Nell in a Faint by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 ¼ x 4 ⅝ inches (8.1 cm by 11.7 cm). — Chapter 46, The Old Curiosity Shop. [For passage illustrated see below.] Date of original serial publication of Part 26: 31 October 1840 in Master Humphrey's Clock, Headpiece for Part 29, Vol. 2: 49.

Passage Illustrated: The Schoolmaster carries Nell to an inn in the Black Country

Phiz's initial-letter vignette for the November 1840 numbers of Master Humphrey's Clock: The Schoolmaster with his portmanteau and the nearby inn (31 October 1840).

There was a small inn within sight, to which, it would seem, he had been directing his steps when so unexpectedly overtaken. Towards this place he hurried with his unconscious burden, and rushing into the kitchen, and calling upon the company there assembled to make way for God’s sake, deposited it on a chair before the fire.

The company, who rose in confusion on the schoolmaster’s entrance, did as people usually do under such circumstances. Everybody called for his or her favourite remedy, which nobody brought; each cried for more air, at the same time carefully excluding what air there was, by closing round the object of sympathy; and all wondered why somebody else didn’t do what it never appeared to occur to them might be done by themselves.

The landlady, however, who possessed more readiness and activity than any of them, and who had withal a quicker perception of the merits of the case, soon came running in, with a little hot brandy and water, followed by her servant-girl, carrying vinegar, hartshorn, smelling-salts, and such other restoratives; which, being duly administered, recovered the child so far as to enable her to thank them in a faint voice, and to extend her hand to the poor schoolmaster, who stood, with an anxious face, hard by. Without suffering her to speak another word, or so much as to stir a finger any more, the women straightway carried her off to bed; and, having covered her up warm, bathed her cold feet, and wrapped them in flannel, they despatched a messenger for the doctor. [Chapter XLVI, 49-50]


Nell and her grandfather are still travelling on foot through the Black Country beyond Birmingham, in the East Midlands. She passes out from sheer exhaustion as she leads her grandfather through a village just as she has spied a familiar form, that of the kindly village schoolmaster with whom they stayed in Chapter 25. Against the high drama of Nell's comatose condition and the ministrants in the inn's taproom Phiz sets such realia as candlesticks, a tankard, pewter plates, and a figurine on the mantlepiece of the old fireplace. Those nearest the thin figure of the adolescent Nell, her grandfather (kneeling), the bespectacled schoolmaster (or possibly the doctor, taking Nell's pulse), and the landlady (holding a chalice) express the greatest concern for her condition, while others discuss what treatment to apply. One figure, asleep in the settle (left), his pipe still in his mouth, is totally unaware of what is transpiring. The initial letter vignette "I" for the November 1840 numbers in the magazine complements the action by showing the reader what Nell saw before she fell unconscious in the street: the portmanteau strapped to the back of the schoolmaster.

In all likelihood, Nell's grandfather is not the ministrant in the illustration. The backpack, walking stick, and hat upon the floor all suggest that this is the figure is schoolmaster, and that the middle-aged man taking Nell's pulse is the village physician for whom the landlady has sent. The patrons in the inn's common room attend to Nell, and try to make her comfortable, even as the "red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals dangling below a waistcoat of ribbed black satin" (the physician) prescribes a hot foot-bath and a light supper.

The Death of the Virgin Mary. by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430/1440–1482). Groeningemuseum, Bruges. 1475 oil on panel, Height: 147.8 cm (58.1 in); Width: 122.5 cm (48.2 in) Courtesy of Groeningemuseum, Bruges Accession number 0000.GRO0204.I

As Michael Steig remarks, "Browne absorbed many influences besides that of caricature, including Christian iconography, German Romantic art, and the influence of some of his contemporaries among British painters, such as Maclise" (56). We see just such a blending of Christian iconography and caricature in this illustration. Phiz's treatment of his subject, self-sacrificing Nell's suffering in order to redeem her grandfather from his gambling addiction, suggests the possible influence of paintings of the death of the Virgin Mary, such as van der Goes' Death of the Virgin Mary (c. 1472-89, Bruges), particularly in terms of the illustrator's depiction of the thin, pallid, unconscious heroine surrounded by anxious onlookers. Other old masters who may have influenced this illustration include Caravaggio, El Greco, and Mantegna. An engraving by Martin Schongauer suggests that by the end of the fifteenth century the theme had become a Christian iconographical commonplace. The picture as an echo of Marion devotion signals the author's intention to have Nell die a pure virgin, untainted by the Spiritus Mundi of Daniel Quilp.

The Melodramatic Rescue of Nell by the Schoolmaster in the Household Editions

Left:Thomas Worth's American Household Edition illustration repeats most of the elements of Phiz's original serial illustration. Nell is experiencing a health crisis in the middle of the street of an unfamiliar village; but fate steps in to provide her with the necessary assistance in The child uttered a wild shriek, and fell senseless at his feet (1872). Right: Charles Green captures the melodramatic moment when the schoolmaster, on his way to his new posting, recognizes Little Nell: "She is quite exhausted," said the schoolmaster (1876).

Related Resources Including Other Illustrated Editions

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.]


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.

Last modified 25 October 2020