Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop

old curiosity shop dickens 6ec4c34b098945a4ac6efe5a4c954faeIt took me one and a half years to read Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.  On Jan. 28, 2014, I blogged after 200 pages:

I love Dickens, but …couldn’t get past the wax works.

(The main characters, Little Nell and her grandfather, briefly travel in a caravan with Mrs. Jarley and help her with her waxworks show.)

I am a fan of Dickens, especially of his dark final novel, Our Mutual Friend.

But his fifth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, is a strange blend of darkness and sentimentality.  It was  hastily scribbled for a literary magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock.

The good news:  The scenes, though plotless and often pointless, are extremely vivid.

The bad news:  The characters are caricatures. The portrait of the child heroine, Little Nell, is mawkish.  Little Nell was created out of Dickens’s excessive mourning for his wife’s 17-year-old sister, Mary Hogarth, who lived with them and who he claimed in a letter to his friend Forster “died in his arms.”  Dickens wore her ring for the rest of his life.

The plot of The Old Curiosity Shop, such as it is, is the disturbing flight of Little Nell and her grandfather.

Little Nell, a very responsible 13-year-old child, takes care of her gambling Grandfather, the owner of the Old Curiosity Shop. He has been bankrupted by a savage dwarf, Quilp, and is now imprisoned in the shop.   Quilp has a weird fixation on Nell, whom he repeatedly terrifies by teasing her with the question if she will be his next wife.  (Quilp does have a pretty wife.)  Nell and her grandfather go on the lam.  They take refuge with kind people along the way, and, most interestingly, with showbiz types, including a pair of Punch and Judy puppeteers and Mrs. Jarley, who owns a waxworks display.  Quilp tries to track Nell and her grandfather, but fortunately the Single Gentleman is also looking for them.  Who will find them first?  Quilp or the Single Gentleman?

Quilp, nell, and grandfather 4The most sympathetic and interesting character is Richard Swiveller, a friend of Little Nell’s dissipated older brother.  Swiveller, though easily manipulated, and placed by Quilp as a clerk to a corrupt lawyer, Sampson Brass, and his tougher, smarter sister, Sally Brass, is very kind and has a good sense of humor.  Dick Swiveller helps an orphan child, who is a kind of shadow of Little Nell, and  nicknames her the Marchioness.  The Marchioness, the Brasses’ maid, has been imprisoned in a kitchen and starved, and Swiveller sends out for food and teaches her to play cards.

The novel ends with several deaths.  I won’t tell you whose, but it really is monstrous.

Fortunately my favorite character survives.

Aldous Huxley said it best when he criticized Dicken’s “really monstrous emotional vulgarity.”

The history of Little Nell is distressing indeed, but not as Dickens presumably meant it to be distressing: t is distressing in its ineptitude and vulgar sentimentality….  Mentally drowned and blinded by the sticky overflowings of his heart, Dickens was incapable, when moved, of recreating, in terms of art, the reality which had moved him, was even, it would seem, unable to perceive that reality.

I love Dickens, but this one is a disappointment.

In his later novels, Dickens  develops some of the character types from The Old Curiosity Shop into slightly more rounded, sympathetic characters, i.e., the malicious dwarf  is transformed in David Copperfield into  Miss Mowcher, the coy but essentially kind dwarf manucurist, and Little Nell becomes Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, a smart, saucy, crippled child who takes care of her drunken father and supports them as a dolls’ dressmaker.  Jenny takes no nonsense:  her alcoholic father is more manageable than Little Nell’s addicted gambler grandfather.

Jenny Wren and her alcoholic father.

Jenny Wren takes no nonsense from her alcoholic father.

11 thoughts on “Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop

  1. I’ve always loved Dickens – with the exception of this novel, which I hate, and nothing would induce me to read it again. I found all that sentimentality utterly repugnant, and Little Nell drove me to distraction; she was such a little prig and so unbelievably good. And the story was ridiculous, and the descriptions of characters and places well short of Dickens’ usual standards. I’ve always found it hard to understand how the man who wrote Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and all those other wonderful tales, also wrote this

  2. This isn’t a Dickens I’ve read and it’s not one I’m drawn to. If I’m honest, Dickens’ sickly-sweet characters often leave me cold – I prefer it when he’s darker, and I think “Our Mutual Friend” is the one I want to read next.

    • Oh, you’ll love Our Mutual Friend! The Old Curiosity Shop is both horrifying and saccharine at the same time. Not worth reading, and my instinct to abandon it was the right one. But after 200 pages I felt I had to finish it.:)

  3. Thank you for your review. I didn’t like this one either and was astonished that it was so popular in its day. The plot seemed to be picaresque with all the wandering about and meeting different characters. You just know that it isn’t going to end well, and it doesn’t. What’s worse, it is not believable.

    • I know that Americans were waiting at the railway station for the new editions of Master Humphrey’s Clock to read this. It wouldn’t work now!

  4. I have read all Dickens’ novels years and years ago – but although I enjoyed most of them I feel like I’m not a massive fan. I do find many of his characters generally are caricatures which irritates me. I loved Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, the others I remember hardly at all.

    • His later novels are great, his early ones are often very good, but I for one remember nothing about Barnaby Rudge, which is probably a sign not to reread it! The Old Curiosity Shop–ugh!

  5. The people on Inimitable-Boz are reading and discussing it and I wish I had the time and fortitude to read along. I’ll never read it and am grateful for this first clear explanation of the story I’ve seen. Dickens may well have held his sister-in-law in his arms as she died — he was as emotionally traumatic in behavior in life as in art. Yes the sexual angle of Quilp and Nell is fascinating; nor did I know about how Nell’s grandfather was a total failure and irresponsible to boot — one can fail to make money and not be a bad person, but to gamble on top of that becomes too much. I agree this pattern is seen elsewhere: sometimes the older man is the benevolent patriarch (as in Bleak House where Esther Summerson is taken in).

    Remember the ultimate punishment in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is to have to read aloud all of Dickens’s fiction endlessly for the rest of your life with no other companion but an avid listener.

    • Dickens usually manages to bring everything together, and there are some entertaining scenes, but he was so obsessed with making Nell die (he knew he was going to do this from the beginning for commercial purposes) that he didn’t bother with the form of the book! In the epilogue, he tries to justify the grandfather’s gambling by saying it was all for Nell, but throughout the narrative it is clear he is an addict, one night breaking into Nell’s room at an inn to steal her money so he can gamble it away.

      This is the kind of book that the ghastly Dickens fan in Waugh’s book would have been sentimental about!

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