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On a blustery winter afternoon in 1840, crowds flooded the docks of the New York and Boston harbors. Calling wildly to the English ship carrying the next installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, they breathlessly demanded the fate of the novel’s heroine, Little Nell. For months, Victorian audiences had followed the orphan’s adventures as she and her beloved grandfather fled the moral and material ravages of London and the machinations of the villainous dwarf, Quilp. For months, the devoted readers had laughed at the novel’s energetic parade of circus acts, puppet shows, and wax works and trembled over the innocent child’s encounter with debasing destitution and the malevolent demoralization of her own grandfather’s addiction. Indeed Little Nell set the precedent that Harry Potter would follow over a century later: she was the first trans-Atlantic serial literary star. The novel’s tragic denouement was greeted with universal shock. The Irish politician Daniel O’Connor allegedly broke into tears and hurled the novel out a window. In fact, the tragic ending is one of the most daring moves in English literature, a brave defiance of audience desires and expectations. For today’s reader, The Old Curiosity Shop not only illustrates a poverty that looks uncannily familiar, but forges a heroism from the small acts of caring that make modern life meaningful. The most popular of Dickens’ novels in his lifetime, it remains both a page-turner and a masterpiece.
Born on February 7, 1812, to a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, Charles Dickens spent his early years first in Portsmouth and then in London. When he was twelve years old, his father was imprisoned for debt, a traumatic experience that Dickens revisited in various ways throughout his fiction. While the rest of the family stayed with his father, Dickens was sent to work in the Warren’s Blacking Factory, a rat-infested, dilapidated building, where he typed up and labeled pots of shoe polish, sitting sometimes on display in a window where pedestrians could view him at what he felt to be menial and demeaning work. In 1829, he became a freelance reporter at Doctor’s Commons Courts and in 1832, a shorthand reporter of Parliamentary debates in the House of Commons. He began in 1833 to publish vignettes of London life, using the pseudonym Boz, a nasal corruption of Moses, a character in Oliver Goldsmith’s popular 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield. In 1836 he was financially able to marry Catherine Hogarth, who would eventually bear him ten children before their official separation in 1858 due to his infatuation with the young actress Ellen Ternan. One of the most popular and prolific writers of all time, Dickens invented novels that stand as virtual monuments: Oliver Twist (1838), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865) have thrilled readers all over the world. After a series of grueling tours performing public readings, Dickens’ health deteriorated and he died in 1870, leaving unfinished his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His tomb is in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey where he rests among the giants of English letters.
By the time he began The Old Curiosity Shop in April of 1840, the twenty-eight-year-old Dickens was already a celebrity as the author of the wildly popular The Pickwick Papers (1836–7), Oliver Twist (1837–9), and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–9). Still reeling from the “Bozmania” of 1838 during which Dickens’ original pen name became a household word, the English public fêted him at public dinners, followed his activities in the daily press, produced multiple stage versions of his novels, and disseminated copies of his portraitone done by none other than the society painter Daniel Maclise. But in many ways The Old Curiosity Shop is a deeply personal novel; it has its roots in the sudden death, in his arms, of Dickens’ beloved seventeen-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837. Dickens mourned Mary’s loss through various rituals, composing the inscription on her tomb, planning on being buried next to her, and dreaming of her every night for the nine months following her death. In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens became the unprecedented master at transforming this grief into art.
Using the idea of a pilgrimage to structure the story, Dickens tells in The Old Curiosity Shop how Little Nell, a beautiful thirteen-year-old orphan, must flee with her grandfather from London where his gambling debts have forced the foreclosure of his business, caused their eviction from the shop where they live, and precipitated his mental breakdown. The primary agent of these disasters is the moneylender Daniel Quilp, a deformed and malevolent dwarf, who also encourages Nell’s dissolute brother in his greedy designs to have his friend Dick Swiveller marry his sister, whom the Grandfather in delusion has portrayed as an heiress. To advance this project, Quilp places Swiveller as a clerk in the law office of Mr. Brass, the corrupt lawyer who will later try to frame Nell’s loyal friend Kit as a thief. While Nell’s journey with her grandfather destroys her health and becomes increasingly metaphorical as it brings her closer to death, the London scene turns on Swiveller’s exciting reformation as he develops from a profligate clown into a comedic hero.
