Master Humphrey’s Clock: Discussion Wrap-Up

Wherein we say farewell to Master Humphrey–except in his character as the unnamed gentleman who meets Little Nell–and wrap-up our discussion; with a look-ahead to the first week of The Old Curiosity Shop

“Master Humphey’s Visionary Friends,” by Phiz.

Edited/compiled by Rach

Friends, warm welcome to our thirtieth week! We’ve just passed Day 200, and what a journey it has been…

Many are in the midst of summer travels and not all are up for listening to solitary, reclusive gentlemen feeling nostalgic at chimney corners, so a huge “thank you” to those who decided to join in the journey for Master Humphrey, the frame narrative device intended to hold The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

I didn’t call this a “final” wrap-up, only because all that we read in the coming weeks is still connected in some way to this curious experiment of Dickens.

Our opinions about the success–or otherwise–of Dickens’ experiment were pretty well split down the middle: we were either charmed and delighted, or as disappointed as many of the readers of Dickens’ own time were.

Due to the nature of the frame narrative, we’ll skip over the “summary,” as with the Sketches, and go straight to the discussion wrap-up after our usual “General Mems.” Here are some quick links:

  1. General Mems
  2. Discussion Wrap-Up
  3. A Look-Ahead to Week One of The Old Curiosity Shop
  4. Additonal Reference on The Old Curiosity Shop‘s Illustrations

General Mems

Friends, we’ve just passed the 200-day mark in our Dickens Club! Congrats!! If you’re counting, today is day 203 (and week 30) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week One of The Old Curiosity Shop, our sixth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship and The Dickens Society for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.

And a warm welcome to our newest member, Bonnie F.! Thank you so much for joining us! And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. Boze’s marvelous Introduction to Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.

Discussion Wrap-Up

Mudfog and Miscellany

Warm welcome back to Cassandra! We have missed you! Cassandra just finished Nicholas Nickleby, and she fell “a little bit in love” with our hero, and with his traveling companion:

Meanwhile, Chris found the perfect game for our group:

In response to Boze’s wonderful introduction to Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop (and his postscript on “Public Life of Mr Tulrumble”–below), Daniel got the discussion off to a great start, praising Carlyle’s perception of Dickens and the exquisite voice of Anton Lesser. (I think this group could easily start two fan clubs now, for Peter Ackroyd and Anton Lesser!)

Daniel M. comment

Lenny agreed about Boze’s introduction and is eager to read the Shop, which he likens to a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, but dealing with “the subjugation and possible freedom of children who are at the mercy of surrounding ‘adults,’ as well as the condition of women”:

Lenny H. comment

This week, I posted some whimsical praise for a random, disconnected Dickens story, “The Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble.” Boze had the same thought, and I had missed his postscript praising its virtues. (We’ve both been quoting from this Mudfoggian gem.)

Boze H. comment

Master Humphrey’s Clock: Did it Work?

I decided not to break up our comments into themes, since the readership was smaller for this one, and we essentially had one question to deal with: Did Dickens’ frame experiment work? Did we like it? What did we love–or not?

Chris felt that even the Wellers could “do very little to liven the text”:

Chris M. comments

The Stationmaster felt the same disappointment, and noted the diverging ways in which Dickens portrays those with physical differences in the two stories. (This will come back around to Dickens later, when he will be criticized for one of his negative portrayals–and the criticism does have its effect in the character’s trajectory.)

I confess I’m a fan of Master Humphrey, and love even the notion that Dickens thought such an odd concept a good idea, so I included some of my favorite things about it here:

Rach M. comments

A Look-Ahead to Week One of The Old Curiosity Shop (26 July – 1 Aug)

Friends, since the installments of The Old Curiosity Shop were published in weekly rather than monthly numbers, we’ve just opted to divide the book up into more or less equal-length sections for these next four weeks.

This week, we’ll be reading Chapters 1-18.

If you’d like to read it online, The Old Curiosity Shop can be found at The Circumlocution Office. There are a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.

Additonal Reference on The Old Curiosity Shop‘s Illustrations

If you have a chance, I would highly recommend this 20-minute gem from one of our favorite Dickensians, Dr. Christian Lehmann, as part of the marvelous “Dickens-to-Go” project, on the illustrations in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Here, Dr. Christian discusses the four illustrators who worked on this project (primarily Phiz and Cattermole), the strengths of each, the ways in which the four influenced or challenged one another in this collaboration, and the woodcut engraving method that was utilized. (And how this method, enabling the illustrations to essentially be “dropped into” the text and to lay alongside it, changes the dynamic of the text-to-image.) He does a “close reading” of several individual illustrations which help give additional insight into Dickens’ text.

