The Old Curiosity Shop

old curiosity shopAlmost fifteen years ago, I started to read The Old Curiosity Shop. For some reason, I didn’t get on with it, and I never finished reading it. What a mistake! This time, I’ve finished it, and while it will never be my favorite of Dickens’s novels (Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are tied for first place so far) I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is a study in contrasts, rich and strange, and full of the language and character Dickens excels at.

The Old Curiosity Shop is in some ways a sort of picaresque novel, a bit like The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby. Nell and her disturbed grandfather escape their shop and the clutches of the evil dwarf Quilp, and take to the roads with scarcely a penny. Their wanderings and adventures are more than half of the book, through the English countryside as well as through evil cities. But the picaresque implies a kind of earthly destination, a happy ending. Dickens uses a different model for Nell’s journey:

There had been an old copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress, with strange plates, upon a shelf at home, over which she had often pored whole evenings, wondering whether it was true in every word, and where those distant countries with the curious names might be. As she looked back upon the place they had left, one part of it came strongly upon her mind.

‘Dear grandfather,’ she said, ‘only that this place is prettier and a great deal better than the real one, if that in the book is like it, I feel that we are both Christian, and laid down on this grass all the cares and troubles we brought with us; never to take them up again.’

Nell’s journey with her grandfather is much more like Bunyan’s work than Nicholas Nickleby’s rattletrap journey. They visit the equivalent of Vanity Fair (a racetrack), the Palace Beautiful (a schoolmaster who helps them and shows them the beauty of a loving and faithful death), the Doubting Castle (a terrible city wreathed in eternal flames). The most important part about this model, however, is the destination: it is heavenly rather than earthly, across the River Death. Nell’s death is forecast almost from the beginning of the book: if she is Christian, then we know where she’s going.

There are two kinds of language in this novel. One is the language Dickens uses to talk about Nell (and the English countryside):

The sky was serene and bright, the air clear, perfumed with the fresh scent of newly-fallen leaves, and grateful to every sense. The neighboring stream sparkled, and rolled onward with a tuneful sound; the dew glistened on the green mounds, like tears shed by Good Spirits over the dead.

Desperate times, neighbors: this is banal, almost on the level of a very bright “how I spent my summer vacation” essay. Now look at this:

‘Oh please come home, do come home,’ said Mrs. Quilp, sobbing, ‘we’ll never do so any more, Quilp, and after all it was only a mistake that grew out of our anxiety.’ […]

‘I tell you no,’ cried the dwarf. ‘If you dare to come here again unless you’re sent for, I’ll have watch-dogs in the yard that’ll growl and bite — I’ll have man-traps, cunningly altered and improved for catching women — I’ll have spring-guns, that shall explode when you tread upon the wires, and blow you into little pieces. Will you begone?’

Nell is all artless prayers, anxiety for her grandfather, simple thoughts, sparkling dew, innocence that never blossoms into adult wisdom — and the language Dickens uses reflects that. But Quilp! Quilp is the strangest, crookedest, most violent, sadomasochistic villain I’ve found in Dickens, or in many another book. He swallows boiling liquids and crunches up hard-boiled eggs, shells and all; he torments men and women and boys and girls and dogs. He is deformed and inhumanly cruel (Dickens uses words like “imp” and “troll” to describe him) and yet he is irresistible to women; his wife is convinced that if she were to die, he could have anyone he wanted. He is rapaciously sexual, even (or perhaps especially) toward the innocent Nell:

‘Ah,’ said the dwarf, ‘what a nice kiss that was — just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!’

Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.

‘Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,’ said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; ‘such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!’

The language Dickens uses when Quilp comes on the scene is vigorous, vivid, electrifying. Quilp meets his end, just as Nell does, but as a reader I was far more moved (though not to tears) by Quilp than by the pale Nell. What a finish!

There are many more wonderful characters in this book: Codlin and Short, the Punch and Judy men; Mrs. Jarley and her wax-works; Kit Nubbles; the grandfather, another Dickens type of the failed guardian, like Skimpole and Micawber; Sampson Brass and his androgynous sister Sally; even the Single Gentleman blows through the pages like a tornado. But perhaps my very favorite minor characters were Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick begins the book as a non-entity, capable of speaking only in phrases from music-hall songs. Later in the novel, however, he proves himself — if not very enterprising or brave — at least kind and generous, and his below-stairs imitation of the good life with the tiny abused servant he light-heartedly calls the Marchioness is well-rewarded.

Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

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10 Responses to The Old Curiosity Shop

  1. Bill from PA says:

    Some years ago, I read all of Dickens’ novels over a few years, in an odd order, starting with Bleak House and moving forward chronologically to Edwin Drood, then moving back to Pickwick and thence forward to David Copperfield. The Old Curiosity Shop, along with its successor, Barnaby Rudge are the ones that I can recall the least about. This one in particular is so completely forgotten that, other than the bit about Nell’s wanderings, your review doesn’t really evoke any memories in me.
    I think knowing of the death of Little Nell (thanks for the spoiler, Oscar Wilde!), or, more significantly, its acting as sort of marker of taste between Victorian sentimentality and proto-modernist cynicism, really overshadowed the experience of the rest of the novel for me. I am reminded of a simile Rossini once made: it was like someone had wheeled a cannon into the room and said “At some point I’m going to fire this”, then proceeded to converse with me; nothing said made any impression on me knowing that eventually cannon was going to be fired.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it is true that it’s clear Nell will eventually die, but it apparently wasn’t clear to her Victorian contemporaries. Odd, since there are hints throughout the book. But there are some truly amazing set pieces in it! Well worth reading!

  2. Did your edition have the illustrations? This one, along with Dombey, has the best illustrations – I mean the ones that add the most to the story. They are, as you might guess, heavy on Quilp.

    This novel was a big help for me in understanding Dickens. It is his most purely improvised novel. Dickens generally write episodes having no idea where he was going. Thus the strangeness of Quilp’s villainy, where he is intensely villainous but never does much. Thus the waxworks scene, which seems to foreshadow that Quilp is going to murder Nell! So I found plenty of tension even in that story,

    Completely agree about the Swiveller – Marchioness subplot, an inspired turn.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I had the illustrations — apparently he had several different illustrators working on it, so there were different styles. Very interesting, especially the Nell asleep in the curiosity shop/ Nell lying dead pair.

      Quilp was such an interesting villain. Tormenting everyone, even that big wooden figurehead that he thought looked like Kit. So so so strange.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I have been thinking that I should give Dickens another go. I thought maybe I should start with A Tale of Two Cities since I have read that one before and because I enjoy the French Revolution (though I hear he oversimplifies it), but maybe I should start elsewhere. Any suggestion?

    • Jenny says:

      I love A Tale of Two Cities, but I would really recommend starting with either Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend. They are both just wonderful, and Bleak House feels so modern to me as well, in some ways. Just blew me away.

  4. JaneGS says:

    I read this a long time ago when I was trying to read all the Dickens novels in order, and this is the one that put me off Dickens for years. Although now I think I might appreciate it more, having read Pilgrim’s Progress and having made my peace with Mr. Dickens, the man.

    You have to wonder what dark recess of Dickens’ mind or heart or life Quilp sprang from. Seems like Caliban.

    Thanks for a review that has inspired me to reconsider Curiosity Shop!

    • Jenny says:

      What a good comparison, Quilp and Caliban! And the language, too, I think is Shakespearean, in some ways. There’s a line about “not a stumble against a cobweb” that just struck me exactly that way.

  5. Of course I’m glad you’re reading another Dickens novel. I have always found this the most challenging, the one book where I believe that Dickens loses control of his narrative in the white heat of his emotions. I haven’t read it, however, in more than ten years, and I wonder whether my greater maturity may lessen my Wildean reaction to its overt sentimentality. I’ve been reading much Victorian social history in the last two years, and have learned how much more value Victorians (and Americans) placed on sentiment in the middle decades of the 19th century (think of Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the most direct influence that Nell had on a famous work of literature). But Dickens started this book without any idea that he would be writing a novel, and it shows both the limitations of having no plan, but also contains brilliant comic moments that you and other commenters have mentioned. Quilp is certainly among his great grotesques (and one of Dickens’s few truly sexual beings), and Swiveller and the Marchioness are, beneath their outward silliness, fundamentally good at heart.

    So, once again, kudos for keeping Dickens on the front burner and introducing or reminding your readers of Dickens’s singular greatness, even in his lesser works.

    • Jenny says:

      If you don’t like sentimentality, there’s much else to choose from! I want to ponder the grandfather. The horror of his gambling addiction is truly awful. He might measure up to Quilp as a real villain, just not so showy. And the broken father-son relationships in the book echo each other in interesting ways. It’s quite the book!

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