The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The one with Little Nell…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nell Trent, a child of thirteen, lives with her doting grandfather in his shop where he ekes out an existence selling old and unusual items. Grandfather (he is never named) has lost both his beloved wife and their daughter, Nell’s mother, and Nell has become a substitute to him for their loss, though he also loves her for her own sake. He is worried about what might happen to her when he dies, so is determined to make lots of money so he can provide for her. But the method he chooses – gambling – soon becomes an addiction, and he gradually loses all his savings and ends up in debt to the evil dwarf, Daniel Quilp. Quilp turns Nell and her grandfather out of their home, and they must leave London and learn to make their way in a life of poverty. Grandfather is old and becoming senile, so young Nell must take on any jobs she can find, and beg for them both when work isn’t available. But Quilp isn’t finished with them yet…

This is the only one of Dickens’ novels that I hadn’t read before, so it was a real pleasure to get to know the cast of characters and follow Nell on her journeys. Unfortunately what happens to Little Nell is so well known (in case you don’t know, I won’t say) and a book I read a few years ago had also told me what happens to Quilp, so I didn’t get the joy of suspense over the main plotline. But, as usual with Dickens, there are so many sub-plots and digressions, the characters are so beautifully quirky, the settings are described so wonderfully and the language is a delight, so I didn’t feel I missed out on much.

(Nell dreaming angelic dreams amidst the shop’s curiosities…)

Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh, and who affectionately teases her only friend, young Kit, her grandfather’s assistant. She does eventually turn into the usual saccharin perfect saint, though, losing much of her initial appeal as she does. But all the worry of looking after her grandfather and herself falls on her, and Dickens allows her to have enough strength and ingenuity to carry them both through some dangerous and heart-breaking moments. She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either! I could fully understand why people got so caught up in her story when the book was originally published in serial form although, sadly, apparently the story about people storming the docks in New York when the ship carrying the last instalment arrived is apocryphal. Grandfather is a surprisingly unattractive character who really doesn’t deserve Nell’s devotion, but in him Dickens gives a great portrayal of how addiction can destroy a man’s character and life.

Book 73 of 90

The bulk of the story, however, is really about Kit, Quilp and the characters around them in London. Quilp is a sadist who delights in bullying his wife and anyone else who comes in his way. For no particular reason – Quilp doesn’t need reasons – he has taken against Kit and sets out to destroy him. But Kit is an honest, upright young boy who has the knack of winning friends who will stand by him when he needs them. When Nell leaves London with her grandfather, Kit hopes to find her one day, so he can make sure she is alright. Quilp also wants to find Nell, but for very different reasons – mostly just to be mean to her and to a young man called Dick Swiveller, who has been persuaded by Nell’s brother (oh, I forgot to mention – Nell has a ne’er-do-well brother, Fred) that he, Dick, should marry Nell, for complicated reasons. Gosh, summarising Dickens’ plots is exceptionally hard! Trust me, it all makes sense in the book! Dick is a lot of fun, constantly quoting from romantic songs of the day, and having a heart of gold under his drunken wastrel exterior.

Quilp is a great villain, without a single redeeming feature. Because he’s described as an ugly, misshapen dwarf when we first meet him, I tried to have some sympathy – to consider whether his treatment as a child may have warped his character – but honestly, he’s so vile that after a bit I couldn’t feel anything for him other than hatred and a desire to see him get his comeuppance! Sally Brass is another wonderful character. Sister to Sampson Brass, Quilp’s lawyer, she works alongside her brother and is the real force in the business. She’s mannish in her mannerisms, obnoxious, a tyrant to her little servant, and joins happily in all Quilp’s evil schemes. Sampson also goes along with Quilp, but he’s weaker than Sally and acts mostly out of fear of Quilp’s wrath.

(Quilp interrupts the ladies taking tea…)

Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannise over the weaker sex, and the duty that devolved upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons; firstly because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel, secondly because Mrs Quilp’s parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority, thirdly because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex, and fourthly because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.

I felt there were more signs of this one’s origins as a serial than in most of his novels. It starts off with a first-person narrator, but this is dropped after a few chapters and from there on it becomes a third-person narrative. Kit starts out as a kind of simpleton comedy character, but then turns into a fine upstanding young man with plenty of intelligence as the story develops, and Dick has a similar change of character, though less marked. And there are, unusually for Dickens, one or two loose ends, particularly one around the birth of the one of the characters. There’s a great introduction by Elizabeth M. Brennan in my Oxford World’s Classics edition, which explains how these discrepancies arose from the rushed method of writing for weekly publication and the fact that Dickens hadn’t planned out the whole story when he began to write it. Brennan also tells us that Dickens cut some passages before the serialisation was published in novel form, including the birth mystery to which I referred. It doesn’t, however, explain why Dickens chose to cut that particular scene, leaving the reader to guess from a couple of hints along the way. The cut sections are given in the appendices.

