Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1840-1)

Originally Written in 2008

The Old Curiosity Shop is a bizarre novel. It's almost hard to call it a novel, such a strangely fractured beast it is. I can certainly imagine it met with a baffled reception upon initial publication - not least the way in which it has clearly sprung from the more fantastic sides of Dickens' mind (tricksters, dwarfs and giants fill its pages). There is also the unprecedented manner in which Master Humphrey, the story's narrator from the beginning ("Night is generally my time for walking", what an opening line) completely vanishes after Chapter 3 and there is no more first-person narration for the rest of the novel. Yes, this is an odd one alright.

The fact that it was written in installment format is especially notable. There is a very improvised feel to proceedings, visible in particular in the drastic changes of characterization for both Dick Swiveller and Kit. The setting seems to move every few chapters, from the unusual surroundings of Nell and her grandfather's old curiosity shop to various pubs, seasides, docks, and the quiet British countryside. Sometimes, though, this installment format works to the author's advantage. It's not a fantastic pageturner, but Dickens regularly has the cheek and audacity to decline a revisit to major characters for chapters on end just at the moment when the reader demands a revisit most. It's a classic technique Dickens' friend Wilkie Collins called "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry...make 'em wait", and one storytellers like G R R Martin still use with regularity today.

The characters are generally engaging and likeable; Nell is sweet and charming, the natural Romantic symbol of goodness: a young, innocent child. This has the effect - to our more cynical, modern sensibilities - of distancing us from the drama, of course, and Oscar Wilde famously commented of Nell's death that you have a heart of stone if you can read the account of it without laughing. Yet apparently Dickens became unusually emotionally absorbed in writing the story and certainly there seems to be some passages that suggest that; take the emotive scene where Nell begs her grandfather to allow the two of them to cast off their wealth and become beggars, or when she, terrified, begins to see in his face "the dawning of despondent madness" - instances much more powerful than the one Wilde scoffs at.

Another unusual thing about the story is its scale. Not the geographical scale, because that is especially large, but the number of characters - many of Dickens' other novels feature a central character or characters and a crowded cast of others, all of which seem to play an important part. Here proceedings are much smaller, more intimate and more character-based; many of the minor figures could be completely excised with no harm done to the plot - a plot which would get along fine without them and indeed could be perfectly well served by only including Little Nell, her grandfather, Kit, Quilp and Dick Swiveller. The Sophy Wackles escapade, for example, is *utterly* irrelevant to the rest of the novel.

It is Daniel Quilp, however, Daniel Quilp the lecherous dwarf, who is the real triumph of The Old Curiosity Shop. Even his name has an ominous yet somehow sickening ring to it. And well it should, because he is an extraordinary creation whose demonic energy really fuels this book. He is no pantomime figure, organising things behind the scenes in a Machiavellian fashion, but a short stunted dwarf with a hideous face and thick yellow toenails. To be sure, this belies the curse of 19th century physiognomy, in which you could judge a person's character by how they appear outwardly; and yet both his personality and appearance are simply so vividly rendered that it is hard to complain all that much about that. His diabolical interventions truly are the novel's greatest highlights.

All in all, this is a very unusual book, and certainly Dickens at his most eccentric.

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