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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.