A Game of Cards by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 ¼ x 4 ½ inches (8.5 x 11.4 cm). — Part Seventeen, Chapter 29, The Old Curiosity Shop. Date of original serial publication: 29 August 1840. Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 32, 260. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Context of the Illustration: Nell horrified at her Grandfather's obsession

The child sat by, and watched its progress with a troubled mind.  Regardless of the run of luck, and mindful only of the desperate passion which had its hold upon her grandfather, losses and gains were to her alike. Exulting in some brief triumph, or cast down by a defeat, there he sat so wild and restless, so feverishly and intensely anxious, so terribly eager, so ravenous for the paltry stakes, that she could have almost better borne to see him dead. And yet she was the innocent cause of all this torture, and he, gambling with such a savage thirst for gain as the most insatiable gambler never felt, had not one selfish thought!

On the contrary, the other three — knaves and gamesters by their trade — while intent upon their game, were yet as cool and quiet as if every virtue had been centered in their breasts. Sometimes one would look up to smile to another, or to snuff the feeble candle, or to glance at the lightning as it shot through the open window and fluttering curtain, or to listen to some louder peal of thunder than the rest, with a kind of momentary impatience, as if it put him out; but there they sat, with a calm indifference to everything but their cards, perfect philosophers in appearance, and with no greater show of passion or excitement than if they had been made of stone. [Chapter XXIX, 259-60]

Commentary: Grandfather Trent's Obsession Troubles Nell

In the original serial publication, Phiz provides a realisation of the disreputable characters with whom Grandfather Trent consorts in order to feed his obsession with gambling. His nocturnal gambling with the rogues at The Valiant Soldier, not far from the country town where Mrs. Jarley has set up her waxworks exhibition, recalls his earlier expeditions that led to his ruin and exile. In his more limited series of illustrations for the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), Harry Furniss must have felt the scene important, not merely as a reminder of Grandfather Trent's terrible obsession that has resulted in his losing the curiosity shop and forced him and Nell to flee London, but as preparation for the nocturnal scene in which he robs his own grandchild in order to continue gambling. Under the influence of the card-game, Trent becomes an atavistic creature who has lost all semblance of humanity; indeed, in his study of the phantom thief Dickens anticipates the Freudian Id. Phiz has positioned Nell sitting to one side, fearfully overhearing the gamblers' conversation; Furniss reconfigures the scene so that readers must construct for themselves the anxious expression on Nell's face as her grandfather pours over his hand. His angular posture emphasizes his utter absorption in the game of chance, by which he foolishly believes he can recover his fortune and make Nell an heiress. The darkness behind Trent implies the growing menace that his addiction constitutes, for he will demand that Nell henceforth give him every penny she acquires. Although Phiz's other gamblers, brutish types at best, casually study their cards, the diminutive Trent bends over the table, intent upon both his hand and the meagre pot.

Relevant illustrations from other editions

Left: Thomas Worth in the American Household Edition does not describe the card-game, but its consequences, as Nell's grandfather robs her as she sleeps: Counting the money (1872). Right: Charles Green's dramatic British Household Edition illustration of the grandfather among the cardsharps: The old man stood helplessly  among them for a little time. (1876).

Harry Furniss's less cartoonish illustration focuses on the determined expression of Nell's grandfather in A Game of Cards at The Valiant Soldier (1910).

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, 1841; rpt., Bradbury and Evans, 1849.

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

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

_____. The Old Curiosity Shop. Illustrated by Thomas Worth. The Household Edition. New York: Harper & Bros., 1872. I.

Created 10 May 2020

Last modified 12 November 2020