Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

December 9, 2010

The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens (Oxford, 1991) [1841]
555 p.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written immediately after the wonderful Nicholas Nickleby, and the two books bear a certain resemblance to one another. They are both “road novels”, their plots sustained by a recurring fresh supply of colourful characters. Both are graced by the presence of a memorable villain, though Nicholas’ Wackford Squeers takes the palm over Little Nell’s Daniel Quilp; Quilp is just a little too leeringly grotesque to really be convincing. Both have brave but embattled young men near the center of the story (Nicholas, obviously, and Kit here). Both are good stories.

A notable difference between the books is that while Nicholas is straightforwardly about Nicholas, The Old Curiosity Shop has surprisingly little to do with the shop. I do not know whether Dickens intended it or not, but the impression this reader had was that, once the first few chapters had been shaken out of Dickens’ sleeve, the story overpowered the author, heaved him out the door, and carried him far, far away from the dusty curio shop where it had been born. Even Quilp, the one character who still has access to the shop, stops going there. In one sense this seems like poor planning, but in another it is a testament to Dickens’ open-handed exuberance. He is not likely to turn his back on an intriguing stranger, even one who only happens to be wandering by, and the resulting story blows where it will.

At least to some extent. I don’t mean to imply that the book is like a hodge-hodge of knick knacks strewn about an old curiosity shop. There is evidence of planning on Dickens’ part; even when it seems that he has forgotten about Little Nell and her grandfather, the stage has been carefully prepared for the big finale. I have read that the memorable ending created a sensation when the novel was first serialized, but the astute reader could have seen it coming: to have his delicate little heroine find rest and peace amid the silent stone tombs of an old, abandoned country church is certainly picturesque, but also more than a little ominous. When the time came for the denizens of the other story-line — Kit, the single gentleman, Mr. Abel, Mr. Garland, and the rest of them — to go dashing off in search of Nell, Dickens decision to summon up black clouds and a winter storm (did you know it was winter?) was broadcasting his intentions rather boldly. When the prose began to turn a gentle rose, then red, then deepen into patches of purple, the fact that he was painting a sunset was clear. Even so, I didn’t find that final scene nearly as objectionable as I had expected based on the chatter that I had, from time to time, overheard.

It seemed at first that the center of the story would be occupied by Nell and her grandfather, but by story’s end I judged that it was actually the ying/yang pair of Quilp and Kit that held the story together, for it was they who stitched Nell’s story to the other events in London. After finishing the book, however, I read the “Introduction” which Chesterton wrote for it, and, among other keen insights, he declares that the story really orbits around Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Here, he says, is the heart of normalcy in the middle of all the wildness and colour. It’s an interesting point of view that I will certainly bear in mind if I should someday re-read the book.

2 Responses to “Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Indeed, the famous ending is derided far more than it ought to be (perhaps most famously by Oscar Wilde). The sad truth is that there are many Little Nells out there in the real world, and I think it is important to grasp that Dickens is as socially conscious in this novel as he ever was. In this light it is hard to see the pathos of Nell’s demise as too treacly.

    I think Chesterton was onto something; I’m trying to remember if the introduction in the edition I read was by him: I think not. A similar thing was said there.

    The novel was originally serialised in Master Humphrey’s Clock and it has been conjectured that it was conceived as a short story which then grew into a novel; this explains why the initial narrator (i.e., Master Humphrey) fades away after the first few chapters, and perhaps why the Curiosity Shop also ceases to be central.

  2. cburrell Says:

    First of all, it is really good to hear from you again, Adam. We hope that all is well! I had hoped that this post might elicit a comment from you, and I am well rewarded.

    I did not know that the story began life as a short story, but it makes sense. Anyway, it was a very enjoyable book.

    When I was in London a few years ago, I remember seeing an advert for a ‘Dickensian Walking Tour’ that would allegedly take one to see the Old Curiosity Shop. Hmm.

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