The old curiosity shop

by Charles Dickens

Paper Book, 1951





London : Oxford University Press, [1951].


Nell Trent lives with her doting grandfather in his London shop. It is a magical place, filled from wall to wall with treasures. Grandfather keeps his nocturnal gambling activities a secret from Nell. He borrows heavily from the evil, profiteering loan shark Daniel Quilp. When Grandfather gambles away what little money they possess, Quilp seizes the opportunity to take possession of their beloved shop. It seems Nell and Grandfather are left only with the option to escape. They fall in with a number of colourful characters, some vilainous and some affectionate. They are on the run from Quilp and his band of misguided money seekers, including Nell's own brother Freddie and his gulible friend Dick Swiveller.

User reviews

LibraryThing member grheault
Lots of convoluted, flouncy writing, with flashes of genius. You wish at some point that little Nell would start drinking, get really pissed at her stupid old, shoot-myself-in-the-foot, gambling grandfather who uses and abuses her while affecting affection. She seems not so much saintly as stupid, a genetic condition passed on from grandfather.

If she took to the bottle, Kit could save her, and something interesting could happen. Kit, with good genes from his Mother, at least seems conflicted and smart. Quilps one liners that he hurls at his simpering wife and mother in law are hilarious. Dickens' does a disservice to women in this book, Kit's mother excepted, and even she is believable, but underdeveloped, unrevealed as to her core self. She could be a interesting sequel candidate. She is the big curiosity in this book.

I loved Quilp's death scene, and like Oscar Wilde, laughed at Nell's, rushing to the end, out, out, out, damned book! I could see Dickens suffering through writing this, finally getting the requisite number of stretched out words to his publisher, for the last episode in a serial that was wildly popular in its day.
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LibraryThing member souloftherose
I think this Dickens novel is the one that's probably hardest for a modern day reader to appreciate. The Victorians adored the character of Little Nell and American readers were so eager to find out the ending that they 'were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last instalment in the United Kingdom), "Is Little Nell alive?"' But it was difficult for me to appreciate the kind of sentimentality and pathos that distinguishes the character of Little Nell and I preferred the wonderfully grotesque character of Daniel Quilp who terrorises his wife, eats boiled eggs 'shell and all' and is the most lascivious of Dickens' villains (although this is 1840 so you only gets hints of this aspect).

"he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits"

Given Dickens' comments (as reported by Claire Tomalin in her biography, Charles Dickens: A Life) that his bad characters portrayed the characteristics he found within himself, this portrayal of Quilp raised some interesting psychological questions in my mind about Dickens himself.

The introduction to my edition indicates that there are a lot of references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in the story which, again, a 19th century reader would have been very familiar with and I am not really familiar with at all. One character also frequently includes lines from popular songs in his dialogue and I can appreciate how this would have been very comic to a reader at the time but by the time I've had to look up the relevant footnote in the back of the book the joke has lost a little something in the translation as it were.

What I found most interesting about my reread of this book was the insight it gave into Dickens' feelings at the time of writing. A few years before Dickens started writing this novel, his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had lived with him and his wife Catherine since their marriage, died suddenly at the age of 17. Dickens was absolutely distraught by her death and had to take a break from his publishing schedule for both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist - this was the only time in his life when Dickens failed to get an instalment out on time. His grief for Mary's death seems far greater than we would consider reasonable given their relationship (and really there doesn't seem to be anything to suggest their relationship went beyond brother and sister in law); he wanted to be buried next to Mary and the published announcement called her 'the chief solace of his labours'. History is silent as to his wife's opinion of all this - from reading Tomalin's biography I almost get the impression that Catherine wasn't allowed to have opinions. Anyway, there's a bit of debate about this but it seems that when Dickens was writing The Old Curiosity Shop he may have had Mary in mind when he created the character of Little Nell and the idealisation of Little Nell as 'so young, so beautiful, so good' may well be linked to Dickens' idealisation of Mary Hogarth.

(SPOILERS And neither Little Nell or Mary ever got to grow up, marry and sully themselves by having sex within the sanctified bounds of marriage with their respective husbands. The more I read about women in Victorian literature, the more I realise how seriously messed up the Victorians were.)
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LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop explores the living conditions in Victorian London. On the one hand, there are the protagonists Nell and Kit, born into poor lower-class families and trying to make a living. On the other hand, there are the upper-class citizens and future employers of Nell and Kit. In between there is shady Quilp, not poor, but striving to become richer through various schemes. The plot starts in London before it unfolds in two separate plot lines, one still taking place in London and following Kit and the other following Nell and her grandfather on their journey away from London in search of a better life away from danger.