And Dickens’ prose creates such images in our minds. And as Dr. Christian has said, we can’t talk about Dickens without talking about the illustrations.

NOTE: SPOILER ALERT about a MAJOR PLOT POINT approx 14 minutes into the video:


  1. For the record, I’m not offended per se by The Old Curiosity Shop’s portrayal of Qulip, though if anyone is, that’s valid. It just sort of strikes me as odd/ironic given the opening note of Master Humphrey’s Clock.

    The idea of Dickens doing something along the lines of The Canterbury Tales or One Thousand and One Nights is interesting. I don’t know why I don’t find the result engaging, especially as he wrote it after my beloved Nicholas Nickleby.

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  2. I know I’m reading these out of order, but I just had to share a quote from Barnaby Rudge for our Dickens Writing Lab. At the beginning of chapter 37 Dickens is talking about how cults draw followers by veiling themselves in a shroud of mystery that plays on the curiosity of their adherents, and then gives some priceless insights into his own writing process: “Curiosity is, and has been from the creation of the world, a master passion. To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can be had … on the unthinking portion of mankind.” Between this and his advice in Oliver Twist about the importance of mixing comedy with drama, I’m wondering how many other clues he left scattered in his writings on being a master storyteller. It’s got me really wanting to read all his letters…

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    1. I love this insight, Boze! “To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense…” He was the Master of this!!! I too want to read all his letters. Our university library only has 2 or 3 volumes of the Penguin 😦

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  3. First, I owe you a big THANK YOU for including my silly tweets in your post. It’s an honor. I only wish that my gut feeling had been wrong and that Smike had survived. The poor boy deserved a long life of happiness and love.

    Now, on to Master Humphrey’s Clock. I agree with both parties–I enjoyed Dickens’ experiment AND found parts of it boring. I enjoyed the selection of stories from the clock but felt bogged down by Humphrey’s introspection. Still, I was saddened by his death.

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  4. Cassandra, your tweets were awesome!!! I was so happy to see that Nicholas himself has another fan 😍

    Yes, I love MHC, but it does make me wonder what Dickens would have done with it had the whole idea taken hold…it might have been a little more dramatic or whimsically funny 🖤


  5. So, I’d like to do a comment about why I don’t enjoy The Old Curiosity Shop much, but I don’t want to turn off anyone who’s reading it for the first time. If this is your first read, how about you don’t read this comment until we’re halfway through the book and you’ve formed your own opinion?

    I guess what I don’t like about The Old Curiosity Shop, or about the main plot anyway, is how weepy, for lack of a better term, it feels. I’d like to stress that I don’t have a problem with most of the tearjerking scenes in Dickens. The sufferings of Oliver and Smike’s death are great (if I can say that without sounding sadistic.) But I love them as garnish, not as a main course. What attracts me to Dickens is his energy, his gusto, his flair. With The Old Curiosity Shop, it’s like he just wanted to wallow in depression. Even when Nell and her grandfather take some action on their own behalf and run away, the tone is lugubrious. It just gets to be kind of a slog, IMO.

    I don’t think the supporting characters are as good as those in Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby either, though there definitely are some good ones. Dick Swiveller is fun and Kit Nubbles’s swagger gives the book a welcome jolt of energy.

    Daniel Quilp certainly has energy too, but, while I normally love Dickens’s over-the-top bad guys, there’s something so…campy about Quilp that I just can’t take him seriously as a threat. It’s like he’s a villain from Power Rangers. Reading about him, and reading The Old Curiosity Shop in general, I wonder if this is how Dickens’s writing comes across to people who dislike it.

    Of course, no Dickens books is a total waste of time IMO. Later, I’m going to do a comment about some of my favorite quotes from this week’s reading. 🙂

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  6. Here are some of my favorite quotes from this week’s reading.

    …in the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a deal of stretching and adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances. Some people by prudent management and leaving it off piece by piece like a flannel waistcoat in warm weather, even contrive, in time, to dispense with it altogether; but there be others who can assume the garment and throw it off at pleasure; and this, being the greatest and most convenient improvement, is the one most in vogue.

