Context of the Illustration: We enter the Curiosity Shop with Master Humphrey
When she had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were moving inside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.
It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held the light above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainly see. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could recognize in his spare and slender form something of that delicate mould which I had noticed in the child. Their bright blue eyes were certainly alike, but his face was so deeply furrowed and so very full of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or more worn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment which was not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The door being opened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him the little story of our companionship.
"Why, bless thee, child," said the old man, patting her on the head, "how couldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!"
"I would have found my way back to you, grandfather," said the child boldly; "never fear."
The old man kissed her, then turning to me and begging me to walk in, I did so. The door was closed and locked. [Chapter I, 3]
Commentary: Meeting Grandfather Trent
Here Green anticipates Dickens's introduction of both Little Nell Trent and her gambling-addicted grandfather in the opening chapter, as described by the kind-hearted narrator (Master Humphrey), who has just led the child through the maze of streets near Covent Garden Market in the City to musty treasure-trove of the antique shop. Dickens in his guise as the aged, kindly flaneur of London's streets after dusk, Master Humphrey, prepares the reader for this encounter at the door of the curiosity shop. Nell, who is initially lost in some other part of town after having completed some sort of errand for her grandfather, enlists Master Humphrey's help in finding her way back home. Generously, Master Humphrey agrees to take her there, so that the reader proceeds with the narrator and his temporary charge through the streets after sunset, and enters the shop with them. This strategy gives Dickens's narrator the opportunity to describe the shop's owner and contents in detail, from an outsider's perspective.
This, then, is the moment, that Green, his initials evident in the lower right-hand corner of the dark plate, realizes. In the darkened, unilluminated shop full of armour, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture, and other "antiquities," Nell's grandfather holds aloft his candle. Green usdes this dsingle source of illumination to shed generous light in chiaroscuro on the gray, balding head of the proprietor, the figure of a pallid girl in a bonnet, perhaps thirteen years of age, and her guide, Master Humphrey himself. The crowded shop affords little space for the passage of the trio as material objects, not arranged in any logical order, hem them in. The composition of the full-page woodblock engraving in the 60s, realist style, nevertheless suggests two themes: how the past restricts us in the present, preventing personal freedom of movement and unfettered choice, and how the acquisition of too many material objects may be more or a curse rather than a blessing in a materialtic age.
A possible clue as to the story's chronological setting lies in the grandfather fearing that, after his illness and ental collapse, Quilp may be able to get him committed. Nell's grandfather fears that he will be sent to a madhouse, and there chained to a wall and whipped. Since these practices fell out of use about 1830, Dickens has probably set the story in the 1820s.
Above: The style of the leading member of the team of illustrators, Cattermole, was ideally to the subject of the atmospheric, slightly menacing interior of the London antique shop that gives the Dickens's fourth novel its title, The door being opened, the child addressed him as her grandfather (Part 1: 25 April 1840).
Inspired by the opening illustration of the novel in Master Humphrey's Clock (25 April 1840), Green has departed from the caricatural style of the original serial illustration. Like George Cattermole in The Old Curiosity Shop, in The door being opened, the child addressed him as her grandfather, Green engulfs the figures in darkness, as if to foreshadow the menace that dogs Nell through so much of the story. The questions that the illustration and the text simultaneously raise over the first three pages of the Household Edition include "What mysterious errand did her grandfather send Nell that took her across town and placed her in danger?" and what fate has befallen her parents, since now her grandfather is her guardian?
Phiz, Cattermole, and the lesser members of the team of illustrators whom Dickens described as "The Clock Works" strove for an engaging interplay between the text and the caricatural and architectural illustrations, which, unlike steel or copper engravings, could appear on the same pages as the print to produce a narrative-pictorial synthesis not possible in books such as The Pickwick Papers in which the plates necessarily had to face pages of text; in fact, in the original Chapman and Hall instalments, the Pickwick illustrations always preceded and were therefore divorced from the text. The effects for which Green strives in his program of thirty-nine wood-engravings veer sharply away from the antiquarian and cartoonish styles of Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) Samuel Williams, Daniel Maclise, and Cattermole, and towards the new realism of the 1860s. Moreover, the dark plates of John Franklin in Ainsworth's Old St. Paul's (1841) and Hablot Knight Browne in Mervyn Clitheroe have influenced Green, particularly in the frontispiece and tailpiece, which reiterates the perversion and cruelty of the Brasses even as it shows their being justly punished for their iniquities.
The title-page vignette cleverly echoes the collection of antiques on the dresser in the right-hand section of the frontispiece, but does not exactly repeat the firearms, powder-horn, Greek vase, and sixteenth-century helmet (which is on the floor in The door being opened, the child addressed him as her grandfather on the page facing the title-page). Although Green apparently establishes in the importance of the Old Curiosity Shop as the principal setting of the novel in the initial illustrations, this atmospheric interior only appears twice more as the illustrator focusses instead on the figures of kit, Dick Swiveller, the Marchioness, and the villainous dwarf, Daniel Quilp.
Less Gloomy Images of Nell, Her Grandfather, and Master Humphrey
Left: The Darley frontispiece for the first volume in the James G. Gregory edition "Do I love thee, Nell," said he; "say I do love thee, Nell, or not?" (1861). Centre: Kyd's Player's Cigarette Card, no. 22, Nell (1910). Right: Fred Barnard's title-page vignette Master Humphrey and His Clock for the Household Edition of Reprinted Pieces (1879).
Above: The seventeenth-century dairy building as it appears today in London WC2, No. 13-14 Portsmouth Street, near Lincoln's Inn Fields. It bears the date 1567: The Old Curiosity Shop (1872 photograph).
Relevant Illustrations from various editions
- O. C. Darley's Little Nell and her Grandfather (1888)
- O. C. Darley's Dick Swiveller and Quilp (1888)
- O. C. Darley's "Do I love thee, Nell," said he; "say do I love thee, Nell, or not?" (Frontispiece, Vol. 1, 1861)
- O. C. Darley's The Fugitives (Frontispiece, Vol. 2, 1861)
- O. C. Darley's "Marchioness, your health. You will excuse my wearing my hat . . ." (Frontispiece, Vol. 3, 1861)
- Kyd's Player's Cigarette Card watercolours, Nell (1910)
- Harry Furniss's lithographs, Nell and Her Grandfather (1910)
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [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.]
Bibliography: The Old Curiosity Shop (1841-1924)
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. The Dickens Souvenir Book. Illustrated by Fred Barnard and Others. London: Chapman and Hall, 1912.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), George Cattermole, and Daniel Maclise. London: Chapman and Hall, 1841. Rpt., 1849, Bradbury and Evans.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Thomas Worth. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1872. VI.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Charles Green. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. XII.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Frontispieces by Felix Octavius Carr Darley and Sir John Gilbert. The Household Edition. 55 vols. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1863. 4 vols.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. 14 vols.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Thomas Worth. The Household Edition. New York: Haper & Bros., 1872.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Charles Green. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by William H. C. Groome. The Collins' Clear-Type Edition. Glasgow & London: Collins, 1900.
_______. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. 18 vols. London: Educational Book, 1910. V.
Kitton, Frederic George. "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne), a Memoir, Including a Selection From His Correspondence and Notes on His Principal Works. London, George Redway, 1882.
Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.
Matz, B. W., and Kate Perugini. Character Sketches from Dickens. Illustrated by Harold Copping. London: Raphael Tuck, 1924.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978.
Created 27 November 2019
Last modified 7 August 2020