Emerging Voices

David Beagley, editor

Charles Dickens’s Idealized Portraits: Rewriting the child in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop.

Jack Tan

Jack Tan is Dean of Studies at Whitley College (Residential). He is completing a research degree on the imaginative representation of nostalgia in the novels of Charles Dickens at the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.

In the spring of 1841, Dickens inserted four new paragraphs into the opening chapter of his new novel The Old Curiosity Shop, echoing Thomas Hood’s enthusiastic review of the allegorical characteristic of his otherworldly heroine, Little Nell. These insertions underscore Nell’s neglect, as the narrator pictures to himself “the child in her bed, alone, unwatched, uncared for, (save by angels,) yet sleeping peacefully”. (Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth Brennan. Hereafter OCS, 19) Nell’s separateness from her surroundings is also emphasized through her “holding her solitary way among a crowd of wild grotesque companions; the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng” (OCS, 20), with the second clause additionally singling her out as an idealized figure. Almost contemporaneously to making these insertions, Dickens describes his own childhood self, in a letter to the American writer Washington Irving, as similarly abandoned and separate. Peregrinating the streets of London and made to work in a blacking factory, the young Dickens was a “not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy”. (Charles Dickens, Letter to Washington Irving, 21 April 1841) In this paper, I assert that in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens is preoccupied with representing such neglected and isolated figures. He repeatedly sets them apart from their surroundings, showing them to be too vulnerable and idealized to belong to their real environments. In Dickens’s depictions of these susceptible characters, he is autobiographically evoking his “not-over-particularly-taken-care-of” self. In memorializing and valorizing these characters, he bestows upon them a new lease of life within their fictional portraits.

The figure of the isolated child was not foreign to Dickens in the late 1830s. A decade earlier when the young Charles was of schooling age, his father was arrested for debt, which led to an abrupt termination of the son’s education and entrance into what Charles saw as degrading employment at Warren’s Blacking Factory. Recalling these bitter experiences later, Dickens provides one of his more extended self-portraits, in a memory piece known as the Autobiographical Fragment. In it, he fashions himself as “a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally”. (Forster, 18) This is the figure of a child – idealized, aware and sensitive – but also highly vulnerable. Before taking Dickens’s words about himself as the gospel truth, we remember that he was often prone to self-dramatization in his autobiographical piece, with exclamations such as: “but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond”. (Forster, 21) The exaggeration in language here is no different to his sextuple-barreled adjective about himself as a “not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy” in his letter to Irving. They are all artistic representations. Therefore, I would like to make it clear at the outset that when I refer to the “figures” of Oliver, Nell and of Dickens as a child, I am pointing to their fictional portraits – how Dickens fashions and represents them.

The figure of the sensitive child is invariably alienated from the world. In Dickens’s self-portrait, his gifted and sensitive nature (“a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate”) makes him especially vulnerable to the world (“and soon hurt, bodily or mentally”). To pit such an idealized child figure against the real world, it is no wonder that Dickens imagines himself needing to be “over-particularly-taken-care-of”. Under ordinary circumstances, this last phrase speaks of a huge sense of entitlement. Why would a child from a lower middle class family expect to be better taken care of compared to his equals? However, in Dickens’s fashioned portrait of himself as particularly sensitive and vulnerable, he also presumes that such a child deserves better. I assert that by comparing how Oliver Twist and Nell Trent are similarly portrayed as too sensitive and ideal, and thus alienated from the world, Dickens is setting them apart, like his own fictionalized youthful self, as figures who require special attention, in other words, to be “over-particular-taken-care-of”.

Portraits of Dickens’s juvenile years invariably represent him as a perceptive though isolated child. In John Forster’s biography of Dickens, the very first thing he discloses about his subject is his “power of observation”, wonderful for its “closeness and accuracy”. (Forster, 3-4) Forster also claims that as a boy, Dickens had “as much intuitive understanding of the character and weaknesses of the grown-up people around him”. (Forster, 11) The gift of reading others, however, often belongs to one who watches from the outside. An intuitive understanding of others is also an inward-looking trait, typically possessed by one who quietly studies the emotions and motivations of others. 

