Wednesday 16 May 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 5 - "The Old Curiosity Shop"

 Dickens drawn by Count D'Orsay in Dec. 1841
The death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, is one of English literature’s great cause célèbres. 

Lord Jeffrey, a literary critic and friend of Dickens, was found in tears after reading her death scene. And the Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell threw the book out of a train window declaring, “He should not have killed her.” 

Oscar Wilde’s response? “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.” And the poet Algernon Swinburne called Nell “a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads.”

As the fate of Little Nell hung in the balance in the final few issues of the novel (printed in weekly-parts), American crowds at the harbour-front in New York City were reported to have yelled at the sailors on board of boats coming in from Britain: “Is Little Nell dead?” 

The novel, from the very beginning, has generated an intense and very mixed response. Modern sensibilities seem to agree more often with Oscar Wilde. The book is seen now primarily as a good example of the Victorian penchant for over-the-top sentiment.

The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel. It was published in 88 weekly parts in Dickens’s new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He had conceived of establishing his own weekly periodical whilst in the final stages of writing Nicholas Nickleby. Apparently, the bad experience he’d had editing Bentley’s Miscellany for publisher Richard Bentley did not deter him from giving magazine-editing another try. His concept for the new periodical was a club of characters who would take turns telling stories.

Cover of Master Humphrey's Clock
Master Humphrey’s Clock was published by Chapman & Hall. They agreed not only to pay Dickens a weekly salary for editing it; they also picked up the tab for all of his expenses and shared the profits. The first issue appeared in April, 1840 and cost threepence a week. It was a handsome-looking publication – larger than the usual periodicals of the time, and printed on good quality, creamy-white paper. Each issue consisted of twelve pages of text and two engravings “dropped” strategically into the text, instead of placed at the beginning and end.

Charles Dickens was 28 years old and at the height of his fame. The first issue of the new magazine sold 70,000 copies. But interest soon began to drop. He realized that he needed to write a new novel in order to revive the flagging sales. Serialisation of The Old Curiosity Shop began in the fourth issue. By the end of its run, in November 1841, each instalment of the story was selling about 100,000 copies. Dickens’s usually wrote his novels in monthly instalments; this one was written in weekly parts and the episodes, therefore, are less expansive and the story proceeds at a more sprightly pace.

At the beginning of the novel’s weekly publication, Dickens was only two weeks ahead of the printer – a rather risky situation. But he was used to that sort of pressure. All of his novels were written like that. He seemed to thrive on the pressure of writing to strict deadlines. He wrote 16 pages each week. His routine was to start work at about 8.30 in the morning and work through until about 2.00 in the afternoon. As usual, he began the novel with a general idea of theme and style, but only a vague notion of where he was going. The details of plot and situations came as he went along – often adapting things according to the responses he was getting from friends, family, and the general public.

The framing device Dickens began with in this novel was that of an old man, Master Humphrey, describing the experience of seeing an old man accompanied by a young girl during one of his late-night strolls in the city of London. He stalks them for a while, and begins to imagine their situation. So the book actually begins with a first-person narrator in the first three chapters. But Dickens found the technique difficult, and he soon abandoned it – switching to third-person narrative in Chapter Four.

Nell and her grandfather on the road
Dickens conceived of the character of Little Nell whilst staying with Walter Savage Landor in Bath. Landor was a poet and essayist. The two writers had only recently met, but were already good friends. Dickens would name his second son after Landor. The character of Daniel Quilp in the new novel was also inspired by an incident in Bath – Dickens had seen “a frightful little dwarf named Prior, who let donkeys out on hire” in the city. Prior was known to beat his animals and his wife - in equal measure.

The structure of The Old Curiosity Shop is a blend of alternating sections dealing, on the one hand, with the sentimental story of an innocent, angelic young girl caring for a physically-frail and morally-weak old grandfather, and, on the other, comic and satiric scenes featuring eccentric and, often, low-life characters. And Dickens engages throughout in a lot of moralizing commentary, meant to take the edge off some of the more unsavoury aspects of the story.