    We call this a state of childishness, but it is the same poor hollow mockery of it, that death is of sleep. Where, in the dull eyes of doating men, are the laughing light and life of childhood, the gaiety that has known no check, the frankness that has felt no chill, the hope that has never withered, the joys that fade in blossoming? Where, in the sharp lineaments of rigid and unsightly death, is the calm beauty of slumber, telling of rest for the waking hours that are past, and gentle hopes and loves for those which are to come? Lay death and sleep down, side by side, and say who shall find the two akin. Send forth the child and childish man together, and blush for the pride that libels our own old happy state, and gives its title to an ugly and distorted image.

    ‘The key,’ said the dwarf, looking viciously about him, ‘the door-key—that’s the matter. D’ye know anything of it?’

    ‘How should I know anything of it, sir?’ returned Mr Brass.

    ‘How should you?’ repeated Quilp with a sneer. ‘You’re a nice lawyer, an’t you? Ugh, you idiot!’

    Not caring to represent to the dwarf in his present humour, that the loss of a key by another person could scarcely be said to affect his (Brass’s) legal knowledge in any material degree, Mr Brass humbly suggested that it must have been forgotten over night, and was, doubtless, at that moment in its native key-hole.

    So far, however, from rushing upon somebody who offered no resistance and implored his mercy, Mr Quilp was no sooner in the arms of the individual whom he had taken for his wife than he found himself complimented with two staggering blows on the head, and two more, of the same quality, in the chest; and closing with his assailant, such a shower of buffets rained down upon his person as sufficed to convince him that he was in skilful and experienced hands.

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  7. Nell’s story can be tedious – I think Dickens doth protest too much! But there is a way of reading Nell’s story which may make it a little more palatable – as a “juxtaposition of opposites” which function “as vehicles for imaginative insight into general and abstract truths” (Schlicke 8, 9). (Thats a mouthful!) Dickens introduces this concept in the last six paragraphs of Ch. 1 when Master Humphrey ponders Nell’s situation, thinking of her as “exist[ing] in a kind of allegory” (to save space here, please see OCS text for reference).

    Schlicke argues that the image of a girl-child amid “uncongenial and ancient things” took so strong a hold of Dickens that he made her his heroine to explore:

    1. His perception of “childhood as a special state”, endowed with “innocence” and the “special capabilities of sensitivity, wonder, and imagination”, which enables a child to “defy a figure of authority in steadfastly upholding its innocent vision in the face of uncomprehending objections. An uncongenial situation . . . gives value to the child’s wisdom.”;

    2. His “overwhelming emotions aroused by” Mary’s death, not in terms of “unhealthy erotic passion and uncontrolled wallowing in grief”, but in terms of the “incompatible opposites” of “a healthy, happy young person in an antithetical context of death and sorrow”;

    3. The effect of the current event of Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the age of 18 in 1837. In contrast to the “old men” who had ruled Britain for the previous 20 years, young Victoria represented “hope and promise . . . in anxious times”. Thus, Dickens’s use of “an idealized image of an innocent young girl as the heroine of his novel was singularly appropriate at this moment in English history” because it tapped into the current mood of the country

    Taking Schlicke’s points in reverse and, in my opinion in ascending order of importance: #3 seems plausible in terms of keeping the novel in context and as a reason why we 21st century readers miss some of Nell’s appeal to the contemporary audience; #2 also makes sense, though I don’t think we can completely discount the “unhealthy erotic passion and uncontrolled wallowing in grief” theory; #1 offers the most expansive and encompassing view of Nell, illustrated initially in her desire to run away.

    Running away is decidedly a child’s response – when things are bad and scary, run away and hide from them – but it also suggests insight – when something is no longer working, change it. Though she doesn’t understand the underlying reasons, Nell knows nothing will change and things will only get worse if they stay in the Shop, near whatever temptation Grandfather is under. It is not until the “uncongenial situation” of Quilp cutting off funding and taking possession of the Shop and its contents that Grandfather sees the “value to the child’s wisdom” and acts on Nell’s suggestion. Time and again (and again) we will see situations where Nell’s “special capabilities” enable her avoid danger by knowing just when to remove herself & her Grandfather from toxic companions or situations, that is, knowing just when to “defy a figure of authority”.

    The allegory of Nell is made explicit through these trials where her youth and innocence are contrasted with the grown-up corrupt world – a Yin and Yang if you will – which provides insight “into general and abstract truths.” (9) Complete Good (Nell) and complete Bad (Quilp, especially, and others whom she meets on the road) can neither change each other nor exist without each other; rather, “only a different sort of character, independent of the polarities . . . can survive, combining elements of goodness from the one and vitality from the other” (9). Dickens provides such a character “in the imaginative synthesis” of Dick Swiveller (9); discussion of Mr Swiveller as this synthesis, however, will be more appropriate further along in our reading.

