“The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

“The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), with its combination of the sentimental, the grotesque and the socially concerned, and its story of pursuit and courage, which sets the downtrodden and the plucky against the malevolent and the villainous, was an immediate popular success.”

“Little Nell quickly became one of Dickens’ most celebrated characters, who so captured the imagination of his readers that while the novel was being serialised, many of them wrote to him about her fate. Dickens was conscious of the ‘many friends’ the novel had won for him, and ‘the many hearts it turned to me when they were full of private sorrow’, and it remains one of the most familiar and well-loved of his works.”

This was one of five books that we read in 2012 as part of the Dickens bi-centenary celebrations.

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  1. belperbookchat

     /  April 3, 2012

    Towards the end of our discussion of the Old Curiosity Shop, a sheet of paper was circulated so that each person could write just a sentence or two to summarise his/her experience of reading this novel. Although this may seem somewhat ‘vox pop’, it is a genuine attempt to involve all members in the process and to encourage those who are reluctant or lacking time to participate in a reading blog.

    There were 14 people at the meeting and the majority of the group felt positively about the book with a number of people enjoying the comedy of the writing and the characters. A few of us commented on the similarity of themes here with those of his other novels, giving centre stage to the blamelessness of childhood and poverty. One or two members found the excess wordiness lacking in interest and accessibility.

    During the discussion we hit on a proposal to tackle our next Dickens, ‘Little Dorrit’ in the episodic way it appeared to his readers as it was first published. One of us has researched where the breaks were and we will give ongoing comments/thoughts on each episode. Hopefully this will give an authentic reading experience for those daunted by the 700+ pages.

    Comments from group members on The Old Curiosity Shop:

    •If this was a soap opera, it would have been ‘Neighbours’ – whimsical, a bit obvious, but very entertaining. With the exception of Nell, the good eventually prosper and the bad get their just desserts.
    •I loved Quilp, fabulous! So nasty, but brilliant, brought the book alive for me. My first Dickens and enjoyed it more than expected.
    •Not much of a plot really – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey and the events and characters on the way.
    •The good, the bad and the ugly….
    •A ‘road movie’
    •Dickens was obsessed with the abuse of children: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Pip and Estella et al. This novel is no exception as Nell wanders the streets, escorted but not looked after by her granddad.
    •Favourite character? My vote goes to Mr. Codlin – relies upon people laughing to earn his living, yet has to carry his work on his back.
    •I think his characters are so well defined and his dialogue was so pertinent. The characters came alive for me.
    •Couldn’t manage to force myself to read more than a quarter – no bit really gained my interest to make me want to read on.
    •Nell is the ‘moral lodestone’ of the story
    •Some wonderful, inspired writing but also some interminably tedious windbaggery. A few enjoyable comic characters and a bland saintly Little Nell – one of his familiar female characters.
    •Really enjoyed it except for the dip in the beginning of the 2nd half about gardening on graves. Horrifying images of city industry. Humanity is celebrated in a very good satire. Beware selfish brothers trying to marry off their sisters (see also ‘Hard Times’).
    •I was drawn in by the language used to describe the scenery; I loved the imagery created particularly by the countryside.
    •The formula: one or more orphans; an inheritance or prospect of one; duplicitous lawyers; a quest for a better life; the moral poor; many human frailties. Mix up and bake for at least 700 pages.

  2. moirabbc

     /  March 24, 2012

    Regarding the troublesome issue of Nell’s death, I can appreciate the delicious mischief of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, ‘A man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.’ Indeed there is somethingly faintly indecent about the way Dickens wrings the last drop of pathos and sentiment from her demise; also the revulsion he evokes in us by the designs that the hideous Quilp has on the innocent ‘rosy, cosy ‘ Nell.

    The introduction by Peter Preston of Nottingham University in my Wordsworth Classics edition describes how Dickens fretted over Nell’s fate. He wrote to a friend that he was slowly murdering that poor girl and he added, ‘but it must be.’ With the high infant/maternal mortality rate in Victorian England, all of his readers would have seen death at close hand so it would have pressed many buttons. To be fair, Dickens did try to console distraught readers with the schoolmaster’s words at her deathbed and what’s more …..I didn’t laugh at her death.

    I like the way that Dickens doesn’t judge Nell’s grandfather for his gambling addiction and yet doesn’t reveal the tragedy of his story until the closing stages of the novel. I did find the manner of his death more affecting than that of Nell. He cared for Nell as best he could when she was younger and Nell has gradually become his carer, necessary because their only recourse would have been the punitive and dreaded workhouse. However, even with our social services and child protection, there are still today, many children in this country who are the main or sole carer for disabled or mentally ill adults. Nell is genuinely loved and saved from the fate of the poor Marchioness, the abused servant of Sally Brass.

