Almost 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?