    Reading Nell in this light helps me, at least, get through her long, weary journey as I look for how Dickens manifests her “special capabilities”. That said, I think Dickens could have made his point with fewer trials for Nell, but he had contractual obligations and no real plan for his story, and I think we can chalk this up to another learning experience on his path to Novelist.

    Paul Schlicke, “Embracing the New Spirit of the Age: Dickens and the Evolution of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’”, Dickens Studies Annual, 2002, Vol. 32, pp. 1-35.

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  8. On the subject of Dickens’s sentimentality – a subject that always seems to come up in discussions of The Old Curiosity Shop – I was struck by this passage in Ackroyd:

    “It has often been assumed that the ready emotionalism in his fiction somehow spilled over into his own life. It has been reported that in The Old Curiosity Shop someone weeps about every tenth page, and in Dombey and Son Florence Dombey is calculated to have broken down in tears on eighty-eight separate occasions. (By the Fifties, however, the fashion for fictional tears somewhat abated and Dickens’s characters remain much more firmly dry-eyed in his later books.) But Dickens himself was not inclined to weep, and it may be significant that he tended to shed tears only when reading books or watching action upon the stage. ‘I invariably begin to cry whenever anybody on the stage forgives an enemy or gives away a pocket book…’ he once said, suggesting how much theatrical generosity moved him. How much it recalled, perhaps, childhood aspirations and wishes. He was sometimes seen to cry when listening to popular romantic songs, and over the incidents in certain novels. But that is all. One of his colleagues in later life, Edmund Yates, said that ‘he was in no sense an emotional man,’ and even though he wept at events on the stage, he was not particularly moved by real places or real people. It is significant, for example, that he showed no particular nostalgia for the place of his birth, and we have already seen that when he visited inns he had made famous in The Pickwick Papers or elsewhere – inns such as the Angel at Bury St Edmunds or the Great White Horse in Ipswich – those with him remembered that ‘he seems to have been quite unaffected by any Pickwickian associations.’ Of course that might have been because he was heartily sick of Pickwick and all his works, but it is at least another aspect of a temperament which does seem almost entirely devoid of conventional sentimentality. And why should it not be so? It is his ability to recognise and refine human feeling which makes him so great a novelist.”

    His inability to weep might be a tad overstated – we know that he was moved to tears by the sight of the places where he had suffered his worst childhood afflictions – but I’m fascinated by Dickens’s lack of conventional sentimentality, given that it forms such an important element in his early works. I’d always imagined him as being nostalgic and weepy, though I suppose this would make him more of a Hans Christian Andersen, and there was always something a little machine-like about Dickens – brisk, business-like, efficient, like the great silver steam-trains that were now cropping up all over London. But the Victorian reading public hungered for sentimental literature, and it was a hunger that Dickens was quick to appease. It’s a remarkable thing about genius that it can perceive and indulge public tastes while being entirely unaffected by them.

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  9. Chris: Several years back when I thought I’d read CUROSITY SHOP again, I felt very much like you do. Totally bogged down in Nell’s journey/slog–so much so that I had to put the novel down. I still look on that response as peculiar because I had read the novel some 50+ years earlier and really enjoyed it. But I found myself becoming very depressed and thought that my mental health at the time deserved a break from the “tragic” tediousness of the novel. So I stopped reading and turned to other more “uplifting” fare–a huge amount of Nordic Noir detective novels. Dark but fast-moving, these fictions were just what I needed. God, how weird is the phenomena of reader response. Go figure….

    My response now is quite different. I’m enjoying the novel a lot, totally caught up in Nell’s picaresque journey, and loving (believe it or not) the novel’s portrayal of Quilp–who, I remember, I actually despised years and years ago when I first read the novel. But now I’m enjoying his “over-the-top” villainish qualities and laughing at his many strange mannerisms, but always aware of the threat he represents to virtually EVERY character in the novel.

    In both of these responses (to Nell and to Quilp) I know I’ll be returning to many times as we work our way through the novel, but I am enamored of the novel so far. Here’s the difference, I think. We are reading the novel in the context of the other early fictions of Dickens, so I think I’m a bit more removed from the sort of anticipation and suspense quality that I had on my initial two readings. But also, I find myself extremely intrigued by Mr. D’s repeated use of the Picaresque structure to define the movements of the novel and the way in which this structure introduces characters and situations that we can marvel at and, at the same time, be repelled by. In the words of Willie Nelson, we are “on the road again” and I can hardy wait, as the journey continues, to see what strange, sad, and happy situations this trek will reveal. read the novel some 50+ years earlier and really enjoyed it. But I found myself becoming very depressed and thought that my mental health at the time deserved a break from the “tragic” tediousness of the novel. So I stopped reading and turned to other more “uplifting” fare–a huge amount of Nordic Noir detective novels. Dark but fast-moving, these fictions were just what I needed. God, how weird is the phenomena of reader response. Go figure….