It is no surprise then that the young Dickens is described as somewhat removed from the action and an outsider. Because of his delicate health, he was unable to participate more vigorously in activities most boys of his age were engaged in:

“He was a very little and a very sickly boy. He was subject to attacks of violent spasm which disabled him for any active exertion…but he had great pleasure in watching the other boys, officers' sons for the most part, at these games, reading while they played; and he had always the belief that this early sickness had brought to himself one inestimable advantage, in the circumstance of his weak health having strongly inclined him to reading." (Forster, 6)

In other words, Dickens was not an active participant in the world as a child, but had to be content with observing other from his vantage point in the outer circle, and to feed his imagination with reading on his own. These were activities that continued to nurture his sensitivity and to separate him from others throughout his life. [1]

It is evident that Dickens was preoccupied with this type of sensitive and isolated child in his early novels, because the idealized child protagonists of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop too, stand out from their environments as alienated figures to receive idealizing treatment. Dickens’s intent is made clear in the Introduction to Oliver Twist, describing his eponymous character as “a Principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance” (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin Classics, 2002. Hereafter OT, 457), and in the Preface to The Old Curiosity Shop, where Nell is “the lonely figure of the child” surrounded by “grotesque and wild” companions (OCS, 6). It is noteworthy that the two children are not described as real people, but rather, as symbols, in the forms of a “Principle” and a “figure” respectively. The juxtaposition of their ideal qualities with their dismal surroundings causes them to be particularly removed from their real worlds.

In Oliver Twist, this separateness is underscored by Oliver’s incorruptibility despite being mixed up with a motley crew of unsavoury London characters, whose chief antagonist, Fagin, schemes to “blacken” Oliver’s soul and “change its hue for ever (sic)” (OT, 152). Oliver’s distinctiveness to his fallen environment is especially emphasized in his association with nature. While convalescing at the Maylie’s after the botched robbery attempt, he dreams about nature: “dim remembrances of scenes that never were, in this life, which vanish like a breath” (OT, 238)Oliver’s innocence and his general unawareness of the thieves’ evils turn him into a figure of ridicule. When introducing Oliver to the other juvenile delinquents, the Artful Dodger jokes that Oliver has come from Greenland, with the thieves subsequently mocking Oliver as “young Green” – a cruel pun on Oliver’s naivety and unprotected nature. A scene of nature – green and unspoilt – is, of course, miles apart from the crime-ridden London that constitutes the daily environment of the thieves. By associating the well-mannered Oliver with greenery, the thieves accentuate his separateness from the real world of the grimy metropolis. Quite extraordinarily, Oliver is able to keep his innate good breeding intact and is indeed what Dickens had intended – a symbolic “Principle of Good” whose flame burns bright within the darkness of his surrounds.

In The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Nell Trent is also a symbolic child figure clearly distinct from her uncongenial environment. In the inserted paragraphs for the 1841 edition, Dickens tells us that “she seemed to exist in a kind of Allegory…the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng” (OCS, 20). The separation of Nell from her surroundings is a prominent image in the novel and Dickens underscores this fact by having her read The Pilgrim’s Progress at the first opportunity during her journey away from London into the countryside. Nell certainly shares key traits with Bunyan’s Christian in that they are both allegorical figures of good, in narrative trajectories which require them to negotiate unsavoury landscapes, and fend off temptations and vice from other characters. In other words, both Nell and Christian are allegorical figures alienated from the world. The description of Nell as seeming to “exist in a kind of allegory” is a significant passage in the novel which undergoes a few rounds of revision during Dickens’s writing process, as Dickens’s conception of Nell’s isolation from her surrounds evolves and becomes more overt. A close study of the passage’s revision history will reveal Dickens’s evolving understanding and presentation of the figure of the unprotected and separated child figure.

This “allegory” section occurs at the close of the first chapter, where Nell is depicted sleeping, and surrounded by the clutter of her grandfather’s old curiosity shop. Dickens works in tandem with his illustrators and reviewers, in depicting Nell as an increasingly threatened and separated figure of good through each revision. In the original version of the scene, written sometime between 8 and 25 March 1840, the figure of Nell is simply described thus:

“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” (OCS, 20).

