Mr. Brass at the Keyhole by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 3/8 x 4 ½ inches (8.8 x 11.1 cm). — Chapter 35, The Old Curiosity Shop, Part Twenty. [For passage illustrated see below.] Date of original serial publication: 19 September 1840. Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 23, 293.

Context of the Illustration: The Brasses Apprehensive about the New Lodger

Right: Sol Eytinge, Jr.'s description of the malevolent couple whose spare room the Single Gentleman rents, Sampson and Sally Brass (1867).

"I can’t see anything but the curtain of the bed," said Brass, applying his eye to the keyhole of the door. ‘Is he a strong man, Mr Richard?’

"Very," answered Dick.

"It would be an extremely unpleasant circumstance if he was to bounce out suddenly," said Brass."Keep the stairs clear. I should be more than a match for him, of course, but I’m the master of the house, and the laws of hospitality must be respected. — Hallo there! Hallo, hallo!"

While Mr. Brass, with his eye curiously twisted into the keyhole, uttered these sounds as a means of attracting the lodger’s attention, and while Miss Brass plied the hand-bell, Mr Swiveller put his stool close against the wall by the side of the door, and mounting on the top and standing bolt upright, so that if the lodger did make a rush, he would most probably pass him in its onward fury, began a violent battery with the ruler upon the upper panels of the door. Captivated with his own ingenuity, and confident in the strength of his position, which he had taken up after the method of those hardy individuals who open the pit and gallery doors of theatres on crowded nights, Mr. Swiveller rained down such a shower of blows, that the noise of the bell was drowned; and the small servant, who lingered on the stairs below, ready to fly at a moment’s notice, was obliged to hold her ears lest she should be rendered deaf for life. [Chapter XXXV, 347]

Commentary: Introducing the Small Servant (The Marchioness)

The Old Curiosity Shop did not begin as a coherent novel in the modern sense of a plotted, highly structured fiction. About two-thirds of the way though the novel, Dickens found it necessary (perhaps to re-engage his readers, and perhaps with an eye to later resolving the plot) to introduce three new characters, and to shift his focus from Nell's wanderings to affairs in London with the Comic Man, Dick Swiveller; the unscrupulous attorney from Bevis Marks, Sampson Brass, and his termagant sister, Sally; and the "little servant" of the Brasses, the workhouse (and therefore illegitimate) child whom Dick dubs "The Marchioness." As the story developed into a full-blown, multi-plot picaresque novel, Dickens seems to have considered developing the Marchioness into a genuine character. When he determined that she should be the lovechild of Daniel Quilp and Sally Brass and that she should eventually marry Dick Swiveller cannot be determined, but he obviously did not let Phiz into his intentions until some fifty chapters had elapsed.

Since "One obvious use of the woodcuts is to mark the first entry of characters and themes, which are then recalled to mind after intervening weeks with a second illustration" (Stevens, 117), Dickens and Phiz first introduce the Marchioness in Chapter 35 (Part 13: Mr. Brass at the Keyhole as a marginal figure on the Brasses' staircase. Dickens mentions that the Brasses have instructed the Marchioness to fall down those stairs in order to awaken the sleeping lodger: "we have made the servant-girl fall down stairs several times (she’s a light weight, and it don’t hurt her much)" as the three adults stand at the lodger's door. Only in the next chapter, however, does Dickens begin to do anything with the new character: "One circumstance troubled Mr Swiveller’s mind very much, and that was that the small servant always remained somewhere in the bowels of the earth under Bevis Marks, and never came to the surface unless the single gentleman rang his bell, when she would answer it and immediately disappear again. She never went out, or came into the office, or had a clean face, or took off the coarse apron, or looked out of any one of the windows, or stood at the street-door for a breath of air, or had any rest or enjoyment whatever. Nobody ever came to see her, nobody spoke of her, nobody cared about her. Mr. Brass had said once, that he believed she was a "love-child" (which means anything but a child of love), and that was all the information Richard Swiveller could obtain." The Brasses, perhaps to impress Dick with the notion that they are benevolent employers, treat the small servant to a small meal of mutton.

"You’ve been helped once to meat," said Miss Brass, summing up the facts; "you have had as much as you can eat, you’re asked if you want any more, and you answer, 'no!' Then don’t you ever go and say you were allowanced, mind that." With those words, Miss Sally put the meat away and locked the safe, and then drawing near to the small servant, overlooked her while she finished the potatoes. [End of chapter 36]

Not until Chapter 51 does Dickens reintroduce her, when she answers the door to Quilp.

Household Edition illustrations of Dick, The Marchioness, and The Single Gentleman

Above: Worth shows Dick having to confront the new lodger without the Brasses' support in "You must pay for a double-bedded room." (Chapter XXXIV, 1872).

Above: Green's realisation of the Small Servant's asking Dick to show the vacant room, situation which results in Dick's becoming the official go-between for the Brasses in dealing with the Single Gentleman, "Oh, please," said a little voice very low down in the doorway, "will you come and show the lodgings?" (Chapter XXXIV, 1876).

Clayton J. Clarke's amusing caricatures of some of the novel's best-loved characters: (left) the Comic Man, Dick Swiveller (Card No. 11). Centre: the dirty-faced, preternaturally old workhouse child in the Player's Cigarette card series: The Marchioness (Card No. 28). Centre right: The unscrupulous attorney and landlord: Sampson Brass (Card No. 29). Right: Kyd's version of the harridan legal assistant and Dragon of Bevis Marks: Sally Brass (Card No. 30).

Related Resources Including Other Illustrated Editions

Scanned image, colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary 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.]


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, 1840.

Created 10 May 2020

Last modified 12 October 2020