(Grandfather gambling away Nell’s little hoard of money…)

However, none of these minor flaws are enough of a problem to take away from the sheer enjoyability of watching Dickens masterfully juggle humour and pathos, horror and joy, with all of his usual skill. And, oh dear, as always there’s so much I haven’t even touched on – the travelling entertainers Nell meets with on her journey, the waxworks, the Punch and Judy men, the hellish scenes of industrialised towns, Quilp’s poor mother-in-law, Kit’s family, the delightfully obstinate pony Whisker, the prison scenes, and so much more!

I’ll have to let it settle and perhaps read it at least once more to decide where it will finally sit in my league table of Dickens’ novels. Currently, it’s in the middle – not quite up there with Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and so on, but not down at the bottom with poor Oliver Twist either. However, a middle-rank Dickens is still vastly better than most other books written by people unfortunate enough to not be Dickens, so that means it’s great – highly recommended!

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54 thoughts on “The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

  1. It’s so long since I read this, it was good to be reminded of the plot and secondary characters. Difficult not to think of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about reading the crisis scene (trying to avoid spoilers!) I wouldn’t place it above the middle of D’s novels. Little Dorrit is perhaps a more developed young woman protagonist than Nell…

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    • Haha, yes, and I do feel Wilde had a point! I got a bit tired of Little Dorrit tripping and slipping and flitting everywhere – I wanted to tell her just to walk, for goodness sake! Kate Nickleby’s my favourite – Dickens accidentally gave her an actual character… 😉 Yes, this one was maybe a bit too messy plot-wise to be in the top rank, but I did enjoy Quilp and I developed a severe soft spot for Dick Swiveller. 😀

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  2. I don’t think the Old Curiosity Shop deserves its reputation among some Dickensian theorists as his worst novel, I was pleasantly surprised when I read it to find so much to enjoy, it will probably remain in my top 10 when I have read them all. As for Little Nell, I agree she didn’t actually start out as all that bad, and I was vaguely invested in her initially. When Dickens wasn’t focussing on how pure and wonderful she was, and allowed her to take charge and make decisions, she came alive as a character, and I felt Dickens should have had better faith in his readers to remain sympathetic towards her without resorting to such extreme pathos in the end. I’m glad you enjoyed the novel over all, and I would agree it is better than Oliver Twist.

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    • No, I don’t think it could count as his worst either, though I do think it’s maybe less well worked out than they usually are. But I enjoyed Quilp and I developed a serious soft spot for Dick Swiveller! Nell wasn’t the worst of the heroines either – some of them are really too pathetic and insipid to make me care about them at all, but for about two thirds of this one I liked that Nell was kind of responsible for her own fate. But then he reverted to his usual angelic saint stuff… sigh! I also enjoyed all the people she met along the way – the show people. As always, a great book to end an old year and start a new one with!

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  3. There’s nothing like a good DIckens character, is there, FictionFan? Their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies make for such great reading. And I agree with you about the sub-plots and digressions. I think Dickens does them well, and adds to the reader’s engagement. That whole question about digressions has me thinking (always a dangerous thing! 😉 ). A lot of authors don’t do that well, and yet sometimes, they’re really excellent. Oh, and as an aside, I laughed at your description of Nell as opposed to Dora Copperfield… 😉

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    • I’m so inconsistent over my love for Dickens – normally I’d criticise characters who were too quirky, but I love his, and normally all those digressions would drive me up the wall, but I follow him quite happily wherever he decides to take me! And normally all those angelic heroines would make me want to hit the author with a brick, but I forgive him. This must be what they mean when they talk about unconditional love… 😉

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  4. Great review! You enjoyed this more than I did, FictionFan, so I’m glad to read your perspective. I read this book after reading Nicholas Nickleby, so I was on the “Kickass Kate Nickleby” committee and viewed Nell through that lens. Perhaps a reread of the book might change my perspective.

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    • I always love Dickens because I just enjoy his style of writing so much, so I’m pretty forgiving of any other weaknesses. This definitely doesn’t compare to Nicholas Nickleby though and poor Nell wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight with Kate! But she’s still not as insipid as some of the heroines – he really had a thing about angelic female teenagers… 😉

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  5. You obviously enjoyed this one, FF — it’s one I haven’t read and sounds as if I should some day. Leave it to Dickens to create a perfectly nonredeemable villain (and here today, “they” tell us that only an antagonist people can find a way to relate to works — hmph!)

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    • Haha, I know – no one would publish Dickens if he was writing today! He breaks all the rules, even my own rules – like soppy heroines and quirky characters and all those digressions – and yet I forgive him and love him anyway! 😀

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  6. I’ve never read it! Actually, considering I have the entire collection of his work (thanks to my grandmother), it’s shameful how many I haven’t read. I really need to remedy that! Glad you’ve finally ticked this one off, completing your list.