    My response now is quite different. I’m enjoying the novel a lot, totally caught up in Nell’s picaresque journey, and loving (believe it or not) the novel’s portrayal of Quilp–who, I remember, I actually despised years and years ago when I first read the novel. But now I’m enjoying his “over-the-top” villainish qualities and laughing at his many strange mannerisms, but always aware of the threat he represents to virtually EVERY character in the novel.

    In both of these responses (to Nell and to Quilp) I know I’ll be returning to many times as we work our way through the novel, but I am enamored of the novel so far. Here’s the difference, I think. We are reading the novel in the context of the other early fictions of Dickens, so I think I’m a bit more removed from the sort of anticipation and suspense quality that I had on my initial two readings. But also, I find myself extremely intrigued by Mr. D’s repeated use of the Picaresque structure to define the movements of the novel and the way in which this structure introduces characters and situations that we can marvel at and, at the same time, be repelled by. In the words of Willie Nelson, we are “on the road again” and I can hardy wait, as the journey continues, to see what strange, sad, and happy situations this trek will reveal.

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    1. Oh boy, my formatting got really messed up here. Sorry about that, but I’m struggling with WordPress since my computer was worked on a few weeks back. Hopefully, I’ll figure all this out by the time of my next post. Again, so sorry!

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      1. Lenny, I really agree with you here! I might be able to fix the formatting from my end, if you like…but it was totally 100% comprehensible, and I agree with your sentiments. I still have a hard time with Quilp, probably mostly my reading on Harry Stone’s take on the consuming/cannibalistic themes in Dickens, but still…anyway, I was just about to post my own comment (below) but got caught up in yours and had to reply first…!


    2. That sounds a little bit like my relationship with Bleak House. Not that I hated it or anything the first time I read it. But there was roughly an equal ratio of things I liked and things I disliked about it. I think it was the third time I read it that I felt like there was more great stuff than not great.

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      1. Oh boy, Stationmaster, you open up a “beautiful” can of worms here! It seems to me that the very mention of “Bleak House” or a bleak house can apply to so many “houses” in the novels we’ve read–including Grandfather’s “house” in CURIOSITY SHOP!


  10. Boze’s intro to the Shop really highlights the *Dream-world* quality of it, and this is evident in a thousand ways: Nell is “fairy-like”; “Dream-world” is used early on, and several times; “gaunt giants”; the word “allegory” is directly used; “the bell wakes me, even in the middle of a dream”; “holding her solitary way among a crowd of wild grotesque companions”; In the Shop “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.”

    We are certainly not in Kansas anymore…

    And *place* in Dickens is so often illustrative of either character, or a character’s situation vis-à-vis the world. Quilp’s Wharf and counting-house is described so like the conditions in which he keeps those around him: “ploughed into the ground…crumpled, cracked, and battered.”

    The *contrast* between Nell and her surroundings is striking, and the unnamed gentleman—Master Humphrey—notes this. From the frightening dark of London streets where we first meet her, to the Curiosity Shop, to companions such as Quilp who is constantly and terrifyingly threatening to her AND sexualizing her – “She need be accustomed to such loads betimes, though, neighbor, for she will carry weight when you are dead.” (Quilp is sometimes almost *too* difficult to read about!)

    I’ve been reading through Harry Stone’s “The Night Side of Dickens,” and it is certainly having its impact on this reread; the whole aspect of CONSUMPTION: Children being “eaten up” by adults and by the world around them; ditto women!; Quilp’s nasty referring to Nell while smacking his lips; his threatening his wife with *biting* her. This is the ultimate illustration of his Consuming nature, as he becomes quite literally the Ogre of a fairy tale: “Here he by no means diminished the impression he had just produced, for he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.”

    Of course, Master Humphrey speaks for all of us here: “…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.” We’re seeing continually the theme of the Child needing to be the Adult in each situation, and progressively more and more so. The grandfather acknowledges this in a thousand ways (“It is true that in many respects I am the child, and she the grown person—”), yet doesn’t seem to know how to rectify it, nor that he should really attempt to do so. You wonder how his Shop of curiosities can make any income at all, so haunted is he by this perpetual idea of making money through his gambling.

