The Old Curiosity Shop

is one of the Dickens novels I read in October. I had heard that it is supposed to be over-the-top sentimental and felt like I would probably not like it much, but that wasn’t the exactly the case. True, it’s not one of my favourite Dickens novels, but it was enjoyable, because to offset the plot-line with the sentimental parts, Little Nell’s story, there are a lot of other plot-lines that are very amusing with memorable characters and dastardly dealings. I’m putting the review, as usual, under the cut, as it contains some spoilers.

The novel tells the story of little Nell and her grandfather. The grandfather gambles all his money away in the hope of winning a fortune to provide for his granddaughter. This is, of course, very reckless and foolish, because it’s a lot more likely to lose a fortune at gambling than to gain one. And so it happens that all his money is lost and he comes to be heavily in debt to the evil Quilp. Quilp sells off the grandfather’s property and has nasty plans for little Nell (marrying her off to someone in order to get back at someone else). Little Nell has a premonition that she and her grandfather are in danger and the two of them flee into the country to live simply and free-of-cares. A very romantic notion that doesn’t quite work out. For a time, they actually manage to find a good living with a waxworks exhibition in a small town, but then they have to flee again because the grandfather is addicted to gambling and is on the verge of stealing from their employer. On their flight, they meet many people who live in different, sometimes horrifying conditions. They end up in a very small village, where they live together with a kind schoolmaster who befriended them. The hardships of the journey, however, have ruined little Nell’s health.

In another plot-line, the novel tells the story of the characters that remained behind in London. There’s Quilp, an evil dwarf, who plots against everyone, even his own wife. He is searching for Little Nell to marry her off to one Dick Swiveller, who is a good-natured but thoughtless friend of Nell’s brother, Frederick, who is hoping to gain control of Little Nell’s fortune through her marriage with Dick. Quilp knows that Little Nell has no fortune but wants to bring the marriage about anyway to get his revenge. He installs Dick with his lawyer, as clerk, to keep him ready for his nefarious plans.

Then there’s the story of Kit, who used to be a servant to Nell and her grandfather. He also managed to draw Quilp’s ire upon himself. Quilp arranges for Kit to be dismissed by Little Nell and her grandfather through a lie and then tries to get Kit, when he finds new and favourable employment, to be convicted of stealing and transported to the colonies. Quilp’s laywer, the obsequious Sampson Brass, lays a trap for Kit and gives false evidence. However, this false evidence is revealed by Dick Swiveller and his friend “the Marchioness”, who is the ill-treated maid of Brass. Also living at Brass’ house in rented rooms is a mysterious “single gentleman” who is actually Nell’s grandfather’s younger brother coming to their aid ̶ unfortunately too late to do much good. Through the confession of Brass, who is prosecuted for his false testimony against Kit, the crimes of Quilp are brought to light. Fleeing from his pursuers, Quilp loses his way in one of London’s famous fogs, falls into the Thames and finds his well-deserved end.

I liked those parts of the novel that show the different people that Little Nell and her grandfather meet on their travel through England, where pastoral paradise and hellish industrial towns are juxtaposed. There are the Punch-and-Judy show players and the waxwork proprietress, as well as the kind schoolmaster, the bargemen, the industrial labourers, the gravediggers. All very interesting. And, of course, Quilp. A strikingly nasty character, who gives one the creeps (in a delicious way). The one thing I don’t like about Quilp is that part of his nastiness lies in his being a kind of demonic dwarf. In literature, especially in literature from earlier centuries, (also in fairy tales) there’s an unfortunate tradition that people that look different from the norm (or have some kind of disability) are often cast as mad, bad or diabolic characters. But that’s offset for me because I know that in some of Dickens other novels (for instance in Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield) characters with dwarfism are portrayed in a very different and positive light.

Altogether I liked the novel more than I had expected, but it’s still not one of my favourites, as you can see by its position on my ranked list:

  1. David Copperfield
  2. Bleak House
  3. Barnaby Rudge
  4. Our Mutual Friend
  5. Little Dorrit
  6. Nicholas Nickleby
  7. The Old Curiosity Shop
  8. Hard Times
  9. Martin Chuzzlewit
  10. Pickwick Papers
  11. Dombey and Son

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