The Old Curiosity Shop was at first conceived as a short piece, not a whole novel, written for a new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, whose organizing principle rested on a storytelling club whose founding member, for some eccentric reason, kept disparate manuscripts in his clock. Dickens intended the project to provide a respite from the breakneck pace of serial publications, but The Old Curiosity Shop soon took on a life of its own as readers came to expect the story of Little Nell’s flight from the gargoyl-like Quilp to continue from issue to issue. Hence the novel was born as a response to reader demand and stands both as an illustration of Dickens’ emotional connection to his audience as well as of his improvisational skills. This evolution from short story to serialized novel explains the sudden shift early in the novel from Master Humphrey’s first-person narration to an omniscient third-person narrator. Later in the novel, Dickens will justify Master Humphrey’s disappearance by identifying him as the Single Gentleman, Nell’s long-lost great uncle. When the serialized publication of The Old Curiosity Shop concluded in February of 1841, Master Humphrey’s Clock served as the vehicle for Dickens’ next novel, Barnaby Rudge.
There is some poetic justice in Dickens’ reluctant surrender to the serial novel form; he was not only its inventor in April of 1836 with the first installment of The Pickwick Papers, but also its most successful practitioner. Although the nineteenth century is famous for the expansion of the middle-class reading public, the prohibitively high cost of books during the first half of the century forced publishers to find other means of disseminating literature: circulating libraries whereby novels, published in a three-volume format, were made available to paying subscribers one volume at a time, and serialization, whereby installments were published weekly or monthly, provided the vast majority of middle-class readers with access to both fiction and nonfiction. In exemplifying the dominance of the serial novel form, The Old Curiosity Shop underscores suspenseful pacing and the intimate immediacy of routine engagement as determining aesthetic structuresmuch like a television series today. The Old Curiosity Shop also marks the moment in which Dickens for the first time shared directly in the profits from his work, receiving a fee for each installment in addition to an advance, and, more significantly, held the copyright jointly with his publisher, Chapman Hall. As novel writing became increasingly professionalized, Dickens led many writers away from understanding their work as the sale of labor and toward conceptualizing their works as intellectual properties.
The most famous statement ever written about The Old Curiosity Shop is Oscar Wilde’s flippant remark that “One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” We can see then that whereas the novel’s initial readers may have drowned in tears, a second wave of readers was dissolving in laughter. And indeed many of those readers were frustrated not only by the novel’s cumbersome frame and melodramatic plotting, but also by its sentimentality. It is useful to remember here that sentimentality was a convention of eighteenth-century literature and one of many discourses from which Dickens, with his fine ear for the different social languages that composed his cultural moment, drew. Crudely speaking, sentimentalists of the eighteenth century generally contrast with Hobbesians, the former believing in the natural sympathies that allow human beings to form social bonds and the latter believing that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The residues of this tension can be seen seeping through most of Dickens’ earlier novels.
But Wilde captures, as only Wilde can, one of the central ironies of sentimental literature as it is absorbed into nineteenth-century fiction, which is its brazen theatricality. Dickens himself seems to have wept only while either watching a play or performing one of his famous readings. Taking his cues from eighteenth-century sentimental literature, Dickens clearly did not shy away from illustrating the moral superiority of right feeling through the deliberate conjuring of emotion. In fact, those right feelings would come to be central to the novel of reform, which Dickens was still in the middle of conceptualizing during the early 1840s. In this sense, the cultivation of right feeling, so important to mid-century reformist writers like Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Beecher Stowe, is one of the legacies of sentimentalism as Dickens processes it. But its other legacy is, perhaps ironically, its unapologetic theatricality. Sentimentality is not, Vladimir Nabokov cautions, to be confused with sensitivity;[i] some of the greatest villains of twentieth-century history were sentimentalists: Stalin embraced babies, Lenin wept over La Traviata, Hitler gushed over the Goebbels children. In using sentimentality, Dickens not only articulates a desire to believe that sympathy characterizes natural social relationships, but ironizes that belief by making it into something of a gamea theatrical play at right feeling. This theatricalization of sentimentality is affirming and subversive at once. As Sue Zemka has observed, The Old Curiosity Shop in some ways functions as a novelistic version of a Punch and Judy puppet show, the climactic moment featuring Punch murdering his “babby” and then tossing its corpse into the audience to see what will happen. [ii]
By conveying the characteristic excesses and theatricality of sentimental literature, Wilde was not necessarily disparaging the very real grief that Victorians experienced at a time of soaring infant mortality rates, a crucial backdrop for all of Dickens’ fiction, but especially for The Old Curiosity Shop. Almost half of the funerals conducted in the London of 1839 were for children who had not yet turned ten years old. One father records: “I am so overwhelmed with the sudden loss of my precious child, that I scarcely know how to write.”[iii] Victorians consistently express the inadequacy of religious faith at times of such grief. Margaret Oliphant, a prolific and self-reliant writer, is exemplary: she finds herself a mother childless after the death of all three of her own children in addition to that of the nephew and two nieces who shared her home; she recoils from the fear that a jealous God had taken them away because she had loved them too much.[iv] Dostoevsky will give this crisis of faith its most powerful representation four decades later in The Brothers Karamazov: the suffering of innocent children raises the specter of an unjust universe in that no human can accept a moral scheme in which the death of a child could be justifiable. This spiritual crisis is of central concern in The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dickens’ approach is peculiarly modern in its religious hesitations and secular investments.
