Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

Old Curiosity Shop: Little Nell by George Cattermole

I’ve returned to my Dickens project – reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography and breaking off to read each successive novel.  As far as The Old Curiosity Shop is concerned, like everyone I suppose, I have long been familiar with the novel’s central character Little Nell, and the story that when the last instalment of was about to appear in 1841, his American fans were so desperate to find out the ending that they stormed the New York piers shouting to incoming ships, ‘Is Little Nell dead?’  But – probably put off by the novel’s reputation for sentimentality – I never read it when I was younger.

The issue of sentimentality is something I’ll return to later.  For now, let me say that, though first impressions were not too promising, I grew to enjoy the novel – gripped by Dickens’ distinctly unsentimental account of Nell’s journey through the Black Country with her grandfather, and captivated by its rich assortment of comic and grotesque characters, most notably Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, and the shrewd and cunning ‘little hunchy villain and a monster’ Daniel Quilp.

George Cattermole’s plate depicting Quilp and Samuel Brass

There’s a stylistically awkward moment at the end of the third chapter, when the character who has been narrating the story up to that point is dropped by Dickens abruptly:

And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.

These words are spoken by the elderly Master Humphrey, who walks the streets of London alone at night and whose words begin the story:

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.

Dickens was in his late twenties in 1840 when, with the great successes of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby already behind him, he launched a weekly periodical called Master Humphrey’s Clock.  The idea was that a small group of men, old friends of Master Humphrey, would gather to hear tales from old manuscripts kept in an antique grandfather clock. The first issue of the magazine appeared in April 1840 with sketches and short stories, along with what were to become the first three chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop.  The model Dickens had in mind was something like the 18th century journals, such as The Spectator, that he had enjoyed reading as a child – but ‘more demotic, democratic, and popular’.

The first issue sold well but, when readers discovered the magazine did not contain a new novel, sales quickly fell away.  Dickens’ quick response was to expand the sketches concerning Nell and her grandfather’s shop, and abandon the characters of Master Humphrey and his friends altogether.  The result was exactly as Dickens had hoped – the serialization of Nell’s story in weekly instalments was an enormous commercial success, selling over 100,000 copies a week, better than any previous Dickens novel.  This is a phenomenal figure, given that it’s been estimated that every issue sold found 15 readers, as well as being read aloud to more who could not read.

Master Humphrey's Clock

The first few issues of Master Humphrey’s Clock

While those were the commercial and opportunistic origins of the novel, but, as many commentators have observed, the emotional impetus for the character of Nell came three years earlier when his 17 year old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, fell suddenly ill and died in his arms (probably of heart failure or stroke).  Dickens had loved her deeply, and later told a friend, ‘I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed’.  Dickens appears to have modelled Nell on Mary, making her, in Peter Ackroyd’s assessment, the embodiment the virtues of purity and innocence, the two most important qualities that Dickens prized in a woman.  Jane Smiley adds that ‘clearly, he saw innocence itself as something possessed in its purest form by certain presexual women’.

As in Oliver Twist, Dickens’ central character is an innocent child beset by greedy, scheming predators. Nell’s innocence  embraces endurance, forgiveness and martyrdom – qualities that are evinced in the journey out of London (‘often casting a backward look towards it, murmuring that ruin and self-murder were crouching in every street, and would follow if they scented them; and that they could not fly too fast’) on which she leads her grandfather, its trials and encounters with squalor, temptation and corruption, echoing Christian’s flight from the ‘City of Destruction’ in The Pilgrim’s Progress:

‘Yes, let us go,’ said the child earnestly. ‘Let us begone from this place, and never turn back or think of it again. Let us wander barefoot through the world, rather than linger here.’

‘We will,’ answered the old man, ‘we will travel afoot through the fields and woods, and by the side of rivers, and trust ourselves to God in the places where He dwells. It is far better to lie down at night beneath an open sky like that yonder–see how bright it is– than to rest in close rooms which are always full of care and weary dreams. Thou and I together, Nell, may be cheerful and happy yet, and learn to forget this time, as if it had never been.’

‘We will be happy,’ cried the child. ‘We never can be here.’

To a modern reader, the scenes with Nell are the least satisfactory, the language ‘often uncharacteristically inert and banal’ (Norman Page, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition) and Nell’s character hardly changing, remaining passive ‘like some gentle, frightened animal’.

