Wherein we revisit our second week’s reading of The Old Curiosity Shop (Week 31 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a summary and discussion wrap-up; and a look-ahead to Week Three.
Edited/compiled by Rach
“I won’t go so far as to say, that, as it is, I’ve seen wax-work quite like life, but I’ve certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work.”
Friends, what characters we have met this week!
And there are a number of mysteries to solve: the identity and motive of the mysterious single lodger; the situation of the little servant girl suffering abuses from the Brasses…
This week we’ve focused on the women, and what a marvelous conversation! But first, here are some quick links:
- General Mems
- The Old Curiosity Shop, Week Two (Chs. 19-37): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead to Week Three of The Old Curiosity Shop
If you’re counting, today is day 217 (and week 32) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Three of The Old Curiosity Shop, our sixth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the third 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 Two (Chs. 19-37): A Summary
Nell continues to be wary of the attentions of Codlin and Short. The former comes to visit her one evening, repeating again and again that she should consider him—Codlin—her true friend, and not Short; and if she is asked about this in future, always to say that Codlin was her friend. Nell, a child of anxiety and with quick perceptions, is distrustful of them.
She warns the grandfather that Codlin and Short mean to part them, and that he needs to trust her and follow her lead. In the midst of the races, Nell gathers flowers to (unsuccessfully) sell in little bouquets to those watching—and, in the midst of the chaos, finds a chance to escape with her grandfather.
Meanwhile, faithful Kit—who is worried about Nell and her grandfather, has returned to the Garlands in order to pay off his little debt to them. They are impressed with him, and acquire his address in order to find out more. They visit his mother and family at his home, and, impressed with all they see, offer Kit a regular position.
Quilp and Dick Swiveller enter the scene, and Quilp is suspicious about Kit’s newfound income. Quilp then uses Dick’s weakness for drink to weasel out of Dick the whole scheme about marrying Nell; Quilp agrees to help him, just for the cruelty of enjoying Dick’s eventual disillusionment about her “wealth.”
Kit has a busy time of it, getting packed and ready for his new work at the Garlands’. He enjoys a little repast with the servant, Barbara, who is flushed and confused by his presence.
Meanwhile, a remorseful Dick Swiveller, realizing he’d told Quilp too much, brings Fred into the knowledge of his conversation with Quilp. Fred and Quilp (without Dick hearing) realize they have a common “enemy” in the grandfather, though for different reasons: Fred is cast off and had been sent away to sea by him, and Quilp says it is the grandfather’s losing of his money that makes him, Quilp, want revenge. They decide to work together.
On encountering a quiet village, Nell and the grandfather befriend a kindly schoolmaster who offers them food and shelter on their journey. Nell tries to comfort the schoolmaster for his evident distress at the serious illness of one of his students that he cares for deeply. She and the grandfather decide to rest there a little longer, and Nell tries to repay the schoolmaster by doing chores and food preparation around the house. She visits the sick boy before he dies, and it is not only the schoolmaster that is so deeply affected by the death; Nell finds herself mysteriously touched and troubled by it too, as though it might foreshadow other sad events to come. They part warmly from the schoolmaster, who invites them to return if they pass that way again.
The next encounter proves to be a caravan headed by Mrs. Jarley of Mrs. Jarley’s Wax-Work. The one and only Mrs. Jarley herself, though a little oversensitive to what she feels might be personal slights, takes a fancy to Nell, and hires both her and the grandfather to help out; Nell will be memorizing the tour guide role for those coming to see her famous displays.
“Who won the Helter-Skelter Plate, child?’ ‘Won what, ma’am?’ asked Nell. ‘The Helter-Skelter Plate at the races, child—the plate that was run for on the second day.’ ‘On the second day, ma’am?’ ‘Second day! Yes, second day,’ repeated the lady with an air of impatience. ‘Can’t you say who won the Helter-Skelter Plate when you’re asked the question civilly?'”
One night, Nell sees Quilp, apparently on his way back to London. Nell, frightened, hides; she hopes she has little to fear as she assumes Quilp is only passing through.
“There was an empty niche from which some old statue had fallen or been carried away hundreds of years ago, and she was thinking what strange people it must have looked down upon when it stood there, and how many hard struggles might have taken place, and how many murders might have been done, upon that silent spot, when there suddenly emerged from the black shade of the arch, a man. The instant he appeared, she recognised him—Who could have failed to recognise, in that instant, the ugly misshapen Quilp!”
Though Quilp features regularly in Nell’s nightmares, she is busy enough getting to know Mrs. Jarley’s business during the day, and all the spectators take a fancy to Nell, who is dolled up and contrasts sharply with those about her. School groups come to view the waxworks—and Mrs. Jarley alters the identities of the murderers and more unsavory figures to suit a school-age audience.