At the beginning, the reader learns that Nell's grandfather, owner of an old curiosity shop, cares for Nell because her parents are dead and she does not have anyone else anymore. With only the best intentions for Nell, her grandfather incurs a large amount of debt with Quilp who discovers that the old man has lost everything he borrowed gambling. Nell, on her part, is a modest young girl of fourteen years, who does not complain about her life although there would be ample reason to do so. Kit, Nell's only friend, lives under similar conditions. He lives in a small house with his mother and his two siblings and takes care of the family as best as he can doing odd jobs around the city after he is forced to leave his job at the old curiosity shop when Nell and her grandfather flee the city to live a life on the road as beggars. Nell's journey through the English countryside reminded me of Pilgrim's journey in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. With the goal of finding salvation both novel's protagonists set out and leave their home town, encountering several hardships along the way before they finally reach their destination. The characters they meet on the road are sometimes well-meaning, as in the case of Mrs Jarley, the owner of a traveling waxwork's show, who takes Nell and her grandfather in. Quite often, however, they are dangerous and try to lead the protagonists astray.

Two things about the novel strike me as particularly noteworthy. First, there is Dickens' characterization, which I find to be masterfully done. I found myself really caring for Nell and Kit and their fate. While this makes the novel a rather sad read, there have been certain places where I could not help but smile because I was so happy about positive episodes in the main characters' lives. Second, there is the fact that the novel was published as a weekly serial over the course of about two years. I am quite certain that the tension Dickens' created by having his readers wait another week for the next instalment of the novel must have left readers quite desperate. It was my experience when I read the novel that I would have been quite disappointed if I had had to put it down after certain chapters and wait for another week. This must have created a lot of talk about the novel in Victorian London, as many readers must have felt the same urge as I did to continue and read about the fate of poor little Nell.

To my mind the following quotation quite sums up the dilemma that presents itself to the two protagonists.

"It was a long night, which seemed as though it would have no end; but he had slept too, and dreamed - always of being at liberty, and roving about, now with one person and now with another, but ever with a vague dread of being recalled to prison; not that prison, but one which was in itself a dim idea, not of a place, but of a care and sorrow; of something oppressive and always present, and yet impossible to define. At last morning dawned, and there was the jail itself - cold, black, and dreary, and very real indeed." (p. 445)

It is exactly this confinement to their place in society that serves as a metaphorical prison that is hard to escape for Nell and Kit. While Nell cares a lot about her grandfather, his gambling problem brings her many a sleepless and sorrowful night. And just when you feel that morning has dawned on Nell's life and she has finally found her place of safety and happiness, you are crushed by the cold fate Dickens has chosen for her.