Yet, as the story progresses the scenes with Nell and her grandfather are less frequent and are overshadowed by the crackling energy and vitality of the episodes involving the malevolent dwarf Quilp, Dick Swiveller and the exploited servant girl with whom he falls in love and names The Marchioness, and the corrupt sibling lawyers Samuel and Sally Brass.  Dickens may have prized purity and innocence, but he always gives the best lines to his grotesque and morally tainted characters. As Norman Page observes, ‘the descriptions and dialogue of Quilp and Swiveller  … are truly Shakespearean in their unpredictable felicity of language’. This part of the story, Page reckons,  ‘defies squalor poverty, conventional morality and religion itself in its exuberant assertion and celebration of life’.  He continues:

While the young Dickens had a heavy emotional investment in Nell and all she stood for, his instincts and impulses were on the side of life, and it is in the comic and grotesque elements of the book that his creative powers are most fully engaged.

This is not to suggest that everything about the scenes involving Nell and her grandfather is less satisfactory.  Their quest may be a spiritual one – seeking peace and salvation, and fleeing from human temptations (including the old man’s addiction to gambling) -  but there are moments when Dickens leavens the spiritual allegory with some harsh contemporary realism.  I was particularly impressed with his account of their tramp from central London to the outskirts of the city:

Again this quarter passed, they came upon a straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms, and windows patched with rags and paper, told of the populous poverty that sheltered there. The shops sold goods that only poverty could buy, and sellers and buyers were pinched and griped alike. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feeble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere, and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest than that which had long ago submitted and given up the game.

This was a wide, wide track – for the humble followers of the camp of wealth pitch their tents round about it for many a mile – but its character was still the same. Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away – lodgings, where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take – children, scantily fed and clothed, spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust – scolding mothers, stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement – shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them ‘daily bread’ and little more – mangling-women, washer-women, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlours and kitchens and back room and garrets, and sometimes all of them under the same roof – brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down, and blackened and blistered by the flames – mounds of dock-weed, nettles, coarse grass and oyster-shells, heaped in rank confusion – small dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.

At length these streets becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small garden patches bordering the road, with many a summer house innocent of paint and built of old timber or some fragments of a boat, green as the tough cabbage-stalks that grew about it, and grottoed at the seams with toad-stools and tight-sticking snails. To these succeeded pert cottages, two and two with plots of ground in front, laid out in angular beds with stiff box borders and narrow paths between, where footstep never strayed to make the gravel rough. Then came the public-house, freshly painted in green and white, with tea-gardens and a bowling green, spurning its old neighbour with the horse-trough where the waggons stopped; then, fields; and then, some houses, one by one, of goodly size with lawns, some even with a lodge where dwelt a porter and his wife. Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and hay-stacks; then, a hill, and on the top of that, the traveller might stop, and – looking back at old Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear), and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet – might feel at last that he was clear of London.

And his description of their trek through the dark night of the Black Country, its flares and furnaces, poverty and unemployment, is superb:

A long suburb of red brick houses – some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers, and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace, making them by its presence seem yet more blighting and unwholesome than in the town itself – a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came, by slow degrees, upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow, where not a bud put forth its promise in the spring, where nothing green could live but on the surface of the stagnant pools, which here and there lay idly sweltering by the black road-side.

Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.

But night-time in this dreadful spot!–night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries–night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage; when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own– night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake–night, when some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home–night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep–who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child! [...]

Procession of the unemployed

Nell and her grandfather encounter a procession of the unemployed

Later, her grandfather complaining of intense hunger, Nell approaches a wretched hovel by the roadside, and knocks on the door:

‘What would you have here?’ said a gaunt man, opening it.

‘Charity. A morsel of bread.’

‘Do you see that?’ returned the man hoarsely, pointing to a kind of bundle on the ground. ‘That’s a dead child. I and five hundred other men were thrown out of work, three months ago. That is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’

The child recoiled from the door, and it closed upon her. Impelled by strong necessity, she knocked at another: a neighbouring one, which, yielding to the slight pressure of her hand, flew open.

It seemed that a couple of poor families lived in this hovel, for two women, each among children of her own, occupied different portions of the room. In the centre, stood a grave gentleman in black who appeared to have just entered, and who held by the arm a boy.

‘Here, woman,’ he said, ‘here’s your deaf and dumb son. You may thank me for restoring him to you. He was brought before me, this morning, charged with theft; and with any other boy it would have gone hard, I assure you. But, as I had compassion on his infirmities, and thought he might have learnt no better, I have managed to bring him back to you. Take more care of him for the future.’

‘And won’t you give me back MY son!’ said the other woman, hastily rising and confronting him. ‘Won’t you give me back MY son, Sir, who was transported for the same offence!’

