Mr. Mell is Dismissed from Salem House by Harry Furniss. Sixth illustration for Dickens's Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield, Volume 10 in the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), Chapter VII, "My 'First Half' at Salem House," facing page 97. 9.2 x 15 mm (3 ⅝ by 5 ⅞ inches) vignetted. Caption: Once more Mr. Mell laid his land upon my shoulder; and then, taking his flute and a few books from his desk, he went out of the school, with his property under his arm.Copperfield, p. 100. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated: Steerforth leads a Classroom Insurrection

"I apprehend you never supposed my worldly circumstances to be very good," replied the assistant. "You know what my position is, and always has been, here."

"I apprehend, if you come to that," said Mr. Creakle, with his veins swelling again bigger than ever, "that you’ve been in a wrong position altogether, and mistook this for a charity school. Mr. Mell, we’ll part, if you please. The sooner the better."

"There is no time," answered Mr. Mell, rising, "like the present."

"Sir, to you!" said Mr. Creakle.

"I take my leave of you, Mr. Creakle, and all of you," said Mr. Mell, glancing round the room, and again patting me gently on the shoulders. "James Steerforth, the best wish I can leave you is that you may come to be ashamed of what you have done today. At present I would prefer to see you anything rather than a friend, to me, or to anyone in whom I feel an interest."

Once more he laid his hand upon my shoulder; and then taking his flute and a few books from his desk, and leaving the key in it for his successor, he went out of the school, with his property under his arm. Mr. Creakle then made a speech, through Tungay, in which he thanked Steerforth for asserting (though perhaps too warmly) the independence and respectability of Salem House; and which he wound up by shaking hands with Steerforth, while we gave three cheers—I did not quite know what for, but I supposed for Steerforth, and so joined in them ardently, though I felt miserable. Mr. Creakle then caned Tommy Traddles for being discovered in tears, instead of cheers, on account of Mr. Mell’s departure; and went back to his sofa, or his bed, or wherever he had come from. [Chapter VII, "My 'First Half' at Salem House," pp. 99-100]

Commentary: Drama in the Classroom at Salem House — Six Figures

Furniss particularizes each of the boys by facial features, relative sizes, and postures, but he quite adroitly makes six figures stand out as immediately recognizable: the brutal, monosyllabic headmaster, Creakle, is enthroned on a desk (left); he adjutant and "voice," Tungay, stands belligerently beside him (left of centre); the real authority figure, big-haired James Steerforth, of large-ego, fine figured and immaculately attired (centre), stands defiantly and smugly watching his victim depart; and, looking down in shame, disgust, and humiliation to the extreme right are the diminutive David and the lean, slightly shabby Mr. Mell. Tellingly, Mell touches David on his shoulder, as if in appreciation for the boy's sympathy. One other boy stands out by virtue of his slightly stunned expression and wild hairstyle: Tommy Traddles, between Copperfield and Steerforth; to further particularise him, Furniss has him holding a slate. By their postures and expressions the remaining dozen boys are not forming a joyous rabble, but with varying degrees of interest and sympathy are rivetted on Mr. Mell's abject figure. The overall effect of the composition is masterful in its pictorial truth to Dickens's text and the author's intention: to reveal through their actions and utterances each of the six principal characters. All we have of the school does not distract us from the central action: a few books on the floor,the teacher's desk beside the departing Mell, a bookcase centre rear, and the bench and table from which the hulky Creakle, switch in hand, asserts his mastery.

The composition's antecedents, the crowded and somewhat chaotic original July 1849 serial steel-engraving and the Household Edition composite woodblock engraving, are evident in Furniss's compositional decision to organize the picture around the figures of Creakle (arbitrary authority), Steerforth (the actual authority), and the vanquished Mell. Furniss has both reduced the number of observers and has subordinated everything to the situational dynamic. Whereas Phiz, for example, had conveyed the energy of the mob and Barnard the dominance of Creakle, Furniss contrasts the attitudes and expressions of each of his principals, and leaves the audience of uniformed schoolboys neutral — and still. A hush falls over the scene as Mell carries off his few small books and flute.

The tense situation in Mr. Mell's classroom from Other Editions (1849 and 1872)

Left: Fred Barnard's Household Edition study of Creakle's intervening against the teacher: "Let him deny it," said Steerforth. (1872). Right: Phiz's original steel-engraving of the classroom confrontation: Steerforth and Mr. Mell (July 1849).

Relevant Illustrated Editions of this Novel (1849 through 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.]


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

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911. 2 vols.

_______. The Personal History of David Copperfield. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. 14 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. Vol. V.

_______. David Copperfield, with 61 illustrations by Fred Barnard. Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1872. Vol. III.

_______. The Personal History and Experiences of David Copperfield. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. X.

Hammerton, J. A., ed. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the the Dickens Illustrations. London: Educational Book, 1910.

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.

Created 4 March 2022