    The gambling is another manifestation of the dark nature of addiction that Dickens writes of elsewhere. There is not any malice in the grandfather about it (though he is occasionally a bit gollum-like when especially haunted and secretive, and suddenly becomes a figure almost of the darker dream-world). He talks himself into the belief that it is all for a good purpose, not seeing that, by the very addiction itself, he is *changing his own nature* and the nature of the home in which they live, and making it a misery for both himself and Nell. She would rather be a beggar and leave whatever comforts they have there, than to continue in this constant anxiety, this perpetual “haunting.” (“Let us be beggars, and be happy.”) I think the Shop, with all its slightly grotesque or ancient curiosities which so contrast with her youth and energy and warmth, are only the physical remnants or symbols of a different kind of haunting, or contrast: the haunted spirit that the grandfather’s secret gambling brings into their lives. But we also have glimpses of what lay behind the addiction and obsession: his own child’s early death which he attributes to poverty.

    City versus Country is a theme we’ve talked about so much, from Dingley Dell in Pickwick, to the Maylie’s country home in Oliver, to the Nickleby’s Devonshire home where Smike comes to rest; now we have this theme is such stark relief that it is impossible not to call it out again. The grandfather too, though no less helpless than before, begins to heal from some of the anxiety and haunting after his weeks-long illness and once he has agreed to become a pilgrim and wanderer with Nell. (And nod to Lenny & Boze on the “Pilgrim’s Progress” reference too – it was literally referred to!)

    “Let us walk through country places, and sleep in fields and under trees, and never think of money again, or anything that can make you sad, but rest at nights, and have the sun and wind upon our faces in the day, and thank God together! Let us never set foot in dark rooms or melancholy houses, any more, but wander up and down wherever we like to go; and when you are tired, you shall stop to rest in the pleasantest place that we can find, and I will go and beg for both.”

    Of course, I made many notes and highlights about the really funny, delightful, or pleasant things, too (Dick Swiveller! Kit 😊 ) but I’ll probably save some of those things for later, as we become better acquainted with Mr Swiveller.

    But I thought I’d mention one interesting image, which I hadn’t noticed before. It seems like I’ve seen references to Nell and a bird (probably, a caged bird!), and I certainly recall seeing an illustration of this—perhaps in one of the “letter” illustrations that open a chapter. So, I thought it a lovely “illustration” of one aspect of our story both as it is and as it is to come: Kit fighting Quilp’s boy in order to protect the bird from having its neck broken. Such a vignette, somewhat random, tells us something about Kit and about Nell as she ventures into the world that seems to hem her in constantly.

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  11. Rach: so much to think about, here, and to pursue and enlarge upon, that it would take pages to unpack the various ideas and suggestions that you bring out in your writing. It seems to me that you’re getting at the great complexity of this novel, and–in contrast with NICKLEBY–pointing out how, in just the first dozen or so chapters, CURIOSITY SHOP is a grand mixture of the real and imagined, the inner and outer worlds of Nell, romanticism and realism, psychological vs outward truth, and the list goes on.

    I’m tempted to say, at the outset, that this seems to be Dickens’ most Wordsworthian novel. Beginning with the “Master Humphrey’s Clock” segment–which you cover in great depth–where the idea of going through life as a perpetual child is a kind of alchemy. In this context I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode,” “I wandered lonely as a Cloud,” and many parts of the PRELUDE. In the segments you point out where Nell is surrounded by the grotesques in the shop and which incite her peculiar and frightening dreams, I think of Wordsworth rowing across the lake in the PRELUDE, where, while he’s watching the mountains across the way, they suddenly loom up and seem to be chasing him. He realizes that this situation is one of those “alchemical” moments and that it will form part of his psychological theory about “unknown modes of being.” I think that Dickens, in his own writerly way is exploring these psychological phenomena, maybe trying to understand them. Fairy-tale like, maybe, but really a part of the conscious/unconscious dialectic that he is setting forth in this novel. In fact, I’d go so far as to connect the “fairy tale” references to something like Wordsworth’s “unknow modes of being.

    And there is then, the “child is father of the man” theme which comes directly from Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps up,” and that goes into play immediately with Nell’s caring for and guidance of her grandfather–while in the shop and a bit later when they escape and go into the countryside–which, in the Wordsworthian context, gives them intermittent solace and creates an environment for the older man to regain his physical and mental health–at least temporarily. Nell becomes the guide, her father the “follower”–as, here we go again, the travelling pair right out of…the “Picaresque” tradition and QUIXOTE, PICKWICK, and NICKLEBY. And, as in these novels, the country provides a soothing, renewing environment, as well as interesting characters and situations–away from the threats of the city. Hence, more complexity: the romantic, Wordsworthian tradition meets the Picaresque with a dash of PILGRIMS PROGRESS thrown in for good measure.