‘Was he deaf and dumb, woman?’ asked the gentleman sternly.

‘Was he not, Sir?’

‘You know he was not.’

‘He was,’ cried the woman. ‘He was deaf, dumb, and blind, to all that was good and right, from his cradle. Her boy may have learnt no better! where did mine learn better? where could he? who was there to teach him better, or where was it to be learnt?’

‘Peace, woman,’ said the gentleman, ‘your boy was in possession of all his senses.’

‘He was,’ cried the mother; ‘and he was the more easy to be led astray because he had them. If you save this boy because he may not know right from wrong, why did you not save mine who was never taught the difference? You gentlemen have as good a right to punish her boy, that God has kept in ignorance of sound and speech, as you have to punish mine, that you kept in ignorance yourselves. How many of the girls and boys–ah, men and women too–that are brought before you and you don’t pity, are deaf and dumb in their minds, and go wrong in that state, and are punished in that state, body and soul, while you gentlemen are quarrelling among yourselves whether they ought to learn this or that? –Be a just man, Sir, and give me back my son.’

‘You are desperate,’ said the gentleman, taking out his snuff-box, ‘and I am sorry for you.’

‘I AM desperate,’ returned the woman, ‘and you have made me so. Give me back my son, to work for these helpless children. Be a just man, Sir, and, as you have had mercy upon this boy, give me back my son!’

The child had seen and heard enough to know that this was not a place at which to ask for alms. She led the old man softly from the door, and they pursued their journey.

John Watkins Chapman - The Old Curiosity Shop

John Watkins Chapman – The Old Curiosity Shop

So there is much to enjoy and appreciate in this novel, flawed though it may be.  But it is the question of its sentimentality which has exercised critics and academics since the late 19th century.  Oscar Wilde famously remarked, ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing’, while Aldous Huxley in Vulgarity in Literature (1930) took Dickens and other Victorian writers to task for excessive sentimentality.

At the time of its publication, however, the open expression of emotion was not only socially acceptable, but also reflected a radical critique of the materialism associated with the rapid industrialisation of the times.  Men as well as women openly shed tears (as indeed they did in our own time, at the death of Princess Diana).  Fred Kaplan, in his study of Victorian sentimentality, Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature, observed that the Victorian ‘sentimentalists’ believed that ‘the alienating and dehumanizing pressure and structures of modern culture … dry-eyed exponents of misery and suppression’, were  separating human beings from their natural sentiments. Kaplan added that sentimentality operated as ‘an attempt…to generate, or at least to strengthen the possibility of the triumph of the feelings and the heart over self-serving calculation’

Philip Davis, in his essay ‘‘Victorian Realist Prose and Sentimentality’, supports this:

When people moved from the countryside to the towns and hardly knew where they were any more in that harsher and faster world, at least they still knew the communal heart was in its right place. Is that not what Victorian sentimentality is: a defensive part of urban social history, democratizing inarticulate good feeling, offering family feeling a place in the new world?

For the Romantics, reason had failed to improve either human nature or social conditions.  Romantic writers sought to move readers emotionally and spiritually by appealing to sentiment – ‘the capacity for moral reflection’, in the words of Paul Schlicke in The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. In Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination, Sally Ledger goes further, arguing that The Old Curiosity Shop can be understood as radical, in a way that is difficult for readers today to imagine, noting especially the final nightmare journey of Nell and her grandfather. On their way they pass carts loaded with coffins, orphans crying, and bands of unemployed labourers gathering by torchlight to be urged on to ‘frightful cries and threats’ by their leaders. Starving and exhausted, Nell is forced to beg for food, knocking upon the door of a hovel. She is repulsed by a man who points to his own dead child, saying that he and five hundred men were thrown out of work three months earlier, and telling her ‘that is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?’

Ledger notes that these scenes depict the desperate need caused by recession and poor harvests, conditions which provoked popular unrest expressed in the Chartist riots that occurred in Birmingham and other places a few months before Dickens began writing the novel.  Nell and her grandfather’s poverty, sickness, unemployment, homelessness, and itinerant lifestyle are mirrored in those they meet. Following Nell’s death, the old, ‘the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms’ gather around her grave, and Nell’s sufferings become the sufferings of the poor, the ill, the unemployed, and the desperate.

The account of Nell’s last few hours recalls her dreaming of those who had helped her and saying ‘God bless you!’  For Ledger, her death can be interpreted not only as an invocation of moral sentiments but also as a radical call  for justice for those in need. The Dickens who used his work to challenge the New Poor Law or Yorkshire schools is present at Nell’s death, too.

Little Nell's death

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