For the last few years I have attended a weekly book group entitled Lunch with Dickens which starts each year with a Dickens’ novel – this year’s book was The Old Curiosity Shop which was published in 1841. This is also the 19th century classic on my Back to the Classics Challenge. The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel after the Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and was first serialised in Master Humphrey’s Clock during 1840-41.
The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell and her grandfather who leave London as they are in debt to the dwarf Quilp and set out on a journey without any clear destination. “Forth from the city, while it yet slumbered, went the two poor adventurers, wandering they knew not whither.” Nell is very idealistic about leaving London seeing this as an escape and “relief from the gloomy solitude in which she had lived, an escape from the heartless people by whom she had been surrounded in her late time of trial, the restoration of the old man’s health and peace, and a life of tranquil happiness. Sun, and stream, and meadow, and summer days, shone brightly in her view, and there was no dark tint in all the sparkling picture.” However the travellers find out that not everyone they meet is kind and helpful and that there are some unsavoury characters in the countryside too.When we first meet Nell she is described as a child and it is only later in the book that we find out that she is in fact 14. At times she seems very naïve and then at other times quite mature and sensible and able to deal with quite difficult situations. In particular, Nell tries to stop her grandfather from gambling. Dickens portrays this very well showing how this addiction has taken hold of the old man. The old man says at one point, “If I could have gone on a little longer, only a little longer, the luck would have turned on my side. Yes, it’s as plain as the marks upon the cards.”
The descriptions in the book are excellent – the example of the industrial town providing a powerful contrast to the images of the countryside and showing how the industrial revolution affected ordinary people in the Victorian age. When Nell and her grandfather arrive in an industrial town they are helped by a man who takes them to the foundry to spend the night. “In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in the gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants.”
An interesting character is Dick Swiveller who is a friend of Nell’s brother, Frederick who suggests that Dick might marry Nell when she is older as he believes she will come into a lot of money. Quilp too thinks Dick might be useful to him so gets him employment with the lawyer, Sampson Brass. I was pleased that Dick turns out to be better than I had expected although he doesn’t pay his bills. He enters in a little book the names of the streets that he can't go down while the shops are open. He says, "the roads are closing so fast in every direction, that in about a month's time, unless my aunt sends me a remittance, I shall have to go three or four miles out of town to get over the way." This was funny but sad for the small shopkeepers who also had bills to pay. Dick takes pity on the little housemaid employed by the lawyer who is mistreated by his sister Sally. Dick calls this little maid the Marchioness and she is an interesting character. However as Claire Tomalin points out in her biography of Dickens, “he abandoned her halfway through her history, perhaps because Little Nell had to hold centre stage or because he did not know how to develop the Marchioness.”
Overall, I enjoyed the book which has an interesting story line – the reader has to keep reading to find out what happens at the end especially as Quilp is on the chase getting nearer to Nell and her grandfather. There are some interesting characters although some of them seem to be caricatures rather than being real people - this is especially true of the women in the story.Some of the writing was oversentimental, for example the description of the death of the schoolboy. “He was a very young boy; quite a little child. His hair still hung in curls about his face, and his eyes were very bright; but their light was of Heaven, not earth.”
This is a dark and complex novel which deals with a number of themes including poverty, addiction, the abuse of women and death. I was glad that I read The Old Curiosity Shop but I would not class this as one of Dickens' best books.