Monday, March 31, 2008

Charles Dickens and The Old Curiosity Shop - a place to live and learn to die in

The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was Dickens' fourth novel, and his fourth straight bestseller. It's reputation is not high now. Oscar Wilde's quip - "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing" - did its damage. This book is Exhibit A in the case against Dickens the sentimentalist.

Part I of the story: Little Nell, thirteen years old, lives in an antique shop with her elderly, senescent grandfather, who is, unfortunately, a gambling addict, in debt to a malignant, insane loan shark. The loan shark forecloses, and Nell and her grandfather wander off into the English countryside.

Then, in alternating sections, Part II A: Nell and her grandfather have a series of - not adventures, exactly - encounters in their search for an idyllic new home, which, with the help of kind strangers, they eventually find. The world, however, has been too much for poor Nell.

And Part II B: Sprightly young fellow Kit and lazy young idiot Dick Swiveller have a series of run-ins with the insane loan shark and his sycophantic attorney. All’s well that end’s well.

Kit was the errand boy of the grandfather. Swiveller was a friend of Nell’s older brother. The connection between II B and the rest of the book is tenuous, sometimes less than tenuous, although it’s stitched together in the end. In Dicken’s notes for the end of the book: “Keep the child in view”. He had to remind himself.

The structure is a mess. But so is that of The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. That's not the problem. This is:

This is, literally, the end of the book. Edgar Allan Poe in his review of the novel: "In conclusion, we must enter our solemn protest against the final page full of little angels in smock frocks, or dimity chemises." The Old Curiosity Shop is a purposeful novel, meant to provide comfort to people who have lost a child, meant to provoke tears.* Many readers have grown suspicious of this sort of thing; those who have not seek out the effect in more current books and movies.

My own heart, it turns out, is made of stone, since rather than laugh, I was moved by Nell's death and her grandfather's grieving, despite the fact that neither character is especially interesting and both are, of course, imaginary. But Dickens was affected by her death, or convinced me that he was. My sympathy was with him.

The Old Curiosity Shop is Minor Dickens. The rest of the week at Wuthering Expectations: the great pleasures of Minor Dickens.

* 'A peaceful place to live in, don't you think so?' said her friend.

'Oh yes,' rejoined the child, clasping her hands earnestly. 'A quiet, happy place--a place to live and learn to die in!' She would have said more, but that the energy of her thoughts caused her voice to falter, and come in trembling whispers from her lips. Ch. 52.


  1. How interesting. I've been persuaded by a friend to read Dickens again, after having been scarred by the experience of Hard Times at school. I'm reading Great Expectations and finding it much better than I expected, less sentimental than I anticipated, not mawkish at all, and surprisingly witty. But I guess it's an inevitable trap for those who write melodrama to fall off the edge of the world of reasonable emotions.

  2. It may be worth pointing out that "Great Expectations" was written almost 20 years after "The Old Curiosity Shop".

    As I learn more about Dickens' growth as an artist over time, he becomes even more impressive.

  3. I'm shallow on Dickens - Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Bleak House shallow. I respect his humor and his details and the very breadth of his work. I've seen the Oscar Wilde quote but suspect I'd be moved my Nell's death as well. I will have to try it sometime and see.

  4. Doesn't sound that shallow. The breadth of the creativity of Dickens - that's just it. It's almost unparalleled. Who are his equals? Shakespeare, and who else?

  5. The Old Curiosity Shop is still alive and well in London in Portsmouth St, Holborn, WC2. This shop, built in 1567 out of old ships' timbers, now sells antiques and souvenirs but is claimed to have been the inspiration behind the novel. If you're in the City and interested in Dickens' London, I can highly recommend guided walks around the areas that inspired his novels. Check out Dickens' London on

    Elaine Saunders
    Author - A Book About Pub Names