This is the most unelaborated version of Nell as an allegory of good. Even though her youth is discordant with her lifeless surroundings, her positive smile emanates through the darkness.The first revision, and in this case, elaboration, of the same passage occurs in Dickens’s instructions to his illustrator Samuel Williams, whose first attempt at portraying the sleeping Nell failed to fit Dickens’s vision. In his letter to Williams, Dickens reiterates that his object is to

“shew the child in the midst of a crowd of uncongenial and ancient things… If the composition would admit of a few grim, ugly articles seen through a doorway beyond, for instance, and giving a notion of great gloom outside the little room and surrounding the chamber, it would be much better.” (Dickens, Letter to Samuel Williams, 31 March 1840.)

Here, Dickens provides specific instructions to make the disjunction between the child and the ugly setting even starker. By accentuating the juxtaposition, Nell becomes even more separate and in need of protection from the gloomy objects surrounding her. Dickens makes it increasingly evident that she is not an “over-particularly-taken-care-of” child.

The third revision of Nell as allegory is contained in Thomas Hood’s enthusiastic review of The Old Curiosity Shop, which appeared on 7 November 1840. Responding to the distinctive figure of Nell, Hood describes her as

“an Allegory of the peace and innocence of Childhood in the midst of Violence, Superstition, and all the hateful Passions of the world. How sweet and fresh the youthful figure! ...How soothing the moral.” (Hood, 96)

Here, Nell has clearly become the representative figure of innocent Childhood with a capital “C”, pitted against the rest of the players in the fallen world – Violence, Superstition and Passions. Dickens responds just as enthusiastically to Hood’s review, and in his 1841 insertions to the novel, already discussed, he echoes Hood’s interpretation of Nell:

“she seemed to exist in a kind of Allegory… holding her solitary ways among a crowd of wild grotesque companions, the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng” (OCS, 20).

And finally, Dickens asserts as a matter of course, in his 1848 Preface to the novel, that “[he] had it always in [his] fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child” with “associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed” (OCS, 6). The assertion that Nell’s separation from her environment has been Dickens’s modus operandi since the novel’s genesis has often been labelled, most recently by Michael Slater, as Dickens’s canny attempt to retrospectively “present the Shop as a far more consciously and deliberately crafted work than the actual history of its writing shows it to have been. (Slater, 165) This criticism is made in light of the novel’s difficult gestation, with it first appearing as the uneven “The Child’s Story” within the short-lived Master Humphrey’s Clock journal.

However, surely Robert Patten is more astute in his reading of Dickens’s motivations, asserting that the concept of Nell as the “allegory of the peace and innocence of Childhood” midst “all the hateful Passions of the world” (Hood’s review) has been Dickens’s intent all along. Patten argues that “it cannot be said that because it (the new paragraphs) was inserted after the novel’s completion it is either simply Dickens’ ex post facto rationale of his design, or merely an inspired use of what Hood had written the previous November. Instead, Patten draws parallels between the allegorical figure of Nell with Bunyan’s treatment of Christian at Vanity Fair, “which Dickens had known since childhood and already made use of in Oliver Twist”. (Patten, 59) In the evolution of the “allegorical” description of Nell, Dickens had from the very beginning desired and destined for her to be a figure separated from the world, even if it was Hood who introduced “allegory” into the vocabulary for discussing the type of figure Nell is. Dickens was, I shall demonstrate, from the beginning, conscious of creating an allegorical child figure and used it consistently to convey the idea of Nell as a figure separated from her less-than-ideal environment, requiring to be “over-particularly-taken-care-of”.

To understand Dickens’s purpose in setting up Nell as a symbolic figure, the several options in a standard dictionary definitionof "allegory" offer a framework ("allegory, n." OED Online):

1. The use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; symbolic representation. Also: the interpretation of this.
2. A story, picture, etc. which uses symbols to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; a symbolic representation; an extended or continued metaphor.
3. A character or figure that symbolically represents someone or something else; an emblem, a symbol.

