The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens was his fourth novel, originally published as a serial in his weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. It was said to have been so popular that people clamored to the boats when the last shipment arrived, asking the sailors, who may have read it on the way, what happened to little Nell.
The story involves a girl of thirteen named Nell and her grandfather, who is never named. They live in her grandfather’s shop, which is kind of an odds and ends store. Her parents died long before, and she is content to live with and help her grandfather, even though it is something of a lonely existence for her. She rarely sees anyone her own age except Kit, who works for her grandfather and can make her laugh. Unbeknownst to her, Kit watches for her when she goes out on errands for her grandfather at night until she is safely home in bed.
The grandfather goes out at night as well, but no one knows where for several chapters. Later it is revealed that he has been gambling in order to try to give Nell what she deserves, but he has lost what money they had.
A dwarf named Daniel Quilp has loaned Nell’s grandfather money, and when he can’t repay, he takes over the curiosity shop and makes overtures to Nell about becoming his wife when she is older. He is already married but apparently doesn’t think his wife will live that long. Nell’s grandfather has something of a nervous breakdown, and when he recp0vers sufficiently, Nell convinces him that they should run away, that even if they have to beg for a living, they’ll be freer than they are now. Her grandfather agrees, and since he is weak and still not entirely in his right mind, Nell leads them and makes all the major decisions, at least for a time.
A great deal of the book deals with the different characters and situations they run in to. With Dickens’ penchant for unique characterizations, both good and villainous, you can imagine some of the ups and downs their path might take.
Quilp still seems to think they have a hidden fortune somewhere, so he tries to find them, and then sets his sights on Kit, whom he thinks is hindering him. He sets rather an elaborate scheme in motion to frame Kit for theft and have him imprisoned. The storyline spends a lot of time with Kit for much of the book before tying his situation back to Nell’s.
Meanwhile, someone else who is only called, at first, the Single Gentleman, comes to look for Nell and her grandfather, and it is not until later in the book that we discover what his purposes are.
Some of the quotes that stood out to me in the book:
For your popular rumour, unlike the rolling stone of the proverb, is one which gathers a deal of moss in its wanderings up and down.
There are chords in the human heart–strange, varying strings–which are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch.
In the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a great deal of stretching and adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances.
From the death of each day’s hope another hope sprung up to live to-morrow.
The day was made for laziness, and lying on one’s back in green places, and staring at the sky till its brightness forced one to shut one’s eyes and go to sleep.
“Ahem!” coughed Miss Brass interrogatively.
“Places lie beyond these,” said the child, firmly, “where we may live in peace, and be tempted to do no harm. We will take the road that promises to have that end, and we would not turn out of it, if it were a hundred times worse than our fears lead us to expect. We would not, dear, would we?”
“The invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet…” [I was amused at characterizing buildings as brick and mortar — I had thought that was a modern appellation!]
There is much I like about the book. Dickens characterizations are always rich, and there is a running note of sly irony connected with some of them that is quite amusing. Some sections are very touching. There is a lot of suspense both in what happens to Kit and and in the Single Gentleman’s pursuit. I especially liked how Richard Swiveller grew though the book : he started out as a friend of Nell’s brother, who was a ne’er-do-well who also thought the old man had money and was holding out on him, but the brother, Frederick, only has a small part. Richard, however, reminds me of the “simple” person in Proverbs – naive, easily swayed, in danger of going down the wrong path, but due to the circumstances he goes through, his eyes are opened to a great deal and he becomes a force for good. I could not stand him at first, but he grew to be one of my favorite characters.
But I am mad at Dickens for how the story ended. 🙂 And though Quilp is thoroughly villainous, it was hard for me to take him seriously. Maybe he was a little too villainous. No offense to little people, but I couldn’t comprehend how Quilp could intimidate all these people when any one of them could have taken him down.
But despite those complaints, I enjoyed the book and am glad to have read/listened to it. I had not known anything about it before except that I had heard about it being serialized and people were clamoring to know what happened at the end – understandable, especially when the end didn’t come for 73 weeks.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)