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For the character of Little Nell, the beautiful child thrown into a shadowy, terrifying world, Dickens drew on a tragedy in his own life, the death at the age of seventeen of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. Five years later he wrote, 'the desire to be buried next her is as strong upon ...
For the character of Little Nell, the beautiful child thrown into a shadowy, terrifying world, Dickens drew on a tragedy in his own life, the death at the age of seventeen of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. Five years later he wrote, 'the desire to be buried next her is as strong upon me now ... and I know (for I don't think there ever was love like that I bear her) that it will never diminish.'
The sorrows of Nell and her grandfather are offset by Dickens's creation of a dazzling contemporary world inhabited by some of his most brilliantly drawn characters -- the eloquent ne'er-do-well Dick Swiveller; the hungry maid known as the 'Marchioness'; the mannish lawyer Sally Brass; Quilp's brow-beaten mother-in-law, and Quilp himself, the lustful, vengeful dwarf, whose demonic energy makes a vivid counterpoint to Nell's purity.
ALTHOUGH I am an old man, night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape for days or weeks together but saving in the country I seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living.
I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street lamp or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full revelation in the daylight and, if I must add the truth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremony or remorse.
That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, that incessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy—is it not a wonder how the dwellers in narrow ways can bear to hear it! Think of a sick man in such a place as Saint Martin's Court, listening to the footsteps, and in the midst of pain and weariness obliged, despite himself (as though it were a task he must perform) to detect the child's step from the man's, the slipshod beggar from the booted exquisite, the lounging from the busy, the dull heel of the sauntering outcast from the quick tread of an expectant pleasure-seeker—think of the stream of life that will not stop, pouring on, on, on, through all his restless dreams, as if he were condemned to lie, dead but conscious, in a noisy churchyard, and had no hope of rest for centuries to come.
Then the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on those which are free of toil at least), where many stop on fine evenings looking listlessly down upon the water with some vague idea that by-and-by it runs between green banks which grow wider and wider until at last it joins the broad vast sea—where some halt to rest from heavy loads and think as they look over the parapet that to smoke and lounge away one's life, and lie sleeping in the sun upon a hot tarpaulin, in a dull slow sluggish barge must be happiness unalloyed—and where some, and a very different class, pause with heaver loads than they, remembering to have heard or read in some old time that drowning was not a hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best.
Covent Garden Market at sunrise too, in the spring or summer, when the fragrance of sweet flowers is in the air overpowering even the unwholesome streams of last night's debauchery, and driving the dusky thrush, whose cage has hung outside a garret window all night long half mad with joy! Poor bird! the only neighbouring thing at all akin to the other little captives, some of whom, shrinking from the hot hands of drunken purchasers, lie drooping on the path already, while others, soddened by close contact, await the time when they shall be watered and freshened up to please more sober company, and make old clerks who pass them on their road to business wonder what has filled their breasts with visions of the country.
But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I am about to relate arose out of one of these rambles; and thus I have been led to speak of them by way of preface.
One night I had roamed into the City, and was walking slowly on in my usual way, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an inquiry, the purport of which did not reach me, but which seemed to be addressed to myself, and was preferred in a soft sweet voice that struck me very pleasantly. I turned hastily round and found at my elbow a pretty little girl, who begged to be directed to a certain street at a considerable distance, and indeed in quite another quarter of the town.
'It is a very long way from here,' said I, 'my child.'
'I know that, Sir,' she replied timidly. 'I am afraid it is a very long way, for I came from there tonight.'
'Alone?' said I, in some surprise.
'Oh, yes, I don't mind that, but I am a little frightened now, for I had lost my road.'
'And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong.'
'I am sure you will not do that,' said the little creature, 'you are such a very old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.'
I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the energy with which it was made, which brought a tear into the child's clear eye, and made her slight figure tremble as she looked up into my face.
'Come,' said I, 'I'll take you there.'
She put her hand in mine as confidingly as if she had known me from her cradle, and we trudged away together: the little creature accommodating her pace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I to be protecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look at my face as if to make quite sure that I was not deceiving her, and that these glances (very sharp and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidence at every repetition.
For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child's, for child she certainly was, although I thought it probable from what I could make out, that her very small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulness to her appearance. Though more scantily attired than she might have been she was dressed with perfect neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty or neglect.
'Who has sent you so far by yourself?' said I.
'Someone who is very kind to me, Sir.'
'And what have you been doing?'
'That, I must not tell,' said the child.
There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to look at the little creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for I wondered what kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be prepared for questioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts. As it met mine she added that there was no harm in what she had been doing, but it was a great secret—a secret which she did not even know herself.
This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit but with an unsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on as before, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking cheerfully by the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond remarking that we were going quite a new road and asking if it were a short one.