I found this novel to be an outstanding example of good characterization and plotting. The ending made me sad and I think I would have wished for a more positive one, but it most certainly fit the overall tone of the novel. The Old Curiosity Shop is highly recommendable. 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member fourbears
This is not my favorite Dickens. It’s episodic like Pickwick Papers, with relatively few solid threads to hold it together, and, as such, easy to lose interest in. Little Nell, supposedly Dickens’ tribute to his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died at 17 while living in his house, is, like Mary, characterized as practically angelic and emblematic of the inability of goodness to exist long outside of the heavenly realm. It’s clear from the beginning that Little Nell will have to die and then the death scene description is so long and anticlimactic that it’s not hard to regard it as overdone, even comic. Oscar Wilde certainly thought so: ”One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”What I always remember about the book are the crowds of American readers waiting by the dock for the ship bringing the last installment of the novel to New York carrying signs like “Don’t kill Little Nell” and “Did she die?” Recent comments on bringing the manuscript of the latest Harry Potter novel to New York cited the last time readers displayed such eagerness for an English author as when they lined the pier waiting to find out what happened to Little Nell. And yes, of course she died. She was from the beginning described as too good for this world—dedicated entirely to the comfort and welfare of others—code for “died young” in Dickens time and in our own, though we, like Wilde, are much more likely to scorn the sentimentality. In fact, Nell hasn’t much of a character. It’s hard to imagine what she wants for herself. Esther Summerson of Bleak House is often accused of being too good to be true, but Esther, unselfish and dedicated as she is to serving others, has her own agenda too: she has a passion to understand the story of her lost parents; she falls in love. If Nell had only yearned for Kit to rescue her or for the canary she left behind, she might have been more real, though Dickens, I think was not striving for real but for the pathos of good and evil juxtaposedQuilp, not Nell, is the memorable character from The Old Curiosity Shop, the dwarf who is possibly not so much smaller than everyone else as notable for the extraordinary size of his head; head and heart with Quilp are extraordinarily unbalanced. As evil as Nell is good, Quilp, like Milton’s Satan, but without his grandeur or heroism, arouses our passions with his words and deeds as Nell cannot with her goodness.… (more)
LibraryThing member LadyintheLibrary
A good first line, and some very powerful passages, particularly once Nell and her grandfather hit the road, but overall, not one of Dickens' best.
LibraryThing member LukePreist
This must go down as one of the best books of all time plot tight clever, descriptions amazing storyline epic .
LibraryThing member wktarin
Has its good points - but ultimately too random.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
I found this rather dull in many places. Some of the characters are quite funny and some quite touching, but none of them the really memorable literary creations that appear in many other Dickens novels. On the other hand, I found the death of little Nell and its aftermath quite moving and not, as so often described, most famously by Oscar Wilde, over sentimental; the deaths of many young people in 19th century novels are portrayed in a similar way. Overall, the least favourite of the Dickens novels I have read.… (more)
LibraryThing member shaunnas
This was assigned reading for a book club. It has been a long time since I read Dickens. It won't be that long again. When placed alongside some of the other books I have read lately, this book shines. It is, of course, long and wordy. But what beautiful prose is found within those words. You will be reading along and be grabbed by a paragraph that is so absolutely perfect. The characters are so well drawn. The people are what keeps you going through some words and situations that are so foreign to us in our time. Most readers just won't put in the time and effort but for those who are willing the reward is great.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hera
I agree with Oscar Wilde: I'm willing Little Nell to die just so the agony of this dreadful, cloying novel will be over. Is it possible to be allergic to a novel?
LibraryThing member GaryKbookworm
Not one of his best books. It kind of rambles on halfway through the book but the characters are memorable especially Nell.
LibraryThing member cathymoore
Having read no Dickens apart from Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol as a youngster I decided his bicentenary year was an opportunity to try some more. I chose The Old Curiosity Shop randomly knowing nothing about the characters or the story. In spite of the fact that it took me almost a month to read, I really, really enjoyed it. It's a lot easier to read than I expected and a lot funnier as well. It does ramble on a bit for a time and has one of the saddest endings of a book that I can remember. For anyone hesitant about reading Dickens I would definitely suggest to give this book a go.… (more)
LibraryThing member mbmackay
Dickens' fourth novel, and not his finest effort. I re-read this book in my undertaking to read all of Dickens during his bicentennial year, 2012. There are many flaws in this book - Dickens starts with a narrator, but drops the device by Ch 4; Kit is is introduced in Ch 1 as a total simpleton, but becomes, later in the book, the simple, but capable and loyal worker; Quilp is so impossibly evil as to be a caricature rather than a character; the description of the grandfather as a compulsive gambler is more convincing than the descriptions of his dementia - and so on.
The narrative starts to flag after about 200 pages, and needs the introduction of Brass and his sister at work to give the book some life. As in previous books, there are abundant plot contrivances and coincidences.
And of course, this book will forever be associated with Oscar Wilde's acid comment: 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.' Read Jan 2012.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
An early (his fourth) novel of Dickens written in 1840 - 41. He starts with a narrator, but drops the device in Chapter 4 – one of the perils of writing in published instalments. It reminds me of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND – with the poor innocents being pure white, and the evil villains being so dark it is ludicrous. The chief villain in this piece, Quilp, is so impossibly bad that it is laughable. Oscar Wilde said: 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.' This book doesn’t contribute much to Dickens lasting fame. Read November 2008… (more)
LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
When Little Nell's grandfather drives himself into gambling debt (in hopes of raising money for Nell's future), they must take to the streets to escape the malicious designs of more than one nasty character. Nell's grandfather increasingly becomes a doddering old fool, and Nell is left to her own devices in finding refuge from the cold, the hunger, and the devious people-of-the-streets. Unbeknownst to them, their good friend (and former servant) Kit is desperately looking for them - praying for their safety and not knowing why they have left. I think this is my least favorite Dickens book so far. Generally, I am able to get involved in the complex narrative and the variety of character in a Dickens novel, but kit was the only character I really cared much about. Nell and her grandfather were so melodramatically pathetic that, although I felt sorry for their situation, I couldn't get myself to really care about the outcome. Perhaps this was just timing - maybe I'd have liked the book better in another mood. But I can't say I'll ever try reading it again to find out. Not a bad book - but Dickens can do better.… (more)
LibraryThing member dylkit
I am quite worried by this insipid-looking woman on the cover...

