Wherein we revisit our first week’s reading of The Old Curiosity Shop (Week 30 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a summary and discussion wrap-up; and a look-ahead to Week Two.
Edited/compiled by Rach
“I had, ever before me the old dark murky rooms—the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly silent air— the faces all awry, grinning from wood and stone—the dust, and rust, and worm that lives in wood—and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams…”
Friends, we’ve entered the Dream-world Pilgrims’ Progress that is The Old Curiosity Shop, filled with its vestiges of the past, its ogres and lost children, and the many strange beings our pilgrims meet upon the road.
We’ve had some great discussion starting out! But first, here are some quick links and notes:
- General Mems
- The Old Curiosity Shop, Week One (Chs. 1-18): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Special Gift (Thank you, Dr. Christian!)
- A Look-Ahead to Week Two of The Old Curiosity Shop
Friends, if you’ve not had a chance to read Boze’s marvelous piece on Dickens’ whimsical Holiday Romance, I’d very much recommend it!
If you’re counting, today is day 210 (and week 31) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Two of The Old Curiosity Shop, our sixth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the second 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 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.
The Old Curiosity Shop, Week One (Chs. 1-18): A Summary
We begin our story with an unnamed gentleman (Master Humphrey) encountering, during one of his night walks, a girl who has lost her way in the maze of London. This is our heroine, “Little Nell.” Master Humphrey assists Nell to find her way back home to the curiosity shop full of odd, sometimes grotesque, items, vestiges of past times.
“If these helps to my fancy had all been wanting, and I had been forced to imagine her in a common chamber, with nothing unusual or uncouth in its appearance, it is very probable that I should have been less impressed with her strange and solitary state. As it was, she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory…”
Master Humphrey questions Nell’s grandfather—her only caretaker and companion, besides the shock-haired and amusing friend, Kit, who does odd jobs for them and takes lessons from Nell—about the advisability of allowing someone so young to brave the streets alone at night in London. The grandfather becomes immediately defensive, assuring the gentleman that Nell wishes to do these errands for him, and that it is nothing.
We come to learn, along with Master Humphrey, that the grandfather also leaves Nell alone in this curiosity shop at night, while he is out on some mysterious errand, of which a certain taint of guilt and shame is notable. There is some dark secret behind it, Master Humphrey fears. It is clear that the grandfather loves Nell dearly, and vice-versa; but still, the secrecy and strangeness of the child’s situation, surrounded by so much that is opposite to her, is troubling. (We find out later that faithful Kit has been remaining outside on the nights when Nell is left home alone, to keep an eye on her from a distance.)
We soon encounter the short, ogrish Quilp, a landlord and moneylender of violent and cruel temperament, sarcastic and rapacious.
Quilp keeps his wife sitting up all night watching him smoke cigars purely for the fun of it; he keeps both her and her mother in fear of their lives and under his thumb. Quilp has some vague intention to make Nell the second Mrs Quilp after his wife dies–a frightening idea for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Nell is fourteen, and his wife is a young woman.
We quickly learn that the grandfather has been borrowing money from Quilp for a mysterious purpose.
However, there is an understanding that the grandfather is secretly rich, hoarding his wealth miserly so that he can bestow it all on Nell at his death.
With this understanding, Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Fred, who is out of the grandfather’s good graces, comes up with a scheme to get his friend, the careless, dissipated, and entertaining Dick Swiveller, to engage himself to his sister Nell once she is old enough, thereby ensuring that Dick—and, through him, Fred too—will partake of Nell’s wealth from her grandfather.
Dick is already interested in Sophia Wackles, who is coming up with a scheme of her own to arouse Dick’s jealousy and make Dick finally declare his love and propose to her. This ends up benefitting Dick’s own purpose to have some grounds for an argument with Sophia and to break off their connection, which he does.
Meanwhile, as Nell comes to see Quilp on an errand for her grandfather–the purpose of which, the loan of more money, she is unaware of–Quilp continues to delay giving a response, intending to find out information about what the grandfather is doing with all of this loaned money.
Quilp has schemed with his wife, tenderhearted as she is, but weakened by her violent husband, to get into Nell’s confidence to try and suss out the secret of her grandfather’s wealth. Little as Nell understands herself, she unburdens her heart about her worry for her grandfather, who has been depriving himself of rest in order to be gone all night on some mysterious purpose that causes a morbid fixation and anxiety in him. He has changed; as has the whole atmosphere of a home she once found warm and loving.
(Nell told her grandfather that she would rather leave the city altogether and go begging into the country, rather than lead a life of trouble and anxiety such as theirs has come to.)
The conversation between Nell and Mrs. Quilp gives Quilp the clue he needed, and he confronts the grandfather with it: he has been gambling all of his money away every night; he has no stash of hidden wealth after all. This proves to be correct, and the grandfather cannot persuade Quilp to lend him more money in spite of the conviction that this time it will be different. The grandfather hopes by this gambling to secure Nell’s future comfort, and avoid the fate to which Nell’s mother was a victim in her poverty.
“I would spare her the miseries that brought her mother, my own dear child, to an early grave. I would leave her— not with resources which could be easily spent or squandered away, but with what would place her beyond the reach of want for ever.”
To add insult to injury, Quilp accuses Kit of being the one who disclosed the grandfather’s secret to him.