While we were thus engaged, I resolved in my mind a hundred different explanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt ashamed to take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of the child for the purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love these little people and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us. As I had felt pleased at first by her confidence I determined to deserve it, and to do credit to the nature which had prompted her to repose it in me.
There was no reason, however, why I should refrain from seeing the person who had inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by night and alone, and as it was not improbable that if she found herself near home she might take farewell of me and deprive me of the opportunity, I avoided the most frequented ways and took the most intricate. Thus it was not until we arrived in the street itself that she knew where we were. Clapping her hands with pleasure and running on before me for a short distance my little acquaintance stopped at a door and remaining on the step till I came up knocked at it when I joined her.
A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I did not observe at first, for all was very dark and silent within, and I was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our summons. When she had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were moving inside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.
It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held the light above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainly see. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could recognise in his spare and slender form something of that delicate mould which I had noticed in the child. Their bright blue eyes were certainly alike, but his face was so deeply furrowed and so very full of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself; nothing that looked older or more worn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment which was not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The door being opened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him the little story of our companionship.
'Why bless thee, child,' said the old man patting her on the head, 'how could'st thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!'
'I would have found my way back to you, grandfather,' said the child boldly; 'never fear.'
The old man kissed her, and then turned to me and begged me to walk in. I did so. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the light, he led me through the place I had already seen from without, into a small sitting-room behind, in which was another door opening into a kind of closet, where I saw a little bed that a fairy might have slept in, it looked so very small and was so prettily arranged. The child took a candle and tripped into this little room, leaving the old man and me together.
'You must be tired, Sir,' said he as he placed a chair near the fire, 'how can I thank you?'
'By taking more care of your grandchild another time, my good friend,' I replied.
'More care!' said the old man in a shrill voice, 'more care of Nelly! Why, who ever loved a child as I love Nell?'
He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what answer to make, and the more so because coupled with something feeble and wandering in his manner, there were in his face marks of deep and anxious thought which convinced me that he could not be, as I had been at first inclined to suppose, in a state of dotage or imbecility.
'I don't think you consider—' I began.
'I don't consider!' cried the old man interrupting me, 'I don't consider her! Ah, how little you know of the truth! Little Nelly, little Nelly!'
It would be impossible for any man, I care not what his form of speech might be, to express more affection than the dealer in curiosities did, in these four words. I waited for him to speak again, but he rested his chin upon his hand and shaking his head twice or thrice fixed his eyes upon the fire.
While we were sitting thus in silence, the door of the closet opened, and the child returned, her light brown hair hanging loose about her neck, and her face flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us. She busied herself immediately in preparing supper, and while she was thus engaged I remarked that the old man took an opportunity of observing me more closely than he had done yet. I was surprised to see that all this time everything was done by the child, and that there appeared to be no other persons but ourselves in the house. I took advantage of a moment when she was absent to venture a hint on this point, to which the old man replied that there were few grown persons as trustworthy or as careful as she.
'It always grieves me,' I observed, roused by what I took to be his selfishness, 'it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of children into the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It checks their confidence and simplicity—two of the best qualities that Heaven gives them—and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable of entering into our enjoyments.'
'It will never check hers,' said the old man looking steadily at me, 'the springs are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but few pleasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and paid for.'
'But—forgive me for saying this—you are surely not so very poor'—said I.
'She is not my child, Sir,' returned the old man. 'Her mother was, and she was poor. I save nothing—not a penny—though I live as you see, but'—he laid his hand upon my arm and leant forward to whisper—'she shall be rich one of these days, and a fine lady. Don't you think ill of me, because I use her help. She gives it cheerfully as you see, and it would break her heart if she knew that I suffered anybody else to do for me what her little hands could undertake. I don't consider! '—he cried with sudden querulousness, 'why, God knows that this one child is the thought and object of my life, and yet he never prospers me—no, never!'
At this juncture, the subject of our conversation again returned, and the old man motioning to me to approach the table, broke off, and said no more.
We had scarcely begun our repast when there was a knock at the door by which I had entered, and Nell bursting into a hearty laugh, which I was rejoiced to hear, for it was childlike and full of hilarity, said it was no doubt dear old Kit coming back at last.
'Foolish Nell!' said the old man fondling with her hair. 'She always laughs at poor Kit.'
The child laughed again more heartily than before, and I could not help smiling from pure sympathy. The little old man took up a candle and went to open the door. When he came back, Kit was at his heels.
Kit was a shock-headed, shambling, awkward lad with an uncommonly wide mouth, very red cheeks, a turned-up nose, and certainly the most comical expression of face I ever saw. He stopped short at the door on seeing a stranger, twirled in his hand a perfectly round old hat without any vestige of a brim, and resting himself now on one leg and now on the other and changing them constantly, stood in the doorway, looking into the parlour with the most extraordinary leer I ever beheld. I entertained a grateful feeling towards the boy from that minute, for I felt that he was the comedy of the child's life.