So far my favourite character is Whiskers the pony. I'm not sure if that bodes well.

I confess: I abandoned Little Nell. In a drawer, in a B&B in Tobermory. I did however finish the book, after lugging it about since March. I'm afraid my initial reservations were confirmed: Nell was insipid, and Whiskers the pony was ace. Especially as it is reported that his final act was to kick his doctor in his last illness. The doctor is never introduced, but there are many other characters in this book that could do with a good kicking.… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Aargh! Little Nell is dead. Long live Quilp! I can honestly say that I will NEVER read this book again. It it weren't for Richard Swiveler and the Marchioness, I don't think I would have made it. Little Nell was insufferable. And her grandfather, a whiny old fart, stealing, gambling and I'm supposed to feel empathy for him? I think not. Any enjoyment I received from the peripheral characters on Nell and Grandpa's journey was negated by that pair's annoying presence.… (more)
LibraryThing member JVioland
I love this book. Dickens comes through again. You forget you are reading.
LibraryThing member Cecrow
For as long as I'd heard of this book I expected the curiosity shop to be its central setting, and so it begins, but that is soon dispensed with and the story moves to explore a wider world where, as with every Dickens, it is the characters who are the curiosities. Where Trollope writes somewhat unpleasant people, Dickens writes truly black villains whom we're free to dislike without reserve, put opposite an innocent waif we can be equally unreserved in admiring. It's a shallow approach I'd expect to generate shallow results, yet Dickens makes them live on the page as well as any shades-of-grey characters might.

This novel is little Nell's, her name omitted from its title perhaps not to emphasize Dickens' so-soon return to the sympathetic orphan figure in the wake of Oliver. The key difference is that Nell has responsibility for her grandfather in addition to herself, a complication that demands self-sacrifice. The ending comes as if in answer to the charge that Oliver got off too lightly and unrealistically. I'll concede that it lags in the middle and too much of the novel is devoted to secondary characters. I'll even concede I like it least of the first four Dickens novels, as the sentimentality come thickest (the last couple of chapters are 100% sugar.) I still like it better than much else.
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LibraryThing member nosajeel
The Old Curiosity Shop is certainly not the best of Dickens. But it contains some of the best from across the range of light (Dick Swiveller, a genial ne'er-do-well and the Marchioness, a mistreated servant) to dark (Quilp, the demonic dwarf and Sally Brass, the cold, evil sister of a corrupt lawyer). It also contains some of the best scenes that cover a similar range from Kit taking his family out to enjoy dinner and the theater to celebrate his first paycheck to Little Nell being trapped by rain in a house with her grandfather watching in horror as he goes to the gambling table.

Between these, however, are a more-than-usual even for Dickens number of "good" characters in relatively flat scenes as they seek to protect Kit and find Little Nell. All of this is strung on a plot of a novel that accidentally grew out of what started as a sketch and turns into an alternation of a series of incidents, all of which build to climax when the two stories come together and the London characters find Little Nell and her grandfather in their retreat. The first time I read this part I was deeply moved, this time for whatever reason I was considerably less so.

I would not recommend this as one of the first few Dickens novels to read, but would certainly recommend it as one that should eventually be read--and re-read.
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LibraryThing member ronploude
This was one of the first books I read as a preteen almost 60 years ago. I can still remember not being able to put it down.
LibraryThing member therebelprince
The Old Curiosity Shop - Dickens' 5th book and 4th novel - is an odd fish, isn't it? Give or take Martin Chuzzlewit, it's perhaps the most confusing of his "Big Fifteen". It's been fifteen years since I first read it as a boy, and I still don't know where I stand. This is Dickens at his most Victorian, most sentimental. The long march of Nell and her Grandfather captured the public imagination in 1840 in a way that people of our era will never truly understand. At the same time, this is a world peopled with characters perhaps not as truly electric as those in Nicholas Nickleby but a little bit more real. The characters here are still, for the most part, symbols and cardboard stands, but by now, Dickens is a master at the novel's structure. The poignancy of Nell, and of the "Marchioness", and the rabid charisma of Mister Quilp, perhaps guaranteed Dickens his celebrity that would keep him in the trade for another 30 years.

