First published in serial form between April 1840 and February 1841 in Dickens’ weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel, and was among his most successful ones during his lifetime; in fact so much so that New York readers are said to have stormed the wharf when the last instalment came in to find out how it ended.
The central thread of the story is of a young girl, Nell Trent, not quite 14, who is an orphan and lives with her grandfather (who remains unnamed throughout) who runs an old curiosity shop. Wanting to ensure that Nell is well provided for, her grandfather falls into a gambling habit, in fact becomes addicted and ends up borrowing heavily from the odious and grotesque Daniel Quilp, villain of the piece. Soon all the money is lost, and Quilp takes possession of house and shop. The only person who comes to their aid (and Nell’s only comfort) is a former employee at the shop, Kit Nubbles, but because Quilp plants doubt in grandfather’s mind, he begins to shun poor Kit. Grandfather becomes terrified of being locked up and falling within Quilp and his friends’ clutches and so Nell and Grandfather leave the curiosity shop and begin to travel in the country; on this journey, they make the acquaintance of many people, a travelling Punch and Judy show; a wax works; and even a village teacher. But Nell must leave each place they get to so as to keep grandfather away from the temptation of falling back into gambling or into Quilp’s hands. This takes its toll on poor Nell while the rather selfish old man seems to consider only his own well-being.
Alongside we follow several other threads and characters; Kit Nubbles and his family, and Kit’s new employers the Garlands, and with them the temperamental pony Whisker; Quilp’s poor wife Betsy and his mother-in-law Mrs Jiniwin; Dick Swiveller, a young man (not really a bad sort), perpetually in debt who is a friend of Fred Trent, Nell’s brother and agrees to marry Nell so that they can share the fortune they think will be hers; Sampson Brass, Quilp’s solicitor and his sister Sally, cunning and crooked, who act as his ‘henchmen’; a mysterious lodger who comes to reside in the Brass’s home and is looking for Nell and her grandfather; and the ‘Marchioness’ the small servant to Sampson and Sally Brass. These threads take us into stories of family, love, friendship, greed, conspiracy, and a bit of mystery among other themes.
As always in a Dickens novel, we meet a number of interesting and singular characters, including the angelic, the likeable, and the grotesque. In Nell’s grandfather, Dickens portrays a man who has become addicted to gambling, so much so that he is concerned with little else. Even losing all and falling ill, almost to the point of death doesn’t ‘cure’ him of this habit; and once the temptation presents itself, his eyes light up, he loses himself, and all else is forgotten—he has no scruples about where he gets the money to feed his habit, and continues to rationalise it to himself in terms of wanting to provide for Nell. But despite all his claims of caring for and wanting to provide for Nell, grandfather is a very selfish and unlikeable character; he has no qualms sending little Nell out on errands to the odious Quilp; keeps accusing and pointing fingers at her when she is bearing the entire burden of looking after them and providing for them; doesn’t seem to take any notice when she is wearing herself out, while he himself eats and sleeps comfortably. Nell’s only other relative, her brother Fred Trent is no better, only wanting to get his hands on the wealth he believes his grandfather has.
Then there are the villains of the piece—the slimy and grotesque Daniel Quilp who certainly rates among Dickens’ worst (or do I mean best) villains. Creepy and sadistic, he bears grudges against anyone he chooses to, especially one who might stand up to him, treats his wife terribly—subjecting her to constant emotional abuse, and some physical abuse as well, and mistreats those he employs, the only person able to stand up to him being the little boy who works for him. Then there are the Brass siblings, Sampson, who is quite the sycophant, and acts as Quilp’s solicitor and Sally, who is more formidable and interestingly undertakes legal work at her brother’s chambers. She too mistreats the poor little maid who works for them, and whose origins are a bit of a mystery as well.
Dick Swiveller is a more grey character—he provides a fair bit of the humour in the book, and while a good person at heart, does fall in with Fred Trent’s schemes willingly, and unknowingly in some others as well; but then he is also a source of aid to some of our other characters who most need it. We also have the Nubbles—Kit and his family—and Kit when he gets his first salary and treats his family to an outing gives us one of the warmest scenes in the book, while the pony Whisker, obstinate and inclined to ‘listen’ only to Kit brings us some fun elements as well.
As in Nicholas Nickleby that I read earlier this year, in The Old Curiosity Shop too, we have elements which seem inspired by Dickens’ love of picaresque novels. As Nell and her Grandfather journey away from the shop and into the country, they meet a range of colourful characters—Codlin and Short who run a Punch and Judy show (and in an inn where they stop with them, all variety of artists including performing dogs, and stilt performers), Mrs Jarley who runs a wax works and has a quick (and clever) way to coping with her visitors’ tastes, a rather snobbish schoolmistress and her kinder-hearted employee, but also a kind-hearted school master who turns out to be a good friend to them.
Nell and her grandfather’s story is also one of trial and suffering, more so for Nell, and as we meet other characters and travel with them, we see Nell having to bear the brunt of the journey, and there is a sense of foreboding as to what is to come. While the Nell threads of the story can get rather depressing because one does know what’s coming, one also feels a great deal of pity and heart-broken for her, and as much anger at her grandfather for his selfishness. But with the other characters, we have lighter moments, as also some mystery and suspense, secrets, and conspiracies which keep us entertained all through. In Dickens’ usual style, all the threads are well wrapped up, with all the ‘good guys’ getting happy endings and the ‘evil’ ones their just desserts.
This one is illustrated by George Cattermole and Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’, most characters appearing rather grotesque, but I just found that Phiz did a second set of illustrations softening some of the characters’ appearances.
While not my favourite Dickens book, this was a good and solid read. 4 stars.
I read The Old Curiosity Shop in instalments from October to December with a Goodreads group.