Book Review: “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

”’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.

the Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

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.

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Mr Swiveller’s Libation

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.

the Old Curiosity Shop illustration

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.

the Old Curiosity Shop illustration3
Mr and Mrs Quilp

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?

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“A Clash of Kings” by George R R Martin (Book Review)

A Clash of Kings” is a weighty tome and the second in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire“. My copy runs to page 1009, but this includes almost 40 pages of appendices, which I rarely used. The appendices list the various houses and have some maps.

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A Clash of Kings

The first book in the series is “Game of Thrones“, which I haven’t yet read, I haven’t read it because I couldn’t find it in the Tbilisi bookshops. This is quite common, the bookstores here, stock books from a series but often don’t have the first, maybe someone beat me to it. Paranassus has all the sequels to A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but not the first book, Prospero’s has Brave New World Revisited but not Brave New World and when I was looking for Game of Thrones in Biblus; I found the second, third and fourth books of the series but not the first.  As I have watched the HBO TV series, this wasn’t such a problem, I had a good idea of the story. I don’t usually read a book after watching a film or TV series, but this was an exception. I love the TV series and eagerly anticipate the final season. Reading this book “A Clash of Kings” may have been a means to satisfy my Westeros withdrawal cravings.

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Robb Stark “The King in the North” in the HBO Series

Each chapter looks at the story from the point of view of a particular character : Sansa, Tyrion, Jon, Arya and even Davos. The title “A Clash of Kings” suggests a lot of kings and a lot of political intrigue, the chapters for Tyrion are particularly interesting in this respect.

Tyrion observes: “My most trusted advisers are a eunuch and a sellsword, and my lady’s a whore. What does that say of me?” (p632)

If you are unfamiliar with the whole Game of Thrones/The Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon, it details a fantasy world, where we learn about two continents Westeros and Essos. In Westeros there are many contenders for the right to rule the lands from the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, the capital. The Game is about how the different factions play against each other with the goal of becoming the ruler of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. The technology of the world is similar to that of England during the War of the Roses in the 15th century, but as this is fantasy there are added elements of magic  and dragons and a napalm like substance called “Wildfire“. The War of the Roses pitted York against Lancaster, here the principal two houses are Stark and Lannister.

In A Clash of Kings we have Joffrey, a cruel and juvenile tyrant like Edward of Lancaster,  sitting on the Iron Throne but he doesn’t control all seven kingdoms. There are Stannis and Renly, brothers of the previous king Robert, who contend their claims. In the north, there is Robb Stark, the self styled “king in the north” and over in Essos, there is Daenerys, who also has a claim on the Iron Throne and has three dragons to boot. The highlight of this second book is the Battle of Black Water which sees the forces of Stannis come to King’s Landing to fight the Lannister forces organised by Tyrion, the hand of the King.

In the book we see the Battle of Black Water from Tyrion’s viewpoint (we also have Sansa and Davos viewpoint but they see little of the overall picture), it would have been interesting to have Cersei’s viewpoint, the mother of the king, and master player in the game.

If I hadn’t seen the TV Series, this book would have been a veritable page-turner, the story is very similar, so there were no major surprises, in a way by seeing the TV Series,  I’d spoilt it for myself. The book does give a lot more detail on the motivations of certain characters. Some of the characters like Jon, Daenerys, Sansa and Arya are much younger in the books than in the TV Series. I have the third book in the series on my reading shelf: “A Storm of Swords” (1128 pages before the appendices!), many fans rate this one as the best. We shall see.

My rating : 4 out of 5