The Dunce improves the Occasion by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 ¼ x 4 ½ inches (8.7 x 11.3 cm). — Part Fifteen, Chapter 25, The Old Curiosity Shop. Date of original serial publication: 15 August 1840. Master Humphrey's Clock, no. 18, 231. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Context of the Illustration: The Schoolmaster Abstracted

At the top of the first form — the post of honour in the school — was the vacant place of the little sick scholar, and at the head of the row of pegs on which those who came in hats or caps were wont to hang them up, one was left empty. No boy attempted to violate the sanctity of seat or peg, but many a one looked from the empty spaces to the schoolmaster, and whispered his idle neighbour behind his hand.

Then began the hum of conning over lessons and getting them by heart, the whispered jest and stealthy game, and all the noise and drawl of school; and in the midst of the din sat the poor schoolmaster, the very image of meekness and simplicity, vainly attempting to fix his mind upon the duties of the day, and to forget his little friend. But the tedium of his office reminded him more strongly of the willing scholar, and his thoughts were rambling from his pupils — it was plain.

None knew this better than the idlest boys, who, growing bolder with impunity, waxed louder and more daring; playing odd-or-even under the master’s eye, eating apples openly and without rebuke, pinching each other in sport or malice without the least reserve, and cutting their autographs in the very legs of his desk. The puzzled dunce, who stood beside it to say his lesson out of book, looked no longer at the ceiling for forgotten words, but drew closer to the master’s elbow and boldly cast his eye upon the page; the wag of the little troop squinted and made grimaces (at the smallest boy of course), holding no book before his face, and his approving audience knew no constraint in their delight. [Chapter XXV, 230-31]

Commentary: Another Schoolroom Scene

Although Phiz delighted in drawing schoolroom scenes from Ainsworth and Dickens (Mervyn Clitheroe, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and David Copperfield), his sympathies often tend to lie with the rambunctious pupils rather than the tedious teacher. Here the situation is different because the melancholy  schoolmaster is distracted by his concern for the absent little scholar whose penship graces the walls of the schoolroom. A significant addition is Litte Nell herself, apparently concentrating on her sewing even as the unruly lads chafe at their confinement just a few feet from where she sits on the schoolroom's second chair. Phiz supplies the logical details that Dickens leaves out: five hats hanging on pegs, a dunce's cap, a metronome, and a small chalk-board.

Related Schoolboy Illustrations

Relevant illustrations from later editions

Left: Harry Furniss's study of melancholy schoolmaster, dejectedly sitting on his porch as Nell and her grandfather arrive: The Schoolmaster (1910.. Right: Charles Green's less whimsical Household Edition illustration focuses on the schoolmaster's relationship with his class of smockfrock-clad lads in A small, white-headed boy with a sunburnt face appeared at the door while he was speaking, and, stopping there to make a rustic bow, came in. (1876).

Relevant Illustrations from the 1861 and 1888 editions by Darley

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.

_____. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book, 1910. V.

_____. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Charles Green. The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. XII.

Created 10 May 2020

Last modified 12 November 2020