Friday, 5 January 2001

Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 708

Like Dickens' other earlier novels, The Old Curiosity Shop was a huge success at the time, even eclipsing The Pickwick Papers. Today it is much less well liked, for a variety of reasons. When I first read it, I thought it his poorest work, tough now I would not quite say that of it.

The plot is simple. The villainous dwarf Mr Quilp is determined to destroy the virtuous, to bring down whoever he can get into his power. This includes the owner of the shop of the title, a real place which is still a minor tourist attraction. (I work close to it, and there are usually two or three people taking photos outside it.) His innocent, virtuous teenage granddaughter Nell is destined by Quilp to be his second wife (once he has succeeded in hounding the first to her grave). Just as Quilp is about to demonstrate his power over the pair, they flee from London.

The descriptions of the journey of Nell and her grandfather are the best pieces of writing in the novel. They encounter picturesque travellers long since driven out of business by cinema and TV - a punch and judy troupe, stilt-walkers, a travelling waxworks - and these are vividly brought to life, so that they are fascinating even to those of us who are not social historians. (Dickens does the same with Astley's circus in London, visited by another character.)

The outcome is also interesting, for virtue triumphs more because Quilp overreaches himself than through positive heroic action. This is unusual, though Dickens in general pays fairly perfunctory attention to plotting. The discovery of the villain's plots is quickly followed by his destruction in an accidental fire - dramatic, if far fetched. The virtuous characters, which can, I think, include the good at heart but weak Dick Swiveller, are very passive; this is again unusual but has several parallels throughout Dickens' writing.

The novel has two closely related structural defects. It was not, apparently, conceived as a novel from the very start, and this makes its beginning very slow. It was originally meant to be the first of a series of impressions rather like Sketches by Boz. This is where the first chapter is coming from, in which a narrator absent form the rest of the novel visits the shop; he is Master Humphrey, and the name of the journal in which the serial appeared was Master Humphrey's Clock. Even when the novel itself begins, it is a long time before the plot starts to move.

The novel has its most famous scenes near the end - the death of Quilp and the death of Nell. The latter, which was for a long time the best known piece of nineteenth century fiction, doesn't take place until the seventieth chapter. It is obvious what is going to happen almost from the beginning of the novel; Nell seems to have been conceived as an illustration of the phrase "too good for this world". The death itself is very sentimental, which is both why it was popular at the time and why it has become less appreciated. It is an admirable piece of writing, all the more so for not appearing to be calculating in its effects. However, by the point where Nell's death occurs, the main interest of the novel is already over; Quilp is the driving force behind it, and what forward momentum it has dissipates with his death.

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