Dickens engages with these definitions on several levels in his conceptualization of Nell. Lifting the salient terms from the three definitions, an allegory involves the use of a “story”, “picture”, “character”, “figure” or “emblem” to “convey” or “represent” a “hidden or ulterior meaning. As noted above, Dickens’ words in text gradually evolve, through collaboration with his reviewer and illustrator, to represent Nell as an allegorical figure of alienation. The more visually symbolic elements within the allegory, the two key illustrations of Nell, also “convey a hidden or ulterior meaning”, according to the definition of allegory. These two principal images of Nell encapsulate Dickens’s artistic vision and thus deserve closer scrutiny. They were developed by their illustrators in close consultation with Dickens, as evidenced in the latter’s detailed instructions regarding their conceptualization. They are also unmistakably central iconographic elements in their placement within the novel. The first image appears in Chapter One and the second appears in the seventy first (out of seventy three) chapter, thus bookending the novel

Nell is respectively asleep and dead in these two illustrations that frame the story. 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 (see Figure 1), 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.

Description: The Old Child in Her Gentle Slumber
Figure 1: The Child in Her Gentle Slumber/Samuel Williams

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

That this uncomfortable scene seems a projection of dark male fantasy is not confined to these awful objects alone. The figure of the sleeping Nell actually exists entirely in the imagination of the novel’s narrator, haunting the dreams of Master Humphrey, who pictures the sleeping Nell as “the only pure, fresh, youthful object” among “a crowd of wild grotesque companions” (OCS, 20). While the crippled and aged Master Humphrey is probably not a figure whom readers would expect to exude erotic energy, the fact that the image of the sleeping Nell is so much dictated and organized by the male vision speaks of her disadvantaged position within the male-dominated world. It underscores a version of childhood she embodies that is vulnerable, innocent and in need for protection.

Nell is the archetype of the child who is “not-over-particularly-taken-care-of”, as a result of her “holding her solitary ways among a crowd of wild grotesque companions” (OCS, 20), as well as her representation as the young and ideal female figure amidst an oppressively male-centered world. I think that the constant depictions, whether in Dickens’s text or Williams’s iconography, of the separateness of Nell from her oppressive and threatening surrounds, underscore the dangers an innocent child faces in the real world. The representation of Nell as the allegory of “the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng” (OCS, 20) and the underscoring of her status as an unprotected female within a crowd of oppressive masculine energy has autobiographical resonances for Dickens.

The figure of the young and unprotected child is akin to Dickens’s self-portrait – a figure that is sensitive and isolated, and set apart from his environment. This figure is marginalized not merely because of his youth and isolation, but also because of his vulnerable femininity, or to put it in another way, his lack of masculine energy. As I have already discussed, Dickens’s poor health as a boy barred him from engaging in more masculine sport, and he had to keep indoors reading, within the domestic sphere of the feminine. In summarizing his portrait of Dickens as a child, Forster writes of him as a “sensitive, thoughtful, feeble-bodied little boy, with an amount of experience as well as fancy unusual in such a child ”. (Forster, 9) The figure of the marginalized child needing protection from the rougher aspects of the world is repeated numerous times throughout Dickens’s career, most significantly in his most autobiographical novel David Copperfield. There, the eponymous character’s constant worry of “feeling young” signifies that he is in a treacherous world with characters cannier than him constantly attempting to take advantage of his naivety.

The fear of being “unmanned”, so to speak, is a concept that fascinated Dickens during long periods of his writing career. In the fragment of autobiography which he wrote for Forster at about the same time as David Copperfield, he describes his hard experiences in childhood returning to haunt him in adult life in the following terms:

“I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life." (Forster, 19 - my italics)

To forget that one is a man when recalling one’s childhood trauma can of course mean that the adult has forgotten that he is grown up, whenever he is drawn back into the childhood experience. However, in light of Dickens’s preoccupation with vulnerable, sensitive and feminine figures oppressed by male energies in his representations of Oliver, Nell and his own childhood, it is tempting to read the lament of “forget[ting]…even that I am a man” as signifying a threat to the person’s masculinity. I would therefore suggest that the figures of Nell, Oliver and the young Dickens himself – unprotected, “green”, sensitive and oppressed by the masculine forces around them – are Dickens’s allegories of the child figure who are separated from their environments and not “over-particularly-taken-care-of”. This is a figure which he memorializes repeatedly in both his fictional and more autobiographical writings.

