (OCS, 20). The proliferation of symbolic objects in this illustration makes it a true allegory, loaded with ulterior meaning. With the figure of Nell pitted against the other threatening-looking physical objects, Dickens and his illustrators’ artistic vision sets up a number of binaries, such as innocence versus worldliness, as well as unprotected femininity versus oppressive masculinity. Nell is symbolically distinct from the other figures encroaching upon her white bed and sleeping body.

Nell’s alienation and separateness from her surroundings however, sets her apart as a beacon of light within her unsavoury environment. In the illustration, the brighter and softer hue of the girl in her bed is centralized and clearly standing out from amongst the darkness. By setting up the contrast between the illuminated Nell and her oppressively dark surrounds, the young heroine of the novel is not only an idealized figure, but also one that appears grossly unprotected. The utter incompatibility between Nell and the physical objects around her is a direct response to Dickens’s instructions to the illustrator, to show “the child in the midst of a crowd of uncongenial and ancient things”. (Dickens, "Letter to Samuel Williams," 31 March 1840). This idealization is however a double-edged sword that serves not merely to venerate her, but, because she is represented as such a bright and attractive figure, draws unwelcome attention to her physical body.

The iconography of the Williams illustration contains not just cluttered objects of war, death and decay, but many of these are strange and oppressive male figures. Within the murky darkness at the top centre, the silhouette of a tall knight hovers. At the bottom right is a mask of a clown with a hideous grin. Moving across to the left, a Roman senator snarls at the sleeping girl. Finally, on the mantelpiece at the top left are two exotic “Oriental” male figures staring straight into Nell’s bed. The crowded objects that give Nell her “claustrophobic” nightmare now extend beyond Chris Brook’s description of the “oppressiveness of the world of physical objects”, to include an overwhelming masculine energy pressing upon the young girl. ["Dickens’s Idealized Portraits: Rewriting the child in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop."

Commentary: Williams' Only Dickens Illustration

Samuel Williams has not even been recognized as one of Dickens's illustrators until recently. However, he was well-known inVictorian publishing circles, if not to thepublic at large,as an engraver who could also design. For example, he not only engraved four of the illustrations provided by Browne and Cattermole for Master Humphrey's Clock but designed as well as executed the famous scene of little Nell asleep in her bedroom (OCS, I, 14). . . . [Cohen, 135]

Dickens left highly specific instructions for engraver Samuel Williams about this second illustration to be dropped into the letter-press of The Old Curiosity Shop as he planned to distribute the responsibility for the production of the numerous boxwood engravings among Cattermole, Williams, Daniel Maclise and Hablot Knight Browne. Ironically, Dickens was profuse in his compliments to Cattermole, whose role in the end proved far subordinate to that of Dickens's regular illustrator: "He asked Cattermole to name his own terms and mentioned that he was also inviting Maclise to participate but, curiously, made no reference to Browne, the hard-working 'mere' illustrator, who, in the event, was to supply nearly three-quarters of all the Clock illustrations while Maclise would supply only one" (Slater, 146).

Cohen notes that Dickens strove to integrate the images and the text against which they would appear by deliberately making the plates complement each other as well as what he had written. In the case of this sole Williams contribution, the image of the child sleeping in the eerily crowded room had to"compatible with Cattermole's graceful portrayal of her awake" (136). She notes that, in his detailed instructions to Williams, he emphasized how the setting should contrast the character: "The semi-canopied bed still appears comfortable, even luxurious, but its rounded solidity well points up the angularity and disrepair of the 'grim, ugly articles' mentioned in Dickens's text (I, 14) and in his letter. Williams incorporated all these objects within the room, not beyond it, wisely recognizing the spirit rather than the letter of the author's instructions. The ghostly suits of armor and thewood and stone faces were delineated just as Dickens described them together with other disparate items that hehad not — chairs, pictures, mirrors, statuary, and even a crucifix. Finally, Williams's use of bright whiteness to portray the bed and sleeping girl, in vivid contrast to the dark tones of most of her surroundings, further isolates Nell visually, just as she has been verbally — 'alone in the midstof all this lumber and decay' (I, 14)" (Cohen, 136). Ironically, although Dickens was pleased with the result after he asked the artist to sharpen the contrast between the innocent sleeper and the "crowd of uncongenial and ancient things," Dickens never employed the veteran wood-engraver again, perhaps because he did not utilize wood-engravings again until the 1860s, in Marcus Stone's illustrations for Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. Samuel Williams died in 1853, esteemed as an engraver, but long since forgotten as an early Dickens illustrator.

Related Material Including Other Illustrated Editions of The Old Curiosity Shop

Scanned image and editing by George P. Landow. Caption and Commentary by Philip V. Allingham and Jack Tan. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1988.

Cohen, Jane Rabb. "Samuel Williams." (Part Three, Ch. 6). Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio U. P., 1980. 135-38.

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). London: Chapman and Hall, 1841. Rpt., 1849 by Bradbury and Evans (3 vols. in 2).

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven & London: Yale U. P., 2009.

Tan, Jack. ""Charles Dickens’s Idealized Portraits: Rewriting the child in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop." The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature 18.1 (2015).

Created 7 November 2009

Last modified 12 November 2020