The uncredited illustration on this postcard1 shows two characters from Charles Dickens' 1840s serialized novel The Old Curiosity Shop. They are two of the main figures in the story — Nell Trent, a beautiful and kind 13-year-old orphan, and Nell's grandfather, who is not given a name by Dickens.
Dickens' cheery tale involves Nell's lonely orphan existence, poverty, gambling, a "hunchbacked dwarf moneylender," destitution, health problems and, ultimately, a lot of death.
But forget all of that for a moment. Why is Nell's nameless grandfather depicted as a zombie in this illustration?
Other depictions of the grandfather are not nearly this grotesque. There is, for example, this circa-1930 painting by Harold Copping in which the grandfather at least looks alive. And here's an 1888 photogravure by Felix O.C. Darley.
I am not the only one to wonder about this illustration. Back in May, Jenny Provenance of the Provenance and Pilgrimage website wrote about finding one of these postcards under odd circumstances.2 She called it "one of the creepiest images I have ever seen."
I do have a non-zombie theory for this illustration, but it involves a spoiler for the book.
*** 175-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT ***
The Old Curiosity Shop concludes with penniless Nell falling into poor health and dying after she and her grandfather have made a long and difficult journey to evade the dwarf and other Dickensian villains. Her grandfather, beset with dementia, refuses to admit she is dead and sits every day by her grave waiting for her to return. Eventually, he dies too. Fade to black.3
So here's my thought for how this illustration could work: It's supposed to be Nell's ghost, sitting silently beside her grandfather as he waits, catatonic and near-death, by her grave.
I'm sure that's not the case, but it's much more poignant and could help to explain why Nell looks so robust here, when she was the first die.
1. The postcard is in good condition and has never been written on or used. The reverse side is generic, with no publisher or signature mark. My broad guess on a year of publication would be 1920 through 1950, with the earlier part of that range more likely.
2. The circumstances involve ephemera of a girl holding a chicken, which is awesome.
3. This ending was NOT well-received. Critics skewered the over-angelic character of Nell and her death. Angry readers destroyed their copies of the final serialized chapter to express their displeasure with the conclusion. This came after there had been a great deal of excitement leading up to the conclusion. According to Wikipedia:
"The hype surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens fans were reported to have stormed the piers in New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the final chapters in the United Kingdom), 'Is Little Nell alive?' In 2007, many newspapers claimed that the excitement at the release of the last instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."