The second key illustration of Nell, At Rest by George Cattermole, is more overtly a memorial, as suggested by its title (see Figure 2). Here, Nell is again asleep in bed, but it is a sleep from which she will not awaken here on earth. She is truly separate from the world, and instead, belongs to heaven, as the narrator and all the other grieving characters remind us repeatedly. Like the first illustration of Nell asleep in the curiosity shop, the objects surrounding Nell in this second engraving also contribute to her separation. In the earlier illustration, Nell is distinctively apart from the worldly objects around her. In the second illustration, the religious iconography around the dead Nell indicates that her rightful domain is in heaven.

Description: At Rest (Nell dead)
Figure 2: At Rest/George Cattermole

Lying dead within a ruined building, in a country churchyard many miles from London, Nell is as far removed as possible from the real world. The rich religious symbols about Nell means she is no longer encumbered by the fallen world – next to her pillow lays a sprig of holly, her right hand rests on the Holy Book, underscoring her purity, and on her headboard is a scene of the Virgin Birth. Unlike the oppressive objects in the first illustration, which jar with the sleeping Nell, the religious icons in the second illustration are consonant with the dead Nell, bestowing upon her an air of otherworldliness.

It is because Nell is set apart from the world that she can become an object to memorialize. It is comforting for those remaining in the world that the dead innocent child has gone to a better place. This is the premise of the consolation literature of the nineteenth century, a time with a high child mortality rate. As Patricia Jalland asserts, such consolation writings, often in the form of religious tracts, were “used by many mourners in their attempts to find meaning on the deaths of their children”, where they provided bereaved parents with the comforting thought that “a benevolent God had removed their children early from an unhappy world of pain, sin, temptation and doubt” (Jalland, 122-3).

For Dickens, the memorialization of the ideal and vulnerable child, now in heaven, works in two directions. Not only is she the object to which the remembrance of those remaining in the world is directed towards, but the figure of the dead child, now belonging with the angels, also bestows her blessings upon those on earth. After describing the burial of Nell, the narrator reflects on a “universal Truth” such deaths will teach: “When Death strikes down the innocent and young, from every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it” (OCS, 543). The figure of Nell, as an object to direct one’s remembrance upon as well as a giver of blessings, has yet another personal resonance for Dickens during the composition of The Old Curiosity Shop.

Just four years before the composition of Nell’s death, Dickens lost, very suddenly, a close relative he always thought of as the ideal representative of the pure and innocent girl. His dear sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, only seventeen, fell unaccountably ill after returning home from a theatrical performance with Dickens and his wife Catherine, dying the next day on 7 May 1837 in Dickens’s arms. Dickens’s grief at her demise was extreme. He took a ring from Mary’s finger and wore it for the rest of his life. As if that was not sufficient to make Mary seem like his actual wife, Dickens expressed a wish to be buried next to her when his time came to die. In the immediate aftermath of Mary’s death, Dickens was unable to work, for the first and only time in his life. Disrupting his writing by a couple of weeks, there was no June instalment for either Oliver Twist or The Pickwick Papers in 1843. While these were the drastic reverberations of losing a very dear loved one, it was Dickens’s epitaph for Mary that is more revealing in how he represents and negotiates the demise of an idealized loved one. We can also draw parallels between the epitaph as a memorialization of Mary, and the iconography in The Old Curiosity Shop as a remembrance of Nell.

The epitaph that Dickens composed for Mary’s tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery, with its sincere and simple wording, is a touching memorial for a girl who departed the world too prematurely:


 Description: C:\Users\Jack Tan\Desktop\Unnatural Children conf images\9366_113422564302[1].jpg Description: C:\Users\Jack Tan\Desktop\Mary_Scott_Hogarth's_tombstone detail.jpg
Figure 3: Mary Hogarth’s tombstone, and the detail of Dickens’s epitaph for her

With the comforting thought that Mary’s spirit has been received into the company of a merciful God, the epitaph serves a similar purpose to consolation literature for bereaved parents. Described as “young, beautiful and good” and being numbered as one of God’s angels, the idealized figure of Mary is also like Nell, a blessing on those who mourn her loss. 