I'm not sure if this is really worth 4-stars. Characters like Mrs. Quilp threaten to show signs of a personality and then fade back into the wallpaper. Predictable moment is heaped on predictable moment, glued together with endless apostrophising and moralising. This is perhaps the most dated of Dickens' serious novels. Yet it's still a compelling read, filled with rich descriptions of character and place, with a sense of social seriousness that anchors the novel far stronger than most of its contemporaries. I may never truly understand the "Little Nell mania" of the 1840s, but I can at least appreciate the man behind it.
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LibraryThing member pgchuis
I struggled with this one. Too many characters were described as "the child", "the small servant", "the single gentleman" etc, which required a lot of concentration in places. How old was Nell? How old was the Marchioness? Also, the divide between the Nell/grandfather thread and the Quilp/Samson/Kit thread was too wide for most of the book. The Nell/grandfather thread was, frankly, depressing. Who thinks being homeless beggars is an idyllic way of life? Nell was so perfect and so lacking in personality, yet so blessed and loved by everyone she met. The grandfather character, although less one-dimensional, was a bit of a worry. Nell might well have been better off being cared for by some one else...

Quilp was fun in a repellant way and Dick was fabulous, but there was far too much rewarding of honesty and goodness. While I wish the world worked like that, the number of people who bent over backwards to help Kit and Nell ceased to be believable to me. I thought Kit was supposed to be a bit "simple", but he turned into a capable and wise man. How old was he? (The age thing seems to be an obsession with me, but he gets married at the end...) Also, what happened to Nell's brother? He just went abroad and faded out of the story. Why was he even in it? What about the first person narrator at the beginning? Who was he? Where did he go?

My least favourite Dickens so far.
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LibraryThing member Kuglar
My first venture into Dickens. I've always shied away from him because he was paid by the word - I thought there would be a lot of "filler". Silly me! His characters come to life in the most wonderful way. I actually didn't care for Nell (way too much crying) or her grandfather but the rest of the characters more than made up for them. I'm looking forward to my next Dickens novel!… (more)
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“The ties that bind the wealthy and the proud to home may be forged on earth, but those which link the poor man to his humble hearth are of truer metal and bear the stamp of Heaven.”

The novel opens with orphan Nell Trent living alone with her aged grandfather, who runs the curiosity shop of the title. Nell has an older brother, Fred, but he is a drunken spendthrift whom the grandfather endeavours to keep apart from Nell. Fred believes that his grandfather is rich and a miser who is saving all his money to benefit Nell but in reality the grandfather is an inveterate gambler who hoping to provide a fortune for the little girl in doing so only manages to gamble all of his money away. To finance his addiction the old man borrows money recklessly.

One of the old man’s creditors is an ugly, misshapen, dwarf named Quilp. Quilp plots to ruin the old man and someday marry Little Nell, who is only fourteen years old. Discovering the old man’s passion for gambling Quilp takes over the old curiosity shop and all its possessions in lieu of debt. As a consequence Nell and her grandfather abscond during the night and tramp to western England.

Despite being almost penniless, the two of them make various friends along their way. Initially travelling with a Punch-and-Judy troupe before then being befriended by the owner of a travelling waxworks, a Mrs Jarley, where Nell is given a job and is able to earn a little money. However, the grandfather’s passion for gambling, for a while abated returns and causes them to leave their benefactor. At last they are taken under the wing of a schoolmaster who is on his way to fill a new post in a remote village. With the schoolmaster’s assistance, the girl and her grandfather are established as caretakers of a church.

Shortly after Nell and her grandfather's disappearance, a strange, Single Gentleman appears and begins hunting for them. He is obviously wealthy but as no one knows his true identity his motives are questioned. However, soon convinces Kit, the only friend Nell had back in London. that he wants to aid the two runaways rather than do them harm, they team up and try to track them down. Their search is hampered when Quilp, with an irrational hatred of anyone honest, decides with his lawyer's assistance to ruin Kit and get him transported to the colonies by framing him for a crime that he did not commit. Eventually Kit's innocence is proved and the runaways are located but it all ultimately proves to be in vain.

Throughout the book there is a plethora of diverse minor characters all beautifully drawn and all with a message to tell and whilst, as with all of Dicken's books, there is a harsh social commentary on the times even as the most troubling episodes are unfolding it is difficult for the reader not to read it with a smile rather than a tear. As one would expect this is a wonderfully well crafted novel making it easy to understand why it has lasted the passage of time despite the changes in tastes and attitudes and even today continues to rightly make the author new friends.
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