Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens

 Well so far I have looked at fourteen novels of varying eras and styles. And so far I have found it relatively easy going to put into words my thoughts on each. But after finishing Dickens' forth novel I find myself somewhat stumped as The Old Curiosity shop is not a particularly easy novel to critique. I flew through it in a small matter of four days and thoroughly enjoyed it, but all the while I had a nagging voice taunting me in the back of mind going, 'how are you going to write this one up sonny boy'!!

 Firstly I read literature as an escape from the world of non-fiction. I do get bored with reading of the real world and love to delve into the world of straight out literature. It is my escape, and since starting this blog I have found myself out of my depth perception wise when coming to reviewing the said material. I'm not trained literature wise as I am historically from too much university. Non-fiction? ha! a breeze! But novels, and such famous works as Dickens wrote, isn't such a proverbial 'breeze'. The Old Curiosity Shop has me somewhat confused as I read wikipedia's short synopsis page on it. I'm stuck with Oscar Wilde's comment, ' One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears....of laughter'. Poet Algernon Swinburne stated Nell was ' a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads'. What the..?? Nell a monster?! Who can't be moved by her fate with a few tears??!

 Am I stupid or something because I can't figure out either comment!!! Apparently Wilde's comment coloured for many Dickens' novel. It is said to have given the novel a feeling of morbid sentimentality. I just can't get to grips with this at all! The death of Nell is only a fraction of the novel, and really, only a way of winding the novel up. Dickens for me in the death of Nell mirrored life in that not all things have happy endings. Oliver Twist this is not. And as to Nell being a monster I  say,  ' what the..??' Where do some of these 'artists' come up with stuff?  Either I'm very stupid or I completely mis-read Nell as a character, and she wasn't the timid girl of mis-fortune I thought she was.

 Several things about the novel were intriguing. Firstly Nell's grandfather is never named right throughout. He is either 'the old man' or 'grandfather'. Secondly, unlike Oliver Twist Dickens in Curiosity Shop numbers his chapters like so, Chapter the first, Chapter the sixty-seventh, but without a short synopsis of what the chapter contained. And thirdly although Victorian in flavour, and unlike Oliver Twist, Curiosity Shop isn't so much a social dis-course as Twist was but more a look at human character, in particular, of the unwholesome type. I was also reminded of how Jack Higgins introduces many of his novels by writing in the first person. Curiosity Shop opens the same way in the first three chapters after which the narrator disappears completely. It isn't Dickens, as the said person but a man unknown to the reader.

 As a novel it isn't all about the dis-likable characters we find it society, for the novel has the good as a back drop and comparison. Of the good we have have Nell, her grandfather, Kit and his employer, the Brass's abused servant girl, and several others. What Dickens produces in Curiosity Shop is how the low thinking characters affect the life's of those above them in nature with their malice. Whilst Nell is the central character the novel is more about the shady side of those opposites to her. Daniel Quilp is the main protagonist here. He is a thoroughly dis-likable character, and vividly realised prose wise, ( he is so well written that the reader can be forgiven for almost feeling him in the room with them!! ). I personally believe only Shakespeare was a better writer of the so called 'human condition' than Dickens.

 I liked Quilp as a character even though he is so loathsome. Dickens has given him an intentionally despicable nature as he is too true to life for comfort. He reminds me of several people who I have actually met. History is riddled with the 'type'. Quilp is a dwarf who is exceedingly ugly. He knows he is on the outer and goes out of his way to be repulsive, nasty, and malicious as he knows he will never be accepted as anything else. He becomes what others think he is anyway. Even though repulsive, Dickens gives him a comedic air. A black air to be sure. Quilp at times is cynically polite and even more loathsome for it. Those on the receiving end know it ( particularly his own down trodden wife and mother in law who he gives no end of his cynical bite ). It is brilliant writing. I looked forward to the scenes involving Quilp. He isn't a pleasant person, but that doesn't make him less of an engaging or interesting character.