It has to be said that much of the story dealing with Little Nell and the grandfather becomes tedious in its repetitious description of Nell’s struggles to care for the old man. And the eventual demise of this little angel is telegraphed to the reader over and over. In several scenes, for example, she is meditating about life and death in the cemetery of a country church. Much of the criticism of the sentimentality in this novel has been focused primarily on the infamous death-scene. But, as some critics have pointed out, Dickens actually handles the scene with much restraint. The death is not described directly - much to the surprise of many only familiar with its notoriety – an account is given of it after the fact not by the narrator, but by one of the novel’s characters. Regardless, the book is still cited as a major example of its author’s maudlin sentimentality, his obsession with death, and his manipulation of the readers' feelings.

Dick Swiveller and "the Marchioness"
And it’s true that over-the-top sentiment involving Nell can be found throughout the book. But there is also a lot of genuine feeling and compassion found in the situations of other characters in the book. Dickens often is most successful in touching a nerve in his readers when he is not consciously trying. A good example here is the relationship between Dick Swiveller and “the Marchioness”. Swiveller enters the story first as a rather minor stock character – a ne’er-do-well clerk looking for the main chance. But in his compassion for the much-abused servant in the Brass household – whom he comes to dub “the Marchioness” – he morphs into an admirable fellow. 

As is often the case with Dickens’s novels, the central characters here are not the real interest and moral-centre of the book. They are engaged in a series of adventures, often given allegorical overtones. It’s the motley collection of supporting characters who imbue the novel with interest and energy: Mrs. Jarley, the benevolent and earthy proprietor of a waxworks exhibition; Miss Monflathers, the cruel headmistress of a girls’ school; Codlin and Trotters, the squabbling entrepeneurs running a Punch-and-Judy show; and, of course, the grotesque and depraved money-lender Daniel Quilp.

The fate of Daniel Quilp
The contrast between the sweet innocence of Nell and the malevolent cruelty of Quilp presents the classic antitheses found in Charles Dickens’s view of existence: good and evil; angel and devil; female and male; masochist and sadist; asexual and lascivious. The sadistic delight which Quilp revels in, and the physical deformity he exhibits often repel and embarrass the modern reader. But this tactic of giving his most morally-twisted characters a corresponding physical deformity emerged clearly in his previous book. He takes it even further here, and Quilp is, perhaps, his most grotesque and repulsive creation.

Other strategies that had become familiar to Dickens’s readers recur here: Nell and her grandfather’s picaresque on-the-road adventures reminds us of the constant travels of The Pickwick Papers and the early experiences of Nicholas Nickleby with the Crummles’ acting troupe; the life-changing benevolence of the Maylie family in Oliver Twist and the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby recurs here in the Garland clan’s care for Nell’s friend Kit; and the element of mystery in the parentage of Oliver and Smike in two previous books occurs here in the background provided for Nell’s family – Dickens is unable to name the character chapter after chapter, instead he calls him the Single Gentleman. It’s awkward and formulaic.

The Old Curiosity Shop, then, despite a fair amount of tedium in the sections dealing with Nell’s and grandfather’s flight from the clutches of Daniel Quilp, and despite some occasional tear-jerking moments, is still an entertaining and diverting read. It’s full of the usual comic characters and satiric scenes of low-life in the city of London. When he’s not trying so hard to manipulate the emotions of his readers, Dickens writes with vigour and passion and creates scenes with intense atmosphere and presence. Problems of plot-coherence and narrative structure remain, but, with Dickens, it's the immersion into his created world, teeming with character and comic exuberance, that carries the reader forward. Not one of his best - but still worth a read!

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the fifth of a series.]

Next: Barnaby Rudge

[Resources used: "Introduction" to The Old Curiosity Shop by Peter Washington (1995); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

1 comment:

  1. "It’s full of the usual comic characters and satiric scenes of low-life in the city of London."

    A very good review Clive.I enjoyed reading your analysis.

    The above sentence made me think of "The Old Curiosity Shop," oddly enough Ha! Ha! The building reputed to be The Old Curiosity Shop is set amongst the buildings of The London School of Economics, which abounds in low life economics professors and lecturers.The shop is right next door to a pub, set within the LSE complex, called Ye Old White Horse, that is certainly not old but has sign outside saying, " No Students Allowed." How perverse is that? Dickens would have loved that scenario. He might have got it into his story some how I am sure.