It is especially as one of Victorian literature’s ubiquitous orphans that Little Nell emblematizes a crucial characteristic of the English nineteenth-century novel, which is its deep ambivalence toward authority. As any good elementary teacher will attest, orphanhood is the imaginative precondition of children’s narrativeit is, after all, what gets the child out of the house where the story can happen. In its break from any biologically inherited past, the orphan is particularly appealing to writers of unstable class status. Indeed most of the great nineteenth-century English novelists were what we would designate as “petit bourgeois.” Austen and the Brontës were daughters of clergymen with modest livings, Eliot was the daughter of an estate manager, and Hardy was the son of a stonemason; like Dickens, they hailed from an upwardly mobile lower middle class. An object of sympathy, the orphan was free from inheriting the sins, or class, of the father without sharing in the guilt of patricidea common nineteenth-century literary preoccupation in revolutionary continental Europe.
Interestingly, Dickens pairs his orphan with a malevolent, however unintentional, father-figure. For the nineteenth-century European imagination, the forfeiture of parental responsibilityespecially of paternal responsibilityprovided a master metaphor for the justification of revolution and regicide. Hence Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Children” (1817) and the allusion to Ugolino eating his sons in Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–9) exemplify how Romantic art employed images of the devouring father to advance a political agenda that justified the execution of traditional authority figures. As Martin Meisel has demonstrated, one of the most common variations of this theme is Roman Charity, or Caritas Romana, to which Dickens refers directly in Little Dorrit, his paean to filial devotion. Roman Charity depicts a young woman breastfeeding her father in order to save him from starvation in a jail cell, a secular and humanistic form of Christian self-sacrifice for the Renaissance, but a grotesque perversion of the natural order for the Romantics.[v] That the most frightening moment in The Old Curiosity Shop is Little Nell’s realization that the evil from which she flees is embodied in her traveling companion, her very own grandfather, suggests that Dickens is alive to the terrifying revolutionary iconography of the continent.
In its repellant role reversal, the relationship between Little Nell and the grandfather anticipates the relationship between Little Dorrit and the father of the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit and Jenny Wren and Mr. Dolls, her unfortunate “child,” in Our Mutual Friend. In all three cases, the source of moral corruption is money: Although the grandfather gambles and Mr. Dolls drinks, both emerge villainous through behavior that identifies money as the ultimate mediator of human relationshipsthe “cash nexus” that Thomas Carlyle and Karl Marx condemn. Money also perverts Master Humphrey’s first encounter with Nell on a dark London street pursuing her grandfather’s business, a context that would have associated her with prostitution. Dickens makes it clear that the grandfather’s natural wish to provide for his grandchild becomes corrupted by the unnatural and self-perpetuating drive for monetary gain. Gambling serves Dickens well here in that its machinery allows him to critique industrial capitalism and assert traditional religious values. Victorian hostility to gambling is not articulated in quite the same terms as the Temperance Movement, which castigated drinking as an addiction, thereby utilizing the language of self-control and the figure of self-help. The idea that life could be a gamble contradicts the sanctity of traditional institutions that preside over the transmission of wealth, such as primogeniture (by which property and title are inherited by the first-born son), and blasphemes a religious providentialism whereby only those who live a whole life unified by good work are rewarded by God. Although gambling figures in later Victorian fiction on a continuum that includes speculators and bankers, to speak of gambling in The Old Curiosity Shop is to speak of how the old betray the young, how in their forfeiture of authority they become the unwitting agents of a terrible destructiveness and the unconscious objects of a terrible pathos.
