A Cool Proposal by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 x 4 ¼ inches (7.5 x 11 cm). — Chapter 7, The Old Curiosity Shop, Part Five. Date of original serial publication: 6 June 1840. Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 8, 117. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Context of the Illustration: An Immodest Proposal

"Dick!" said the other, returning to his seat after having paced the room twice or thrice, "will you talk seriously for two minutes, if I show you a way to make your fortune with very little trouble?"

"You’ve shown me so many," returned Dick; "and nothing has come of any one of ‘em but empty pockets —"

"You’ll tell a different story of this one, before a very long time is over," said his companion, drawing his chair to the table. ‘You saw my sister Nell?"

"What about her?’ returned Dick.

"She has a pretty face, has she not?"

"Why, certainly," replied Dick. "I must say for her that there’s not any very strong family likeness between her and you."

"Has she a pretty face," repeated his friend impatiently.

"Yes," said Dick, "she has a pretty face, a very pretty face. What of that?"

"I’ll tell you," returned his friend. "It’s very plain that the old man and I will remain at daggers drawn to the end of our lives, and that I have nothing to expect from him. You see that, I suppose?"

"A bat might see that, with the sun shining," said Dick.

"It’s equally plain that the money which the old flint — rot him — first taught me to expect that I should share with her at his death, will all be hers, is it not?"

"I should said it was," replied Dick; ‘unless the way in which I put the case to him, made an impression. It may have done so. It was powerful, Fred. "Here is a jolly old grandfather" — that was strong, I thought — very friendly and natural. Did it strike you in that way?"

"It didn’t strike him," returned the other, "so we needn’t discuss it. Now look here. Nell is nearly fourteen."

"Fine girl of her age, but small," observed Richard Swiveller parenthetically.

"If I am to go on, be quiet for one minute," returned Trent, fretting at the slight interest the other appeared to take in the conversation. "Now I’m coming to the point."

"That’s right," said Dick.

"The girl has strong affections, and brought up as she has been, may, at her age, be easily influenced and persuaded. If I take her in hand, I will be bound by a very little coaxing and threatening to bend her to my will. Not to beat about the bush (for the advantages of the scheme would take a week to tell) what’s to prevent your marrying her?"

Richard Swiveller, who had been looking over the rim of the tumbler while his companion addressed the foregoing remarks to him with great energy and earnestness of manner, no sooner heard these words than he evinced the utmost consternation, and with difficulty ejaculated the monosyllable:

"What!" [Chapter VI, 117-18]


Dick rebels against the notion of marrying a mere thirteen-year-old, but his devious friend suggests a three- or four-year engagement, by which time Grandfather Trent's heiress would be eighteen — and Trent himself might be dead. What his "cool proposal" involves is forcing Nell into a secret marriage with his friend Dick in order to secure control of her inheritance when the old man dies. Phiz in his image of the plotting older brother reinforces the pimply malcontent's moodiness and general surliness, as exemplified by his tassled walking-stick as a symbol of privilege and domination. His wearing his hat indoors may suggest his sense of entitlement. Apparently he left his administrative situation in the sugar-producing colony of Demerara (British Guiana) because he felt that running a slave-plantation was beneath him.

By this point in the story the reader has concluded that Grandfather Trent has no hidden resources, and that both Fred and Quilp are utterly mistaken in their assessment of the old man's fortunes. Indeed, shortly Quilp will have to foreclose as Trent has defaulted on his numerous loans, made to support his gambling addiction. The dorder of the bachelor rooms of Dick Swiveller near Drury Lane imply a dissolute lifestyle — and the young clerk's precarious finances.

Other Illustrations of Dick Swiveller and Fred Trent (1872, 1876, & 1910)

Left: Harry Furniss's initial realisation of the young wastrels: Fred Trent visits his Grandfather (1910). Right: Thomas Worth in a markedly realistic manner depicts the general untidiness of Dick's rooms and his lifestyle in general in "Whether he lives or dies, what does it come to?" (1872).

Charles Green, a member of the team of 1860s illustrators who worked on the Household Edition, illustrated the same scene in a markedly realistic manner in The old man sat himself down in a chair, and, with folded hands, looked sometimes at his grandson and sometimes at his strange companion (1876, Ch. 2).

Related Resources Including Other Illustrated Editions

Scanned image by Simon Cooke; 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.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), George Cattermole, and Daniel Maclise. London: Chapman and Hall, 1841. Rpt., 1849 by Bradbury and Evans (3 vols. in 2).

Created 10 May 2020

Last modified 11 November 2020