    Dickens plays with the Victorian appetite for the odd and freakish by placing the virtuous Nell against the old curios (including her grandfather), waxworks, the Punch puppet show, the gothic backdrop of a graveyard and of course the grotesque Quilp. I also enjoyed the redemption of the idler Dick Swiveller.

    Although I found this book took a lot of reading, I feel it was worth persevering for the vivid characters, occasional humour and moral themes that challenge notions of the undeserving poor – notions that are having a renaissance in our present times.

  3. moirabbc

     /  March 22, 2012

    I wonder if any gifted writer or academic would have the chutzpah to edit Dickens as I feel it would be of great benefit in this and many of his other works. The language is padded-out to maximise circulation of the magazine in which it was first published.
    Some of the writing is inspiritional – especially memorable is the death of Quilp when the tide tires of its ‘ ugly plaything’ and deposits his body in the stinking mud. Other passages of this book needed to lie down in a darkened room and amounted to nothing but hackish ballast.

  4. madeleinebbc

     /  March 7, 2012

    On the way to the meeting I was thinking that I liked The Old Curiosity Shop, but was mighty glad when I’d finished reading it. The problem was that because there wasn’t really much of a plot, I wasn’t driven to keep reading. They went on a journey, they met people on the way (who were unfailingly kind to them) and they got to the end. Yes, these people were larger-than-life characters, beautifully described with a few deft strokes, and their adventures were at times hilarious, outrageous, whimsical, touching, and illustrative of many aspects of society, but still – not a

    lot happens.

    The one poignant moment for me was shortly after the fortunes of the two travellers had improved, and Nell started to bring in a steady wage, courtesy of the Wax Works Show, and you realise that the Grandfather is prepared to steal her last gold coin to feed his gambling addiction. I was gutted.. and reminded that the same thing goes on today; the duplicity of the addict, and the inevitability that these people will put their habit before the welfare of the people they claim to care about…

    More than any other Dickens’ novel that I have read (so far!) this one read as a series. It was very much a soap opera, switching between scenes; now Nell/Grandfather, then Kit, now Quilp, now back to Nell. It was great to be reminded of the best comedy moments with the rest of the group at the meeting; Helen’s crush on Quilp, Bill’s admiration of Swiveller and The Machioness, Alan’s drawing our attention to the’closest a Victorian novel got to a sex scene! I wished I’d read it with less anticipation of the storyline itself, and more enjoyment of the text. I intend to do this with our next book.

  5. In Christopher Booker’s lengthy tome, The Seven Basic Plots, he categorises stories under seven different headings. In The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens seems to encompass all of them:
    1) Overcoming the Monster; which they do in defeating Quilp’s machinations.
    2) Rags To Riches; is this not the story of both Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness (my favourite character, later called Sophronia Sphinynx – love child of Quilp and Sally Brass?), as well as Kit Nubbles?
    3) Voyage and Return; Bevis Marks, the single gentleman, Nell’s great uncle, has been abroad for years, and returned a wealthy man.
    4) Comedy; the novel is bursting with comic characters (Quilp himself foremost) and hilarious moments that reminded this reader of many Monty Python sketches!
    5) Tragedy; the death of Little Nell is tragic, of course, but Dickens so seamlessly intersperses pathos with comedy that one is often moved in opposite emotional directions within a sentence even.
    6) Rebirth; as relates to Dick, Kit, Betsy Quilp and the Marchioness.
    7) The Quest; which is where this novel best sits in my reading. Nell and her grandfather go in search of a better life. Unlike Odysseus their quest involves no treasure, but like the rabbits in Watership Down they seek a better place to live, a new home. Their journey doesn’t have quite the dangers of the Odyssey, but is an almost Priestley-like depiction of the state of the nation and its people.
    I loved the book: it made me laugh out loud all the way through, and is one of the funniest novels that I’ve ever read. This is not to say that it isn’t a serious book, dealing as it does with one of Dickens’s recurring themes, that of child abuse, but the author manages all those layers of emotion and comment with a masterly craft.

    Bill Taylor.

  6. madeleinebbc

     /  February 13, 2012

    As Nell and her Grandfather journey on their way, I kept thinking that the next people they meet will be awful; try to rob them, or trick them somehow. But everyone is being so kind… this isn’t the Dickens I came to expect…


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