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Death XIII Mary Hogarth

Roman à Clef:

Mary Hogarth


Little Nell


The Old Curiosity Shop

     The unnumbered and by some accounts unlucky 13th card of the Major Arcanum is Death, jointly represented here in the Charles Dickens Tarot by the fictional “Little” Nell Trent and the real-life Mary Scott Thompson Hogarth. Little Nell, aged 13, is Dickens' most representational martyr, containing as she does all the quintessential qualities: a child, a female, an orphan, and an innocent of unfailingly selfless nature almost too good to be true. The angelic Little Nell spends most of The Old Curiosity Shop suffering and on the run, due to her grandfather's gambling addiction and from the sinister Quilp's sexual advances. Having lived a life of desperate servitude, Little Nell falls ill and dies in squalor and misery before salvation can find her.


 The Old Curiosity Shop was immensely popular in its day. So bewitched by the plight of the young girl were the book's followers in America that, when the ship from England bearing the final installment arrived in New York, readers lined the wharf and stormed the ship to find out Little Nell's fate. Since its publication, however, The Old Curiosity Shop has enjoyed less popularity, due in part to its almost anti-narrative structure but also for the very thing which initially drew so many admirers: Little Nell and her somewhat agonized martyrdom. As Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears... of laughter.” Ironically, Dickens' depiction of the girl's deathbed scene goes almost under-reported and, not only could Wilde himself be unstomachably mawkish [cf. The Selfish Giant] but he himself had a sister who died at the age of 9. Born in 1868, Wilde grew up in a world where advances in medicine and sanitation made such deaths much less common, whereas the events in The Old Curiosity Shop are retro-dated to 1825. Possibly on account of the same inconsideration informing Wilde's (admittedly humorous) wisecrack, Little Nell stands as a symbol of Dickens' least modern quality: his saccharine sentimentality.


 Nell's grandfather, echoing King Lear and Cordelia, is unable to accept the girl's death. He sits every day at the girl's graveside, expecting her return, until he too dies and is buried beside her. Dickens gives the location of the grave-sites as within the churchyard of St. Bartholomews Cathedral in Tong, Shropshire. The author's grandmother worked at Tong Castle, and throughout the novel he foreshadows Nelly's final resting place by investing the girl with an almost morbid predilection for churchyards. Though entirely fictional of course, there nevertheless exists to this day, beside the cathedral in Tong, the grave of Little Nell Trent. In the years after its publication, tourists enamoured with the novel began visiting the many real-life locations The Old Curiosity Shop mentions by name. Tong's village postmaster and sometime verger, George Boden, canvassed the villagers for money to buy a headstone, forged an entry in the church registry of burials, and – in a final act symbolic of the mistreatment Little Nell suffers throughout The Old Curiosity Shop - charged curiosity seekers money to look upon her grave.


 Exactly what Little Nell dies from is not made explicit – one rather assumes from general abuse and mistreatment – but, given minor clues in the text, it would appear she died of the same disease which took the life of Dickens' 17-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth - namely: rheumatic fever. Mary Hogarth was a younger sister to Dickens' wife, Catherine Hogarth. He first met her when she was Nelly's age and, within a month after he and Catherine married, the 17-year-old Mary came to live with the newlyweds. Growing ill suddenly, Mary died within hours at the Dickens home. Dickens slipped a small ring from the dead girls' hand and wore it for the remainder of his life. He also had a mourning locket made, filled with her hair. Such keepsakes were common in the Victorian era, and this was very similar to the one Dickens' daughter Mary – named after her late aunt – made with her father's hair after his death. Dickens wrote the epitaph on Mary Hogarth's gravestone and for years later harboured the wish – not unlike Nelly's grandfather - to be buried beside her. For weeks after her death, the restless Dickens – when he finally managed to sleep – dreamt repeatedly of his dead sister-in-law. Perhaps tellingly, these vivid dreams stopped suddenly when he told Catherine, his wife, about them. One such dream, however, which happened later in his life, Dickens recorded. In it, Mary appears to him dressed in blue like the Madonna. He calls her “dear” and asks her, of the world's many religions, which is the true and right one? Perhaps inspired by her Virgin Mary appearance and the fact he was vacationing in Italy at the time, Mary replies that, for him, it is “probably Roman Catholic”.


 Dickens was writing Oliver Twist at the time of Mary's unexpected death. The virtuous and beautiful character of Oliver's 17-year-old aunt, Rose Maylie, is based on Mary. An orphan like Oliver, Rose is also the victim of the novel's evil plotter, Monks. In the novel, Rose falls seriously ill, to the point of death, but Dickens was unable so soon after Mary's death to have a character such as her die, if only fictitiously. Instead, she makes a miraculous recovery. Rose's sister and Oliver's mother was named Agnes, alluding to another character Dickens based in part on Mary Hogarth – Agnes Wickfield, the long-suffering angel of David Copperfield, whom the author comes at long last to recognize as his soul mate and marry.


