Friday, April 4, 2008

Old Curiosity Shop curiosities

Edgar Allan Poe, in his review of The Old Curiosity Shop, takes a good crack at a common misunderstanding of Dickens:

"There are other admirably drawn characters - but we note these for their remarkable originality, as well as for their wonderful keeping, and the glowing colors in which they are painted. We have heard some of them called caricatures- but the charge is grossly ill-founded. No critical principle is more firmly based in reason than that a certain amount of exaggeration is essential to the proper depicting of truth itself. We do not paint an object to be true, but to appear true to the beholder. Were we to copy nature with accuracy the object copied would seem unnatural." (Essays and Reviews, Library of America, p. 215)

The minor characters of Dickens are almost always as vigourous as anyone else's full-rounded major characters. It takes so little, in the right hands, to breathe life into a fictional character - the right gesture, the right phrase.

Quilp the dwarf has an unnamed errand boy with two characteristics: he is the only person who can talk back to Quilp with impunity, and he walks on his hands at every opportunity. Is he a one-dimensional character, or does this count as two dimensions? Regardless, in the novel, in the imagination, he lives.


Poe's conclusion, after a lot of perfectly legitimate dismantling of the novel's structure: "Upon the whole we think the 'Curiosity Shop' very much the best of the works of Mr. Dickens. It is scarcely possible to speak of it too well." (p. 217)

I doubt many Dickens readers would agree today - as I argued earlier, the taste for sentiment has probably receded too far. Even among the early novels, most would now prefer the more clear-eyed Pickwick Papers, or more unified Oliver Twist. We also have some idea of the masterpieces to come, which must affect our judgment.


The Old Curiosiy Shop was published in weekly installments. The first stage adaptation appeared almost immediately, not only before the story had ended, but almost before it had begun - before, as an example, Dickens had even introduced the villain, Quilp. So the contemporary reader, after enjoying the latest installment of the novel, could then go to the theater to see a completely different story (I think a sort of drawing room mystery) with the same title and two or three of the same characters.

The play was popular and ran the length of the serialization of the novel. At some point, it was rewritten to arbitrarily insert more of the characters from the novel, but the story was never changed. Very strange.


Dickens' own performance of the end of the novel was one of his showstoppers when he did public readings. The audience, weeping and sobbing, would get an hour of The Death of Little Nell, followed by a seventy minute Christmas Carol, to cheer them up.

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