 The study of personality is certainly the novels core theme. Dickens is quite perceptive in capturing into words the good, bad, or both, within each individual. Throughout we get Nell, who is timid and yet good hearted. Her grandfather, who loves Nell but has a gambling addiction from which he is mis-guidedly trying to win a better future for his grand daughter. Kit, an honest boy. Quilp, nasty and malicious. Quilp's lawyer Sampson Brass, who is weak willed and able to be manipulated. His sister Sarah, who is a real fire breather and distainful of her brother, and in heart similar to Quilp. On Nell's journeys she meets professional gamblers, snobs, a school master who is kind but broken spirited, a wax works owner, and so on. It is a masterful novel of characterisation, and any reader can identify people from their lives. I believe that this is what Curiosity Shop is best known for outside of the death of Nell.

 Nell is interesting because Dickens has her age as just shy of fourteen. She is apparently a very small girl for her age. It is instructive because I have read that girls of the 19th century 'developed' physically slower than girls of the late 20th, into 21st, Centuries. Dickens refers to Nell as 'the child' and that is what she was. Today's thirteen year old girls are still technically children but they are more 'developed' than Nell, and also some what more worldly in their knowledge. Nell is rather sheltered, but even so she is a very interesting look at a nineteenth century teenaged girl. Look at the cover I have posted above as that is a very fair representation of Nell from Dickens' own words. On the said cover she looks no more than nine or ten, and certainly not pushing fourteen as we would expect a fourteen year old to look like. She is a child, and girls of the same age today are far bigger and less child like in appearance.

 It is somewhat difficult not to juxtapose Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop as they are the two most recent Dickens novels I have read. They are completely different. Oliver Twist sees a happy ending whereas Curiosity shop does not. It is incredible to imagine that Curiosity Shop was initially printed in many parts with readers on both sides of the Atlantic eager to read of Nell and her eventual fate. I like both novels, a lot. But I have a penchance for Curiosity Shop because of Dickens' superb look into the human condition, particularly that of the un-desirables of society. Dwarf Daniel Quilp is the highlight of the novel, and as abhorrent as he is, he is a thoroughly interesting character, ( and don't they always make for such good reading even though we don't actually like them?!! ).

  I absolutely enjoyed this novel. Unlike Westward Ho! Dickens didn't go off on wild tangents of writing that had nothing to do with the plot. He keeps his dis-courses short and to the point. They are also very interesting as they are a look into a different centuries thinking and attitudes. It may be fiction but there is still much that can be garnered from the writing of Dickens. In short The Old Curiosity Shop is an extremely enjoyable read with a cast of repugnant, but colourful characters, with some good folks thrown in for good measure! Read, and enjoy it, is my advice.

Wikipedia is a useful tool. I find the information is well researched, and concisely put. It provides enough of a summary of a topic as to be easily and quickly digested, and then used. Click below for a summary of the novel in question with some other interesting information and links:

Can anyone give me a simple and educated answer as to Oscar Wilde's 'tears....of laughter' statement?? I'm seriously missing the 'why' as to what he means by it.

1 comment:

  1. To be blunt.... while many liked it, "The Old curiosity shoppe" could basically be regarded as akin to those dreadful stories written by goths and emos and posted online--- maudlin, cloying, morbid. If you've ever dealt with an Emo (a self absorbed teenager, generally) or slogged your way through their various short stories or poetry, you know there's a point where the ceaselessly tragic tone and broad brushstroke writing becomes unwitting self-parody. And with nothing to go on but their broad brush-stroke stereotypes, the characters in TOCS are flat as cardboard cutouts. Little Nell is noble and good and saintly and, of course, grows sickly and dies at the end, "too good for this wicked wicked world." The villain is, of course, ugly both within and without, to the point of looking like a circus freak and acting like a Victorian Snidely Whiplash. The grandfather is an Immature Old Fool, and nothing more. When they speak of Little Nell being a "two headed freak" they are stating the fact that she is nothing but a grotesquerie, a living parody of "goodness" that is propped up on stage for the audience to gawk at while she theatrically swoons and dies--- of more or less nothing but Plot Induced Mortality.