The grandfather falls ill for some weeks, and is furious with Kit and will not allow him near, the reason for which neither Kit nor Nell understand. Nell comes to Kit to give him his wages and tell him that he has done something to upset her grandfather.
During the grandfather’s illness—the only reason he is allowed to stay at his own home now—Quilp takes possession of the Shop and everything in it, with the aid of the lawyer Mr. Brass, as the grandfather has no means of paying Quilp back for his previous loans.
Kit offers Nell and her grandfather a place in his own home, which touches Nell deeply. But as the grandfather recovers, he and Nell decide to sneak away before anyone suspects they’ve gone, leaving the city to seek peace in the quieter places.
“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.”
When Quilp and Dick Swiveller—who has come to pay a visit and check on the grandfather—discover that they have gone, they both suspect that the grandfather has some secret fortune stored elsewhere, which would, they feel, explain his sudden disappearance.
Meanwhile, Kit finds other employment with the kindly Garlands (Mr and Mrs Garland, and their son, Abel), who overpay him due to lack of change, not expecting Kit to come back and work off the rest.
Nell and her grandfather encounter kind cottagers who offer them refreshment and direction to a good stopping-place on their journey; they encounter two traveling showmen—Tommy and Short—repairing their Punch-and-Judy-style puppets, and decide to stay the night at the same lodgings, as the grandfather seems quite taken with these new companions.
Meanwhile, Nell sews her emergency gold coin into her dress, to use only as a last resort, when all the rest of their scant money runs out. The next day, Nell and the grandfather decide to accompany the traveling showmen for a while longer. We later find out that both men—Short and Tommy—harbor some suspicions about the pair, and decide that, if there is a reward for finding these two runaways, they will split it.
What We Loved — and Didn’t
Cassandra reflects on reading Master Humphey’s Clock, and found herself right in between the contrasting perspectives that we’ve recently shared: she enjoyed the experiment and found some of it tough-going…
The Stationmaster starts us out with some of the things he doesn’t enjoy about the Shop, followed by some quotes that he especially liked:
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Contrasts; Exploring Childhood as a “Special State”; Sentimentality; “To Leave Something Always in Suspense”
Chris reflects beautifully on what has helped her to get through what has sometimes felt like a “tedious” journey: Dickens’ ability to engage the world from a child’s perspective and a situation of “contrasts” (not unlike, as she writes, the situation of the young Victoria):
Boze responds, reflecting on Dickens’ ability as a writer to “perceive and indulge public tastes while being entirely unaffected by them”:
Lenny had a similar response to Chris in his earlier engagement with the Shop, but he is enamored during this read, “totally caught up in Nell’s picaresque journey”:
Marnie, too, finds Nell more touching than she would have anticipated:
Boze brings in a marvelous quote from Barnaby Rudge, and how the means by which cults draw followers is not unlike the process of the successful writer:
Might it be said that, due to her grandfather’s nightly secret habit, Nell is a “child of addition”? The grandfather means well, but he is consumed by this unreality of something coming from a gambling habit that has only been draining their resources, leaving them at the mercy of Quilp and leaving Nell to the mercy of the London streets and the dangers of the world.
My own alarm was very much expressed by Master Humphrey:
But while we might be alarmed by the danger Nell is put into regularly, both in her perpetual anxiety that she tries to hide and the danger of walking in London alone at night, there is another perspective on taking on adult responsibility so young: it can be maturing and affirming, too. Here’s a lovely take from Marnie on the realism of the situation, and the self-confidence that can spring from such necessity:
City versus Country; Dickens’ Romanticism; Dickens’ “Most Wordsworthian Novel”?
I couldn’t help but bring us back to our recurring theme of the perception of the “City” versus the “Country”:
Here, Lenny brings us back beautifully to Dickens’ Romanticism, which has been an ongoing theme. His early response is that The Old Curiosity Shop might even be Dickens’ most Wordsworthian novel yet! That perhaps the “fairy-tale” quality of it is more akin to Wordsworth’s grappling of psychological realities, his “unknown modes of being”:
Ogres and the “Dream-world”: Fairy Tale or Reality?
How do we look at The Old Curiosity Shop: Is it a kind of modern fairy tale (the Child journeying against a world of ogres, surrounded by contrasts and strangeness), or is it hyper-realism?
The Stationmaster talks about Quilp:
I was struck by the constant references to the “Dream-world” and the fairy tale metaphors, especially after having read Boze’s introduction, while I’m in the midst of Harry Stone’s The Night Side of Dickens:
Lenny, however, brings up a wonderful alternate perspective: Quilp not so much as “ogre” as contemporary sharp-practicing businessman. He is struck by “the psychological and social realism” portrayed here, and its modernism; by the child’s ability to step in “and fill the gaps left by the ‘missing’ parent or parents.” Perhaps this might be looked at as a kind of hyper-realism, after all:
And Marnie adds to this beautifully:
A Special Gift (Thank you, Dr. Christian!)
Friends, I just thought I’d share this amazing gift from our Dickens Club supporter and encourager, Dr. Christian Lehmann…a first edition of a Master Humphrey installment(!!), and a beautiful character sketch (and a very French-looking interpretation) of Sydney Carton by Claud Lovat Fraser! (I’m really falling down the rabbit hole looking at other character sketches of Fraser’s!) Thank you so much, Dr. Christian. What a treasure.
A Look-Ahead to Week Two of The Old Curiosity Shop
Friends, this week we’ll be reading Chapters 19-37.
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.