”’I say’ – quoth Miss Brass, abruptly breaking silence, ‘you haven’t seen a silver pencil-case this morning, have you?’
‘I didn’t meet many in the street,’ rejoined Mr Swiveller. ‘I saw one – a stout pencil-case of respectable appearance – but as he was in company with an elderly penknife, and a young toothpick with whom he was in earnest conversation, I felt a delicacy in speaking to him.’”
Laughter lay very near the surface of Dickens; it was always on the verge of breaking out, generously, ruthlessly, uncontrollably, as if someone had struck a match near a volatile substance. Dickens was an entertainer, he knew that to address serious social issues, he would need the sympathy of his readers. He would need also to have a wide circulation, Dickens was a keen businessman. He also, through his writings, wanted to show goodness to be attractive and to broaden our horizons to identify with people whose outward lives though unlike ours, had inner lives which are not unsimilar.
I’m slowly working my way through Dickens oeuvre, it started way back in school with A Tale of Two Cities, unfortunately studying books in school can put you off an author for life. It took a long time to get back into Dickens. But I am glad I did.
I am not reading the novels in chronological order, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) is the fourth novel he wrote and the fifth that I have read.
I was intrigued by the title “The Old Curiosity Shop” as I love searching in junk shops, secondhand shops, fleamarkets and antique shops for interesting curios. The book, however, has little to do with the shop, but is more focused on two of its inhabitants Little Nell and her grandfather, who are forced out of the premises by the villainous dwarf Mr Quilp.
Little Nell’s grandfather has a gambling addiction, explained so well by Dickens, one wonders if he too were tempted by the cards and dice. The book includes many illustrated etchings by Hablot K Browne (Phiz) and George Cattermole.
As an adult, I get a nostalgic buzz from an illustrated novel, as many of my childhood favourites like “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were amply illustrated.
One problem with the book in this our PC age, is the main villain, Mr Quilp is a hideous dwarf. Quilp is depicted as a monster both in the way he acts and the way he looks, disabled characters in Victorian literature tend to be depicted as victims or villains and Dickens is very guilty of such representation particularly in his earlier works.
Like all Dickens novels “The Old Curiosity Shop” came out in serial form, it was published along with short stories and the novel Barnaby Rudge in his weekly serial “Master Humphrey’s Clock” from 1840 to 1841. This leads to some odd aspects of the novel, it begins with first person narration but this is dropped by the third chapter for third person narration. Like the Game of Thrones fans in our current time, Dickens’ fans weren’t always happy with the way the plot developped and begged Dickens to change it or spare their favourite characters. Dickens like the Thrones’ writers stuck to his own ideas. “The Old Curiosity Shop” was a hit even so. And as far as I know no one was angry that they had “wasted all this time” with a story that did not end they way they wanted it to or publicly threatened to never read anything by Dickens again (which is a good thing, since most of his best-loved novels were to come). But then Dickens didn’t have to deal with Twitter. Little Nell isn’t Daenerys Targerean, she doesn’t have any dragon to ride.
The Old Curiosity Shop is full of melodrama and colourful characters. One is Dick Swiveller, a name which sounds like a pornstar pseudonym, a well-meaning but naïve and easily manipulated young man with drama-queen tendencies. Little Nell herself is rather one dimensional as a sweet young girl of almost 14, who battles bravely against adversity, I would have liked to see more spark in her personality, maybe standing up to her grandfather’s gambling addiction. Kit (Christopher Nubbles) is more interesting, an errand boy for Nell’s grandfather, he is awkward but warm-hearted and has a special way with animals, he alone can get a cantankerous pony to do as he wishes.
When I started The Old Curiosity Shop I was 2 books ahead of my Goodreads target of 40 books this year, now I’ve fallen back to one behind. I find it difficult to rush Dickens, Pickwick Papers took me even longer, I was dipping in and out of that novel for around a year, interspersed with other books, before I finally finished it.
My rating: 4 out of 5
My progress with Dickens’s novels:
I read Pickwick Papers (1836) earlier this year, his first novel.
Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.
Great Expectations (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.
I still have ten left to read:
Oliver Twist —(1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
Dombey and Son (1848)
David Copperfield (1850)
Bleak House (1853)
Little Dorrit (1857)
Our Mutual Friend (1865)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)
which do you suggest I read next?