I read The Old Curiosity Shop because it was the only Dickens checked in at the Greenwood branch of the library on the day I went looking for a new Dickens. Throughout its 554 pages plus explanatory notes, I thought I didn’t like it but I kept reading. Every day I measured the pages read against pages to read and I kept reading. After I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I decided I liked it –aptly–for a lot of curious little reasons.
The physical Old Curiosity Shop is vacated and closed up about a sixth of the way through the narrative. It’s owned by a nasty named Daniel Quilp and is managed and inhabited by an old man whose name we never learn and his granddaughter, Nell. When Nell and her grandfather leave London, they meet up with collections of curious characters as though to suggest they have taken the shop with them.
I had great difficulty with the main characters, especially Quilp. He’s malignant and sadistic, a queer old creep as his name suggests–queer in its 19th century, or if you will, Dickensian meaning. He disturbed me. I didn’t want to read about his abuse of his wife or his relentless and malevolent stalking of Nell.
What kept me reading were the secondary characters. I liked Kit Nubbles, a loyal friend of Nell’s who is goodness personified without sentimentality. He’s naïve and trusting, which gets him into trouble, but Dickens gets him out again. Dick Swiveller keeps track of the streets he can’t walk down because of all the tradesmen to whom he owes money. Dick puns and quotes from popular songs of the day like a middle class Lord Peter Wimsey. He is nimble of body and verbiage, prefiguring nearly every Wodehouse character that was to come. Sally Brass is also taken with Dick and his antics. Sally Brass has “reddish demonstrations that might be taken for a beard,” but as Dickens suggests “these were, however, in all probability, nothing more than eye-lashes in the wrong place.” Sally Brass is both creepy and compelling.
I looked forward to every scene where I might encounter two very minor figures who popped up on the fringes of things: Tom Scott and Whiskers, the pony. Tom Scott is a kind of personal assistant to Quilp. He lives on the premises of Quilp’s man cave down by the docks where he has a chop-shop for ships. Just a boy, he has a neat trick: he likes to walk on his hands and stand on his head and this drives Quilp crazy.
When we first meet Tom, Quilp has gone to his place of business where “the first object that presented itself to his view was a pair of very imperfectly shod feet elevated in the air with the soles upwards, which remarkable appearance was referable to the boy, who being of an eccentric spirit and having a natural taste for tumbling was now standing on his head and contemplating the aspect of the river under these uncommon circumstances.”
Quilp “punched” him but Tom is not afraid of Quilp, which makes me wonder if Quilp has given him brain damage from all the physical abuse:
“’Now, said Quilp, passing into the counting house, ‘you mind the wharf. Stand upon your head again and I’ll cut one of your feet off.’
The boy made no answer but directly Quilp had shut himself in, stood on his head before the door then walked on his hands to the back and stood on his head there. . .”
When Quilp sails off in a boat with Nell, Tom taunts him by standing on his head “on the extreme verge of the wharf, during the whole time they cross the river.”
Another time when Quilp “collared” him, Tom jumped away and “walked upon his hands to the window and –if the expression be allowable—looked in with his shoes: besides rattling his feet upon the glass like a Banshee upside down.”
At the inquest after Quilp’s death, Tom is the only one who shed any tears. When he also tried to assault the jury, presumably out of grief, he was ejected from the court, at which point “he darkened its only window by standing on his head upon the sill. . .”
Whiskers the pony belongs to an elderly couple, the Garlands, who regularly drive him into town to see their solicitor. Or it might be said that the pony drove them:
“It was plain that the utmost the pony would consent to do was to go his own way up any street that the old man wished to traverse, but it was an understanding between them that he must do this after his own fashion or not at all. . . the pony came trotting round the corner of the street, looking as obstinate as a pony might, and picking his steps as if he were spying about for the cleanest places, and would by no means dirty his feet or hurry himself inconveniently. Behind the pony sat the little old gentleman, and by the old gentleman’s side sat the little old lady. . . they arrived within some half a dozen doors of the Notary’s house, when the pony, deceived by a brass-plate beneath a tailor’s knocker, came to a halt, and maintained by a sturdy silence, that that was the house they wanted.
‘Now, Sir, will you ha’ the goodness to go on; this is not the place,’ said the old gentleman.
The pony looked with great attention into a fire-plug which was near him, and appeared to be quite absorbed in contemplating it.
‘Oh dear, such a naughty Whisker!’ cried the old lady. ‘After being so good too, and coming along so well. . .”
The pony having thoroughly satisfied himself as to the nature and properties of the fire-plug, looked into the air after his old enemies the flies, and as there happened to be one of them tickling his ear at that moment he shook his head and whisked his tail, after which he appeared full of thought but quite comfortable and collected. The old gentleman having exhausted his powers of persuasion, alighted to lead him; whereupon the pony, perhaps because he held this to be a sufficient concession, perhaps because he happened to catch sight of the other brass-plate, or perhaps because he was in a spiteful humour, darted off with the old lady and stopped at the right house, leaving the old gentleman to come panting on behind.”
Tom Scott and Whiskers have no real bearing on the story, but they served to keep my following the main plot which is briefly this: Nell’s grandfather has a gambling habit and cannot pay his rent on the shop. Because they are at the mercy of Quilp who wants to appropriate the 13-year old Nell as his second wife—he would murder the first one without compunction – the two of them steal away into the country in the middle of the night. They wander, beg, and work for food and shelter. Inevitably the grandfather gambles away their money. Nell gets sick and dies.
I had a difficult time with Nell: the virtuous, pure, innocent, all good, all loving, angelic martyr. It isn’t that a 13 year old orphan isn’t a sympathetic figure but I am not the first to suggest that Dickens overdid her just a tad. I skimmed through the numerous passages where he strains to bring his talent to the level of her great purity, the result being the most tedious sentimentality. I gather the Victorians loved this sort of thing but I was frankly glad when she was out of the story.
Meantime people, Quilp among them, try to find Nell because her grandfather has hinted that she will come into a lot of money when he dies. Since he, in fact, expects to win that money gambling, there is no money except for the few pounds Nell has sewn into the hem of her skirt. Kit searches for Nell because he loves her. A stranger searches for Nell because he is, in fact, her father. Dick Swiveller, Sally Brass and the usual collection of colorful characters that live and move and have their being in Dickens’ head all have some interest in finding little Nell because they all think there’s money to be had.
The characters who make out happily in the end are Kit Nubbles whose goodness is rewarded and Dick Swiveller, the only character who matures while still maintaining his charm. And Whiskers.
Because there was no particular place in my meandering reflections on The Old Curiosity Shop to say this, I will say now that in it Dickens used the word avuncular as a noun as in “She needs an avuncular.” Kind of like “The witch has a familiar.” I liked that.
The Old Curiosity Shop is the source of a famous quotation that is lovely on some days, sentimental on others and delusional much of the time. I see it on calendars and mugs and T-shirts: “I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”
I could say the same things about cats. Reading this book can change ones sentimentality set-point.