As Peter Brooks has demonstrated, a melodramatic imagination invests the narrative landscape with a Manichean significance whereby the forces of light are forever battling with the forces of darkness,[vi] and The Old Curiosity Shop certainly enacts that polarity: good parents areat least apparentlydivided from evil parents, good children from evil children, good spaces from evil ones, the countryside from the city. But Dickens complicates that dichotomy. As it turns out, the countryside is not filled with shepherds and pastoral poetry but emerges first as a virtual dressing room for a cast of itinerant entertainers and then as a harrowing hallucination of the mind-forging manacles characterizing the industrialized north of England where cities such as Birmingham provide the backdrop for unspeakable poverty and human degradation. Here in chapters 44 and 45, Dickens’ writing is at its most effective and most intensely metaphoric. Significantly, it is in the heart of the blackest and most incomprehensible of cities that Dickens locates storytelling in the orphan tender of the industrial forge:
“It’s like a book to me,” he said, “the only book I ever learned to read; and many an old story it tells me. It’s music, for I should know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don’t know how many strange faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals ”
The passage reminds us that Dickens is the consummate urban novelist. Famous for his peripatetic walks through the nocturnal city, he is credited with inventing a new kind of novel in response to the urban experience of randomness alongside machinery, unpredictability alongside schedules, the visible alongside the veiled.[vii]
The Old Curiosity Shop is really divided between two stories: Little Nell’s flight from the city and Dick Swiveller’s reinvention of it; whereas Little Nell flees from Daniel Quilp, the evil money lender, and from the gambling parlors that lure her grandfather, Dick befriends the starving, nameless urchin who lives in the cellar of the law office where he works. Naming her the Marchioness, Dick emerges as a figure of Dickens himself, employing his creative energies in the emotional rescue of a poor nobody, a soul who does not even bear a name. In this sense, Dick Swiveller offers an alternative to the grandfather’s debilitating gambling when he teaches the Marchioness a new kind of playnot just a new card game but the imagining of a new social identity, a Marchioness rather than a maid. Laughing like a fiend in three syllables, conversing through the rhyming lines of the poet Thomas Moore, using his theatrical ravisher’s air to bear a fainting mother away from a suffocating courtroom, Dick Swiveller is a walking one-man catalogue of the popular Victorian stage. And as the Swiveller plot takes over the novel, the various senses of play coalesce: the game of stakes and the play of the imagination. The flipside of the gambling that serves Quilp’s maniacal power is Dick’s regenerative playful energy.
Although Dickens claimed that he wrote The Old Curiosity Shop in order to console readers in their private grief, the novel’s lasting power really inheres more in its joyful celebration of the imagination’s ability to shape alternatives, however wild, however fanciful, however unconventional. Although no one believes that the Marchioness is really of noble rank, the play that allows her to imagine that identity gives her the power to nurse Swiveller back to health and to provide the information that will exonerate Kit. The Old Curiosity Shop makes it clear that what we can imagine changes who we are; what we can imagine even saves others. The Old Curiosity Shop illustrates this rather modern idea forcefully, gracefully, and humorously. The story of human potentialits triumphs and its travestiesis one that Dickens tells masterfully in nearly all of his novels. And it is a story we can never tire of hearing.
Monica Feinberg Cohen was educated at Yale College and Columbia University, where she now teaches nineteenth-century literature. She is author of Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women, Work and Home.
[i] Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, p 71.
[ii] Sue Zemka, “From the Punchmen to Pugin’s Gothics: The Broad Road to a Sentimental Death in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 48 (1993), p. 295.
[iii] Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 331.
[iv] Elisabeth Jay, Mrs Oliphant: A Fiction to Herself, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 180–91.
[v] Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983, pp 303–12.
[vi] Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
[vii] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford: University Press, 1973, 154.