The depiction of Nell’s demise is coloured by memories of Mary’s death. Not only does the description of Nell’s funeral bells echo the terms of Mary’s epitaph, ringing “its remorseless toll for her, so young, so beautiful, so good” (OCS, 541), but Dickens consciously recalled Mary’s death when writing about Nell’s demise. In a letter to John Forster on 8 January 1841 (the weekly part containing Nell’s death appeared in print on 30 January), Dickens revealed the agonizing memories of Mary’s death he brought to mind as he “fictionally” killed off Nell: “Old wounds bleed afresh when I only think of the way of doing it…Dear Mary died yesterday, when I think of this sad story. (Dickens, Letter to John Forster, 8 January 1841.) Dickens then proceeds in the same letter to reveal a fascinating insight into how he works autobiographical details into his fiction. When he tells Forster “I am afraid of disturbing the state I have been trying to get into, and having to fetch it all back again”, he allows his friend a glimpse into the very deliberate, and undoubtedly painful frame of mind he has forced himself into for the sake of his art. The real purpose however, of Dickens’s memorialization of the dead Nell and Mary, within the interplay of autobiographical motives and fictional representation, serves as an elegy for the two prematurely-dead idealized girls.

In a description of Nell’s legacy in the final paragraphs of the novel, she appears as a “young, beautiful and good” figure within a story told to children. In the story, the children were taught that “she had gone to Heaven, as all good people did; and how, if they were good like her, they might hope to be there too one day” (OCS, 554). Like Mary, Nell is, in Dickens’s imagination, too ideal for the fallen world that is not over-particular with taking care of her. They are rightly separated, belonging to heaven and memorialized by Dickens.

In terms of Nell’s iconography and Mary’s epitaph as emblems for memorialization, further parallels can be drawn between the two when we consider them both as tableaux of stillness. The final illustration of the dead Nell is given a frozen-in-time quality by Catherine Robson, who describes this image as “the novel’s closing tableau of Nell’s deathbed”. Robson uses the two key images of the sleeping/dead Nell as focal points for the girl’s stasis, highlighting her dominant quality of stillness in the novel. Robson asserts that there are “no significant variations in [the two illustrations’] renditions” of the sleeping/dead Nell and her “journey toward the bed of death from the equally still bed of sleep”, making her “apparent movement” during the course of the novel “an illusion”. (Robson, 88) Robson claims that Dickens “insists upon his heroine’s inertia” to cancel out any sexually suggestive movements of a young female figure.  My assertion on the other hand, is that the static and unchanging qualities of the two Nell illustrations not only allow them to be fixed and “kept in view”, as Dickens had reminded himself about her, but that they are likened to Mary Hogarth’s tombstone, which is also a static emblem of memorialization.  The two Nell illustrations and Mary’s tombstone are all fixed markers, serving to remember idealized girls who are “young, beautiful and good” and thus separate from the rest of the world.

Dickens’s personal mission of the setting apart of an idealized girl in a tableau of memory is also apparent in the figure of Agnes Fleming, Oliver Twist’s mother. The similarities between the first and final appearances of Nell and Agnes in their respective novels are striking. Nell is introduced as the lost girl in the labyrinthine city trying to find her way home. Agnes similarly wanders the streets agonizingly just before the novel begins, eventually locating the workhouse to deliver Oliver when the novel opens. At the close of their novels, they are each remembered in tableaux which allow those who have been left behind to venerate them. Nell’s religious icon-laden deathbed has already been discussed. For Agnes, a white marble tablet bearing her name in the old village church is gazed upon with reverence by Rose Maylie and Oliver, her sister and son, in the final illustration by George Cruikshank (See Figure 4). In other words, Nell and Agnes are both lost at the beginning of their novels, and memorialized at the end.