 The clearest and most self-confessed of Dickens' characterizations of Mary Hogarth, however, is the pure, gentle, beautiful, young, and innocent, Little Nell. Mary had died in Dickens' arms, which he thanked God for, and her last words were of him. When it came time to kill his darling Nell, the effort nearly killed him. He weeped openly while writing the passage. Later, to Forster, he admitted “Old wounds bleed afresh”. With Nelly's death knell, the tolling bells evoke from Dickens the same words he used on Mary's gravestone: “young, beautiful, and good”. Dickens the writer intentionally channeled Mary's death in order to write of Little Nell's - “Dear Mary died yesterday when I think of this sad story” he tells Forster, and “I am afraid of disturbing the state I have been trying to get into, and having to fetch it all back again.” By killing Little Nell, Dickens finally confronts his demons and his feelings - both altruistic and sexual, albeit sublimated - for Mary Hogarth, through a combined act of apotheosis and catharsis. It is also worth noting that Dickens took an almost perverse relish in writing of Nell's tormentor, Daniel Quilp. He astonished and perplexed his friends when he admitted there was much of himself in Quilp, a character who according to the Law commits suicide and is buried at a crossroads with a wooden stake through his heart.


 And this, in a nutshell, is the essence of the Death card. Even though inundated with letters from devoted fans begging him to let Little Nell live, Dickens nonetheless proceeded to kill her. By harnessing in Little Nell his thoughts and emotions for the real-life death of his beloved Mary - and, in Quilp, some of his own less high-minded impulses - Dickens the author created and shared a poignant and immensely resounding work of fiction with his readers. In the same breath, Dickens the man was able through the alchemy of fiction to exorcise what fears and sorrows he had built up not only from his young sister-in-law's untimely death, but also from his childhood remembrances of Warren's Blacking Factory and the growing apathy in his heart for Mary's sister, his wife, Catherine.


 The picaresque quality of Dickens' fiction, which began aptly enough with Pickwick, reaches a turning point with The Old Curiosity Shop. This blood sacrifice, as it were, exhumed from the author's deep subconscious, is the first step on a road which leads to the fictional autobiography of David Copperfield, and a journey of maturity for both writer and reader.


 This metaphorical value of Death, and its real-life necessity, had its own factual and fictitious afterlife. Originally begun as a short story featured in the periodical Master Humphrey's Clock, The Old Curiosity Shop ballooned like the accumulating junk of its antique store title. The story was introduced with the framing device of "Master Humphrey" relating the tale to friends gathered at his house around an old grandfather clock. This first-person narrator was abandoned after the 3rd chapter, and Dickens neglected to rewrite or edit it for subsequent printings, choosing instead to add an after the fact explanation. This literary device, tagged on to the end of the fiction, alludes uncannily to a real-life retroactive continuity. Namely: Charles Dickens met and fell in love with Nelly Ternan when she was 17, the same age Mary Hogarth was when she died. Dickens had first met Mary when she was the Death card's number - 13 - the age of Little Nell when she died and the number of years Nelly Ternan was Dickens' lover before his own death. And in an almost macabre portent, as if added after the fact, the invented name Nell Trent is mysteriously similar to the real-life name Nelly Ternan.



Notes for General Circulation : 


  • Traditionally the unnamed card of the Major Arcanum, Death in the Charles Dickens Tarot goes unnumbered, like the 13th floor of most buildings. It may be noted that a year with 13 full moons instead of  12 was a problem for the monks in charge of calendars as it upset the normal arrangement of church festivals. The solar calendar is also at odds with the lunar calendar, which sees 13 lunar cycles a year, not to mention a woman's 13 commensurate menstrual cycles a year. It may also be worth noting that the 13th card in traditional Tarot decks is the Queen - or here, in the Charles Dickens Tarot, the Mother.  

  • Little Nell's caged parrot represents her incarcerated spirit, and the emancipating aspect of Death, as attended to by the Paraclete. The bird's cage may suggest the human skeletal system, ruled by Capricorn.

  • The disparity between the still, supine body of Little Nell and the clamour of the Old Curiosity Shop's unwanted junk signify the disparity between the soul and inanimate matter. The stockpile of antique keepsakes looming over Nell represent the dangers of holding to the past, to material items as attempted talisman against impending and inevitable Death. These material goods call into question the true nature of gain.

  • The flowers may suggest Rose Maylie, a character fated to die which Dickens was unable to brave.

  • The name Nell, an endearment of the name Ellen, is a homophone for knell - from Old English cnyll - to toll a bell slowly, to resound, to signal, to proclaim, to summon, especially at a funeral.

  • The name Agnes means "pure" and "holy", and is the name of one of the four virgin martyrs; it cognates with the Latin word agnus, meaning "lamb". This suggests the tension built up in the card's background may demand some kind of sacrifice.

  • Little Nell's death is fictional, suggesting metaphysical change and the very real need for transformation. On a deeper level, the Death card suggests a way of clearing away the deadwood, vivifying what has grown lifeless, and letting the dead bury the dead. Deeper still, by surrendering what one holds dear, something greater, more real,  and more sublime is born.

  • That Death is represented by a young woman and girl indicates the card's underlying message of regeneration and fertility, echoed in the card's traditional association with the Hebrew letter Mem, meaning "fountain", "spring", "tongue", and "God's fecundity". This aspect of Mem, meaning in its simplest form "water", associates Death with the zodiacal sign of fixed Water, Scorpio - the region in which spirit, unable to find expression, must remain until it is exorcised through regeneration. In this way, the Death card forms a unique bond with the card bereft of life-giving Water and which, seen backwards, is the past tense of live - The Devil. The nature of this bond is a circuit, one which cannot be broken until Death, like the Phoenix reborn of its ashes, makes its regenerative sacrifice. This may indicate that the interstitial card, Temperance, with its moderation and amelioration, may be misguided or counter-productive. Death is also locked in an almost alchemical bond with the essential card of mutable Water: The High Priestess.


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