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  12. I read The Old Curiosity Shop last year for the first time. In the Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics OCS edition, Elizabeth Brennan suggests that “one is attracted to its comedy and repelled by its pathos – or vice versa”. Most of us probably can come up with a notable name or two in the first camp – famously G.K. Chesterton (whom I love in practically all things Dickens and non-Dickens) but I have to part with Chesterton here and assign myself to the “vice versa” camp. I found myself swept along nicely by its pathos but had a hard time with its comic or grotesque elements. For some reason, I can enjoy the grotesque Squeers family but I find reading the Daniel Quilp scenes uncomfortable. Rach, I’m right with you in “Quilp is sometimes almost too difficult to read about”. Except I would leave out the ‘sometimes’ and ‘almost’. Quilp and the Punch and Judy show, particularly, belong to the carnival sideshow world that I always want to avoid as too disturbing. I felt the same way, when I read, several years ago, Tim Powers’ seminal steampunk novel ‘The Anubis Gates’ which contains at least one even more grotesque monstrously evil, Punch-like character.

    On the other hand, I found Nell more touching than I thought I would since she’s become, seemingly, the poster child for some boring wimp of a character that most “smart” critics have contempt for – again we know some of the names – from Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw to more recently, The Violent Effigy’s John Carey. Poor Nell. What did she do to earn so much vitriol?

    Chris mentioned the character of Nell in her allegorical dimension, referring to Master Humphrey’ comment at the end of the first chapter: “she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory”, and how her youth and innocence contrasts with the grown-up world. Brennan’s OSC Introduction includes a quote I particularly like – from a letter by Dickens’ contemporary Thomas Hood who wrote to a newspaper, referring to that iconic Samuel Williams’ drawing, “The child in her gentle slumber”: ‘the Artist’s picture of the Child, asleep in her little bed, surrounded, or rather mobbed, by ancient armour and arms, antique furniture, and relics sacred or profane, hideous or grotesque: – it is like an Allegory of the peace and innocence of Childhood in the midst of Violence, and all the hateful and hurtful Passions of the world.’ – which recalls Pilgrim’s Progress, as has been mentioned, and Nell as Dickens’ Pilgrim, carrying the goodness of this world through lands of danger and corruption. That’s a story that I can’t help being moved by.

    I have to take a bit of an exception to you, Rach, and Master Humphreys’ in his comment on children being initiated into the adult world too early, that it “checks their confidence and simplicity”. In my traditionalist faith-based community, I’ve had the chance to witness many families with lots of children who range from teens to babies, and I’m always impressed by the maturity and self-confidence of the older children, who often have the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. I’ve seen seven- or eight-year-old girls matter-of-factly taking charge of one- or two-year-old toddlers, with perfectly comfortable adult-like assurance that I wish I had even at my decades-older age. But these are middle-class, faith-based families and it may be very different with large poorer, secular families. In fact, perhaps Master Humphreys’ viewpoint has something to do with Dickens’ own experience as an older child in a large family and who – again, as we know – resented being farmed out to work to support the family at an age that he thought was too early.

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    1. I wish I was repelled by Quilp because it would mean the character was working for me, but instead of being grossed out when I read about him lusting after Nell, I mostly feel like laughing.

      Don’t feel bad about liking Little Nell. I’ve enjoyed Pollyanna and Little Lord Fauntleroy, which have become even bigger punchlines, and I don’t regret it.


  13. From a “Reader Response” point-of-view, we as a group are getting at CURIOSITY SHOP from a multitude of diverse directions. I find this interesting because the Nell/Quilp “pairing” is so starkly divided into the extreme good and the extreme evil. If ever their were literary foils for one another, this is the ideal set up! But I don’t necessarily see this as allegorical per se. Nor do it see this pairing as necessarily adapted from fairy tales–even though it definitely can be compared to an abundance of tales that have come down through the ages. I’m thus struck more by the psychological and social realism in the novel and, in some ways, how “modern” the novel seems to me. I feel I’m tempted to go with Marnie on the realism side because I’ve experienced and seen so many examples of children who become the “real” adults in their family dynamic–where one or both parents fail to take on the job of parenthood. The child simply just steps in and tries (succeeding or failing) to fill the gaps left by the “missing” parent or parents. Takes on the fathering or mothering role or whatever is required. As an extension of this idea, I see even Kit rushing in to fill the void left by grandfather in the caretaking (even though vis-a-vis Nell he is more of a hidden presence). And this is excellently summed up by Rach when she mentions the caged bird/Nell correspondence. Kit rescues the bird (as he’s been tempted to do with Nell–and with his mother has actually made plans to accommodate Nell and her father in their modest living quarters) from Quilp and attentively feeds and cares for it in Nell’s absence. Thus–at a distance (sadly)–caring for Nell. Children stepping up to fulfill parental duties…. Kit feeding and housing Nell symbolically.