Description: Rose Maylie and Oliver
Figure 4: Rose Maylie and Oliver/George Cruikshank

This memorialization of Agnes and Nell within the final illustrations of their novels serves as consolation for those who have remained behind. They also confer some degree of immortality to these dead female figures, because they are always kept in view within the religious symbols of remembrance – a tablet in the church for Agnes and a deathbed tableau for Nell. My examination of these fictional characters’ separation from their surroundings draws us back to Dickens’s biographical details that have inspired them. I have asserted that this setting apart of the idealized female figures for memorialization parallels the manner in which Dickens remembers Mary in her epitaph. Under Dickens’s idealizing pen, Agnes and Nell, like Mary, are all figures of good, alienated from the uncaring world. Agnes, though “weak and erring” in her sexual fall, is believed to be good enough, by inference of Oliver’s innate goodness I think, to deserve a memorial in church (OT, 455). Nell is too selfless and virtuous for the perilous real world and is thus removed to a better sphere. They are all characters that are too “young, beautiful and good” and thus “not-over-particularly-taken-care-of” in the fallen world. Therefore, they have been prematurely numbered with God’s angels, a sentiment expressed in Dickens’s epitaph for Mary. The concept of the “young, beautiful and good” female isolated in the real world is evidently also tied to Dickens’s own slightly feminized and delicate childhood self, unable to join in the boys’ rougher play. These neglected figures are set apart and remembered in their idealizing portraits.

I began by making the claim that Dickens’s complex process of memorialization in his two early novels involves separating individuals as subjects for idealization, and giving them new life through their artistic representation. I think it is timely now to formulate a clearer statement about his method of memorializing. In the four images which I have asserted are his emblems of memorialization – the two of the sleeping/dead Nell, Agnes’ white marble tablet, as well as Mary Hogarth’s tombstone, the figures which they each remember are all idealized, static and distinct from the world. By fixing a valorized version of each of them within their respective iconography, Dickens is “keeping them in view” within his art and in this manner taking care of them, by ensuring that their artistic representation remains ideal.

The artistic representation of these “young, beautiful and good” figures is a very conscious or even deliberate attempt by Dickens to memorialize them in response to his personal trauma and loss. Writing about the effect of Mary Hogarth’s death on Dickens’s art, Jerome Meckier asks a pertinent question: “Did death dictate to art, or could the artist overcome life by rewriting it to suit himself?” (Meckier, 116) I think that in the ideal artistic representations of Agnes, Oliver and Nell, Dickens is indeed engaged in a process of rewriting. By setting them apart and memorializing them in their various emblems (principle of Good for Oliver, an allegory of the unprotected innocent child for Nell), Dickens is attempting to give them new life through his art. In Meckier’s words, the artist tries to “overcome life by rewriting”.

The bestowal of new life to an individual through idealized artistic representation is the preoccupation of portrait painters. In fashioning the individual portraits of Oliver, Agnes and Nell in the two novels, Dickens certainly behaved like an idealizing painter. In fact, when projecting the pleasant future life (itself an act of valorization) of Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, Dickens writes as if he were a portrait artist: “I would paint her the life and joy of the fireside circle…I would paint her and her dead sister’s child happy in their mutual love” (OT, 453), repeating the term “paint” in quick succession. That the art of portrait painting in the nineteenth-century also involves idealizing real and familiar subjects is captured in Hartley Coleridge’s words, who claims that “A portrait painter, idealise as he will, can only paint the sort of people that exist in his time.” (Coleridge, 205) This statement has special resonance for what Dickens is doing in the two novels – he is fashioning idealized figures of Agnes, Oliver and Nell, based on people close to his heart – Mary and his own vulnerable childhood self.  To add another layer of complexity to Dickens’s method of memorialization in his artistic idealization, he was often aware of exactly what he was attempting to achieve, and he sometimes dropped hints of this awareness.

Dickens was not one known for formulating artistic manifestos, or given to describing his creative process. However, he sometimes refers obliquely to his tendency towards idealization and memorialization in his early career. In Nicholas Nickleby, another early novel which was written between Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, he has the portrait painter Miss La Creevy reveal the modus operandi of her idealizing art:

'I think I have caught it now,' said Miss La Creevy. 'The very shade! This will be the sweetest portrait I have ever done, certainly.'

'It will be your genius that makes it so, then, I am sure,' replied Kate, smiling.

'No, no, I won't allow that, my dear,' rejoined Miss La Creevy. 'It's a very nice subject—a very nice subject, indeed— though, of course, something depends upon the mode of treatment.'  (NN, 119 - my italics)

There are two essential factors that Miss La Creevy requires in order to produce the sweetest portrait – a “very nice subject” and the artist’s “mode of treatment”. Dickens, as a portrait painter in words (including the words he uses to influence his illustrators’ representations), also works with “very nice” subjects (Agnes, Oliver and Nell), with a “mode of treatment” that is idealizing and memorializing.

