“Dark and dream-like, The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with unforgettable, grotesque characters: Quilp, a demonic dwarf who eats eggs in their shells and drinks boiling rum, a loving grandfather with a terrible gambling addiction, frail but loving Nell and her wicked brother Frederick, corrupt, abusive lawyer Sampson Brass and good-hearted hero Kit Nubbles.
Famously one of Dickens’ most moving tales, The Old Curiosity Shop is also one of his strangest and most memorable.”
I have finally finished reading The Old Curiosity Shop. It was a bit of a marathon and feels to have taken me ages, although in reality it has taken me a month (which is still a long time).
It was first published as weekly parts in Master Humphrey’s Clock and was more successful than any other of Dickens’ previous serials. However, by the time of his death in 1870, The Old Curiosity Shop was consigned to the lower ranks of Dickens’ work on account of its excessive pathos and sentimentality. These days it is a studied text because of the display of “melodramatic imagination and the grotesque, as well as various psychoanalytic and political readings of the social and sexual energies and the death impulses in the novel.”
This is not why I chose to read it. I am trying to read more classics, so after reading one or two ‘modern’ books, I pick up one a little older. A book blogger that I follow is doing something similar, entitled: Classically Challenged. A very apt title, as so many of the classics are a challenge to read. I also had some naive idea that it was actually about a shop filled with curiosities and the people who might frequent it. I was wrong. At its heart, like so many of Dickens’ novels, is a child-heroine who is a victim, an innocent, a figure of unalloyed purity, whose story – like that of Oliver Twist – represents the principle of good surviving through every adverse circumstance, but whose goodness is so pure that it can not survive in the sins and tears of the real world: Nell.
I didn’t really like Nell. I could empathise with her trying to keep her doddery old grandfather away from the increasingly present temptations of gambling, which was the be all and end all of their undoing. They wouldn’t have had to run away if he hadn’t gambled with everything they had and at the merest opportunity, would do it all again in the belief that this time he would win their fortune. She was to good, to pure. And then *spoiler alert* when she died at the end, there were pages and pages of how treasured she was to this, that and the next person. It was all a bit much.
Neither did I really feel anything for Kit. I think he was supposed to be constantly troubled by Nell’s disappearance because he loved her and he desperately wanted to find her, but I didn’t really get that feeling. It could be because he was blatantly flirting with another during his turmoil and then as soon as Nell died he married her and had several children.
The only character I really had any feeling towards was the despicable Quilp. He is quite repulsive, lecherous, sadomasochistic and possessed by a restless, destructive energy. He constantly traumatises his wife, reducing her to a gibbering wreck, for his own enjoyment and likes to cause mischief wherever he can, *spoiler alert* even going so far as to concoct a plot to put Kit in jail for no other reason than he loved Nell and Quilp was under the illusion that Nell and her grandfather were rich and he didn’t want Kit to get the money. He gets his comeuppance in the end by falling in the river and being dragged under by a passing ship, which deposits his body in an appropriate spot full of flotsam and jetsam. He is not a likeable character at all, but it is his meddling and bizarre obsession with Nell that kept me turning the pages. I wanted to know if he would find Nell and her grandfather before the others did, and if he did, what would he do. Sadly the boat kills him before he can.
I also have to mention briefly, Richard Swiveller, who provided the best quote of the book, in my opinion:
“I say,” quoth Miss Brass, . . . “you haven’t seen a silver pencil-case this morning, have you?”
“I didn’t meet any in the street,” rejoined Mr Swiveller. “I saw one – a stout pencil-case of respectable appearance – but as he was in company with an elderly penknife and a young toothpick, with whom he was in earnest conversation, I felt a delicacy in speaking to him.”
I don’t often find Dickens amusing. I’m sure there are jokes in his books, but sometimes the language defeats me. This small snippet redeemed the book a little for me, just at the point where I was beginning to wonder, despite the fact that I wanted to know what happens, if I should give up.
I’m glad I saw it through to the end (I would have missed the untimely end of Quilp if I hadn’t), but it isn’t my favourite Dickens novel. If it really had been about a shop full of odd and old curiosities, and the peculiar and bizarre people who visited it – like the deaf old lady who had a penchant for leaving her false teeth in the helmet of a suit of armour, making it smile – maybe it would have been.