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    • I’m actually jealous you’ve still got some to read! I just realised when I was posting this that I’ll never have the joy of reading a Dickens novel for the first time ever again, and I’m feeling distinctly traumatised… 😉

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  7. So many authors out there unfortunate enough not to be Dickens! I hear your love for this author throughout your review, but I’m not sure I’d pick this particular story up instead of re-reading NN. For the life of me, I can’t imagine writing a serial without plotting out the whole thing in advance, and THEN turning it into a novel that feels cohesive. Talk about pressure.

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    • According to the intro, he didn’t do it deliberately – the first chapter was just supposed to be a short description of an odd meeting during a London walk, but people showed enough interest in Nell’s character that he wrote another episode, then another, and then decided it had to be an entire serial! Apparently he found the pressure of turning out a weekly instalment horrific so at least that should cheer up all the writers unfortunate enough not to be Dickens… 😉

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    • Thank you! I love all his books, even the ones I don’t like, so I could be said to be biased. 😉 But I do think this one is well worth reading. I’m intrigued to hear how you get on with Great Expectations when you get to it… 😀

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  8. I do appreciate how you regularly remind us of how essential it is to have Dickens in the reading calendar. Nicholas Nickleby is my next Dickens’ read and I mustn’t leave that for too long. Good to know there are still Dickens’ treasures out there to read for the first time as I haven’t read The Old Curiosity Shop.

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    • Getting into the habit of making him my Christmas read has been great – it stops me from letting time drift by while he lingers on my TBR. Nicholas Nickleby is fabulous – one of the very best, so you must make time for it! I just realised when I was posting this review that I’ll never have the joy of reading a Dickens novel for the first time ever again now, and I’m feeling severely traumatised… I wonder if he could be tempted to come out of retirement… 😉

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  9. So happy that you enjoyed this one! I wouldn’t think there are many surprises for new readers when it comes to Dickens plots as most of the stories are so well-known, but getting to know the characters and following the twists and turns is a joy.

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    • That’s the problem with a lot of classics. I do it too – assume everyone knows what happens to Lizzie and Darcy in the end and so on, which must be annoying for young’uns who’ve yet to read it! There’s always so much in Dickens that knowing the main plot doesn’t really spoil it though. 😀

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  10. All I really know about this one is the famous Oscar Wilde quote. I am trying to get reacquainted with Dickens after having had him ruined for me at school (you get very overexposed to him if you grow up in Kent!). Bleak House and David Copperfield are the first two on my list. Your review has convinced me that it’s worth looking this one up once I’ve made a start, though!

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    • Ugh! I wish they wouldn’t teach Dickens in school, or at least only to 5th and 6th years at most. Even at Uni they managed to destroy Great Expectations for me by making me analyse it to death. Fortunately I already loved Dickens by that stage so they didn’t put me off him completely but I know some of the people in the class vowed they’d never read him again. I hope you grow to love him in time! 😀

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  11. […] An interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about the way authors add depth to their stories. Well-written stories focus on the characters and the main plot, but sometimes, that can leave a story feeling a bit ‘thin.’ So, authors sometimes add ‘side trips’ and digressions to their stories. It’s a bit risky to do this, since a digression can distract the reader and even drag a book down. But when it’s done well, a digression can add character depth, interesting information, and even sub-plots to a story. […]

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  12. I have only read Bleak House and I read that one last year, so I am a Dickens newbie, at my advanced age. My husband had been encouraging me to read Bleak House for years and I finally did it. Your review was very interesting and useful. I don’t think I will make this my next novel by Dickens, but someday I hope to get to it.

    I just remembered that I have also read A Christmas Carol. In December 2018. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

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    • Oh, you’re lucky! I was just regretting the fact that after this one I have no “new” Dickens novels to look forward to. Bleak House is my favourite and I read or listen to or watch A Christmas Carol every year. Nicholas Nickleby and A Tale of Two Cities are both excellent too… hope you enjoy whichever one you choose next! 😀

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  13. Everytime I read one of your Charles Dickens reviews, I think I really need to read one of his books. It’s hard to believe Ive gotten this far in life not having read one! Except for A Christmas Carol of course…

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  14. The Old Curiosity Shop sits at the bottom of my Dickens league – not that I’ve read them all by any means. I almost want to read it again to pick up on the points you raise: what was the birth mystery, I wonder? Clearly I missed that! I agree that there were some marvellous characters as usual but Little Nell annoyed me greatly and I detested Quilp. (Daren’t say more for fear of ruining your impressive stance on spoilers.) The descriptions of those industrialised towns were masterly.

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    • I can sort of understand that in terms of the main plot which was definitely nowhere near as good as his usual. But as always I loved all the sub-plots – I loved the waxworks and the Punch and Judy stuff, and although Kit’s transformation was a bit miraculous, I liked him as the hero. And for some obscure reason, I developed a huge soft spot for Dick Swiveller… 😀 The birth thing is around the Marchioness’ parentage, if that prompts your memory…

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  15. The main plot just went on too long, with too much of the same thing for me. But I did love Dick and I also loved the Marchioness. I’m still drawing a blank on her parentage though. I’ve made a note to watch out for that in my next lifetime, when I’m sure I’ll be reading it again! 😂

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