If the quote above from Miss La Creevy gives an overview of the idealizing portrait painter at work, a discussion in Oliver Twist about the beautifying work of artists throws further light on Dickens’s self-conscious tendency to set apart “very nice subjects” for idealizing treatment. In this scene, the eponymous hero is unaccountably attracted to a pretty face in a portrait, not knowing that he is actually looking at a painting of his dead mother, Agnes:

"Are you fond of pictures, dear?" inquired the old lady, seeing that Oliver had fixed his eyes most intently on a portrait which hung against the wall just opposite his chair.

"I don't quite know, ma'am,” said Oliver, without taking his eyes from the canvas; "I have seen so few that I hardly know. What a beautiful mild face that lady's is!"

"Ah!" said the old lady, "painters always make ladies out prettier than they are, or they wouldn't get any custom, child. The man that invented the machine for taking likenesses might have known that would never succeed; it's a deal too honest, -- a deal," said the old lady, laughing very heartily at her own acuteness (OT, 90).

Mrs Bedwin’s keen perception on the lack of honesty in portrait painting, with the artist rather aiming to produce a flattering and attractive portrait, could well be transposed onto the writer’s art in this manner: “[writers] always make ladies out prettier than they are, or they wouldn’t get any custom.” Her knowing laughter is a moment of Dickensian sly self-reference. It is a canny comment on idealism in novel writing – Dickens’s giveaway about his predilection to idealize his female, and child characters especially in the earlier phase of his career.

It is clear now that Dickens was preoccupied in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop with setting apart and memorializing figures who are beautiful, neglected by the world and not “over-particularly-taken-care-of”. The representation of the isolated and ideal child also includes figures from Dickens’s own life that he attempts to “keep in view” within his artistic portraits, giving them new life and in a way protecting them from the real world, which he imagines to be incompatible with the susceptibility of his innocent and vulnerable figures. The artistic representation of these abandoned and separate figures in his early fictional and autobiographical writings reveals Dickens the burgeoning rewriter and refashioner at work.



1. In a much later letter to John Forster, Dickens writes about his “shrinking sensitivity”: “The never-to-be-forgotten misery of that old time bred a certain shrinking sensitiveness in a certain ill-clad, ill-fed child, that I have found come back in the never-to-be-forgotten misery of this later time.” Charles Dickens, Letter to John Forster, June 1862.


Works Cited

Chris Brooks, Sign for the Times: Symbolic Realism in the Mid-Victorian World. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984. Print.

Hartley Coleridge, Essays and Marginalia. London: Edward Moxon. 1851. Print.

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby. Ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

----------, Oliver Twist. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin Classics, 2002. Print.

----------, The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth Brennan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

----------, Letter to John Forster, 8 January 1841. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 2. Print.

----------, Letter to John Forster, June 1862. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 10. Pilgrim Edition. General editors: Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Print.

----------, Letter to Samuel Williams, 31 March 1840. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965. Print.

----------, Letter to Washington Irving, 21 April 1841. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 2. Pilgrim Edition. General editors: Madeline House, Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965. Print. 

John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall. 1870, 18. Print.

Thomas Hood, from an unsigned review of Master Humphrey’s Clock, Vol. I, in the Athenaeum. In Dickens: The Critical Heritage, ed. Philip Collins. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. Print.

Patricia Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family. New York: Oxford University Press Inc. 1996, 122-3. Print.

Jerome Meckier. “Twists in Oliver Twist." Dickens Quarterly 29.2 (2012): 116.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 11 July 2014.

Robert L. Patten, “The Story-Weaver at his loom”: Dickens and the beginning of the Old Curiosity Shop. In Dickens the Craftsman: Strategies of Presentation ed. Robert B. Partlow, Jr. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press. 1970. Print.

Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Michael Slater, Charles Dickens: A life defined by writing. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. Print.


Jack Tan

Volume 18, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, September 2015

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"Charles Dickens’s Idealized Portraits: Rewriting the child in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop.
" © Jack Tan, 2015
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