    Quilp, on the other hand seems very “modern”–and with wonderful Dickens’ hyperbole–seems to me to be the modern-day MCP and businessman/corporation on STEROIDS! He is hugely sexualized (thus very repellant–pedophilia again?), and represents a real threat to Nell. Nell in her tweens is obviously seen as a sexual object by Quilp and other males in the novel. Her beauty is always drawing what I interpret to be lewd glances from various males as the novel advances. In this male dominated society, the predatory man is ever present, as we have just seen in NICKLEBY–where Hawk and friends ogle and flirt with Kate; Hawk practically rapes her. Quilp would likewise attempt that on Nell if given the chance, and she realizes his danger and retreats from the shop with her father. How many young women/girls have we read about in our time who have run from aggressive male pursuers? We read and hear about these situations all the time. Most of these women become the victims, raped and left buried in various hard to get environments. With Kate, and with Nell, I see Dickens sounding the alarm bell! This social awareness regarding women at risk really underscores Dickens’ sensitivity to this all prevalent issue! We’ve got to applaud him for this.

    Moreover, though, Quilp reminds me also of the modern day businessman or corporation–taking over Grandfather’s shop practically by force; he moves in, sells the merchandise, and basically sets up his own shop there. This is a form of predatory business practice where the aggressive “company” “rescues” the business which is obviously going bankrupt, and reaps whatever harvest lies therein. Usually, there is some kind of leverage being applied and possibly some sort of blackmail. What is very strange about this whole business, however, is that Quilp believes that grandfather has a ton of cash (or whatever) hidden somewhere on the premises and pulls Nell’s brother into the scheme as a kind of co-conspirator. Quilp thus is seen as both a sexual and business predator. What could be more modern than this duality in a man’s personality. Aggressive behavior in both of his areas of interest!

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  14. Lenny delineated nicely two sides of Quilp’s nature – sexual predator and business predator. Her description made me think that those two facets in Quilp are split into two separate characters in Nickleby. Lenny pointed to the sexual predator Hawk as one, and there’s also the business/financial predator Ralph who had “fed” – to borrow Rach’s consuming metaphor – on countless needy, vulnerable victims through his moneylending, which apparently was one of Quilp’s business interests too (among his long list of “pursuits” listed in the fourth chapter, is “advanced money to the seamen”). So, in Quilp, Dickens gave us all that evil in one potent package! And it’s a good point that such Quilps are still among us today – but where are the Nicholas Nicklebys to stand in opposition to them?

    Also, thank you, Rach and Lenny for your discussion of the caged bird as a representation of Nell, and her protector Kit. A lovely metaphor.

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    1. What wonderful insights, friends! And please forgive if the wrap-up post is an hour or two delayed from my usual time; we left for our family vacation yesterday, so we’re all running on a different time schedule. 🙂

      And Marnie, I agree with you about how natural and often right it is for children to take on the responsibilities of the adult; I too understand this and grew up this way, as many have, especially in big families. 🙂 But I think Master Humphrey was trying to express (in a way that wouldn’t completely offend the grandfather) his alarm that there appears to be no conception of danger in the grandfather about the risk of sending a young girl on the verge of early womanhood out into the streets of Victorian London at night, or leaving her alone while he is away. (I can’t help but wonder if Dickens saw this too often, and perhaps saw one girl who seemed different and unaccustomed to these surroundings, and used her as a model? I’m not sure.) I too am so grateful for Kit, that, as you and Lenny say, and as Master H. says in a different way, really fills in the gaps — adding some joy and support to a life of anxiety (as she is really the child of this gambling addiction). I agree with the grandfather that it will never check Nell’s confidence and simplicity, as “the springs are too deep”; yet, it is sad and frustrating to me that the danger that she is in regularly, and the anxiety that his secrecy brings into the home, don’t seem to alarm him sufficiently.

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