Dickens was a novelist so popular in his own time that it is nearly impossible to think of a modern analogue today. (Maybe Stephen King.) At the height of his powers, it’s sometimes written, perhaps one in ten Britons had read his novels. One of his most popular books then — though nowadays it falls behind Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and any number of others in name recognition — was The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens’ novels were, as you’ve probably heard before, been published as serials, and when The Old Curiosity Shop was in progress, the fate of its tragic heroine, Little Nell, convulsed both sides of the Atlantic. People wrote Dickens letters demanding that he let her survive. (Spoiler: he didn’t listen to them.)
The intense emotional pull of her plight perhaps explains why the illustration, below, presents Nell as unspeakably beautiful. This illustration is part of a set displayed in a late-19th-century abridgement of Dickens’ work which recently entered the public domain, and is available in the British Library’s photostream. Here are eight of the most beautiful pictures from that stream.
From The Old Curiosity Shop.