'A long way, wasn't it, Kit?' said the little old man.
'Why, then, it was a goodish stretch, master,' returned Kit.
'Did you find the house easily?'
'Why then, not over and above easy, master,' said Kit.
'Of course you have come back hungry?'
'Why then, I do consider myself rather so, master,' was the answer.
The lad had a remarkable manner of standing sideways as he spoke, and thrusting his head forward over his shoulder, as if he could not get at his voice without that accompanying action. I think he would have amused one anywhere, but the child's exquisite enjoyment of his oddity, and the relief it was to find that there was something she associated with merriment in a place that appeared so unsuited to her, were quite irresistible. It was a great point too that Kit himself was flattered by the sensation he created, and after several efforts to preserve his gravity, burst into a loud roar, and so stood with his mouth wide open and his eyes nearly shut, laughing violently.
The old man had again relapsed into his former abstraction and took no notice of what passed, but I remarked that when her laugh was over, the child's bright eyes were dimmed with tears, called forth by the fullness of heart with which she welcomed her uncouth favourite after the little anxiety of the night. As for Kit himself (whose laugh had been all the time one of that sort which very little would change into a cry) he carried a large slice of bread and meat and a mug of beer into a corner, and applied himself to disposing of them with great voracity.
Excerpted from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, THOMAS CRAWFORD. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|A Dickens Chronology||vii|
|A Note on the Text||xxxi|
|The Old Curiosity Shop||1|
Posted December 11, 2004
When I read this book, I truly thought that Nell and her grandfather resembled Charles Dickens and his struggle to find a decent life. Nell's Grandfather is a gambler who is suddenly not able to keep his curiosity shop because he lost so much money gambling. The snobbish of the rich are shown here and also the child who just wants to keep them together. I recommend this classic for Dicken's lovers.
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Posted March 20, 2003
Ah, Dickens. If only we could spend our days only with you. He truly is The Inimitable. I won't lie to you, folks. This book isn't perfect. If you haven't read David Copperfield, Great Expectations or Oliver Twist (the three i'd read before this one) - i'd go for one of those. Any Dickens novel, though, if its your first, will be a remarkable experience. His devotion to CHARACTER, and PLOT (don't know how to use italics, so capitals will do for emphasis), as opposed to getting bogged down in long dissertations on what he thinks the story's about, like many Victorians did - is incredible. He did so much for creating the NOVEL as we know it today. When you pick up Old Curiosity Shop, or another one, just try and have fun. Settle back in a nice comfortable chair, and go back in time to Victorian England, and walk through the streets with these remarkable characters, characters that you WILL remember after you've turned the final page. And there are memorable characters in this one. Curiosity Shop has copped a lot of flack in recent years on charges of sentimentality. My answer to that is a shrug. The book's also uneven, and i should warn you that its not actually written in the first person - you lose the narrator you begin with after the first few chapters - which i found slightly deceptive. But don't think of it in analytical terms, think of it as a young Dickens, only twenty five, having only published Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelebey, and being the hottest new thing in Victorian England. People wait on streetcorners, howling for the next number of Dickens's journals, which carry monthly installments of his novels. But i can't possibly reproduce, and i won't try, the sights sounds and smells of his stories, which if you sit down with them in a quiet place for long enough, you become part of. The Old Curiosity Shop is really about Nell, a little girl, a pure soul, who's surrounded by a bunch of lunatics! Some of the funny, some of them terrifying. What kept Victorians buying the numbers, i think, was wanting to know what happens to Nell in this horrible atmosphere, but i found myself in sheer delight over the characters - which is the most important thing i ask of a novel.
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Posted July 30, 2004
I truly believe that this story... is dedicated to the memory of his sister-n-law and not into a gripping plot....the plot loses significance as you learn about who Mr. Quilp, the granddad and Nell are as people...I was really touched by this book...b l e s s D I C K E N S!! .. P.S. I have read NEARLY them all.. 3 more to go Charly.
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Posted April 6, 2010
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What is there left to say about Charles Dickens? The Old Curiosity Shop is why Dickens holds his own in the circle of classical liturature. Dripping with Dickens charm, The Old Curiosity Shop is an understanding tale about the traps of addiction, the iron fist of poverty, and the abounding strength of love and the human spirit. Readers can empathize with pure, little Nell, steadfast and courageous Kit, and even Nell's frail, but good hearted grandfather, as they go through a string of discouragements brought on by debt. The Old Cusiosity Shop deserves a place in every school library and on every book shelf in every American home. Get your children started on Dickens as early as possible. Dickens isn't something you can afford to grow up without.
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