A return of Nell’s old anxiety reawakens when the grandfather discovers a group playing cards together; he takes Nell’s money and gambles it all away. So consumed in the game that he has all but forgotten her existence.
“The child saw with astonishment and alarm that his whole appearance had undergone a complete change. His face was flushed and eager, his eyes were strained, his teeth set, his breath came short and thick, and the hand he laid upon her arm trembled so violently that she shook beneath its grasp.”
Back at their lodgings, Nell tries to secretively get change for the one gold piece that she kept in reserve for emergencies. However, the grandfather witnesses it, a stealthy figure watching her for any sign of hidden money.
That night, a figure of nightmare steals into her room and takes her money from her. The nightmare is intensified a hundredfold when Nell follows the mysterious figure—fearing for her grandfather’s safety if a burglar should be in the house—only to find that it was her grandfather himself.
“The dark form was a mere blot upon the lighter darkness of the room, but she saw the turning of the head, and felt and knew how the eyes looked and the ears listened. There it remained, motionless as she. At length, still keeping the face towards her, it busied its hands in something, and she heard the chink of money. Then, on it came again, silent and stealthy as before, and replacing the garments it had taken from the bedside, dropped upon its hands and knees, and crawled away.”
Nell’s essential loneliness comes to the fore as she loses ground in health due to the anxiety that her grandfather’s gambling obsession has started to consume him once again, and as she feels like she herself is feeding it in being compelled by him to give him all her earnings from Mrs. Jarley. Nell wishes she had someone to confide in, and wistfully imagines herself as one of a group of warmhearted sisters she observes. One of the sisters, Miss Edwards, is the pupil of the snobbish and cruel Mrs. Monflathers, and had performed a gesture of kindness towards Nell.
“‘You’re the wax-work child, are you not?’ said Miss Monflathers.”
We return to Dick Swiveller, whose aunt and patron has let him fend for himself. Dick has been recommended (by Quilp) to Mr. Brass and his sister Sally for a fellow clerk in their office. Dick becomes as fascinated with Sally Brass as our dear Sam Weller was with the “fat boy” in our first novel; Sally is every bit as much “one of the guys” as is her brother. She is the more formidable presence of the two; she has a legal mind and gets slaps on the back and is called “a fellow.”
While the Brasses are away, Dick is requested by the small servant girl (whose residence in the house seems to have an air of mystery and suspicion about it) to introduce a prospective lodger to his room and to take the payment—both of which Mr. Swiveller does, with a bit added onto the sum. This mysterious single gentleman pays well in advance, and requests not to be disturbed.
The lodger continues to be a mystery, and a whimsical scene ensues as the Brasses and Dick try to find out whether or not the lodger has died—so long has he been confined in his room without venturing forth.
“‘…and the short and the long of it is, that we cannot allow single gentlemen to come into this establishment and sleep like double gentlemen without paying extra for it.'”
Dick finally has a conversation with the lodger who is angered about being disturbed and reiterates his desire to be left alone.
Nonetheless, the two get on, and the gentleman makes Dick a sort of middleman who takes care of all the arrangements between himself and the Brasses.
The only time this lodger comes forth is when there is a Punch show going on. We also come to find out that this mysterious gentleman has an interest in Nell and the grandfather; he has an interview with Codlin and Short, and assigns them to bring the dog trainer to him—a man who had seen Nell and the grandfather recently with Mrs Jarley.
Dick also has a talent for getting on with Sally, and becomes a source of amusement for her, while he gets her to do some of his own work for him. But there is a mystery in the house that Dick means to solve: who is this elusive servant girl, the “love-child” of whom little is said? Dick follows Sally at one point down into the basement of the house, where the girl is kept in dank, solitary quarters with the food locked up. Sally brings her a bit of meat and potatoes. Dick realizes that the two are going through some kind of ritual dialogue, with Sally offering her too little food, the girl saying she doesn’t need any more (though she clearly wants it), followed by Sally’s insistence that the girl will never be able to say that she didn’t get any meat. Dick witnesses Sally’s verbal and physical abuse of the girl.
Dickens’ Children: Little Nell and the Poor
Our dear Stationmaster comes to the defense of Little Nell as a truly active protagonist:
And Lenny agrees. Inspired by the above reflections, Lenny ponders the situation of “wounded” children in Dickens:
It was rather rejuvenating to see, in contrast, the very active and boisterous children misbehaving in the poor schoolmaster’s class:
But the issues that Dickens brings up with our individual beloved children is representative of a larger system desperately in need of benefactors, as Lenny writes:
Dickens’ Women: Nell, Sally Brass, and Mrs. Jarley
Chris brings up such wonderful points here about the women in Dickens–including the unusual and unique portrayal of the “masculine” Sally Brass. Though she covers a number of topics, I didn’t want to break her marvelous essay up into smaller segments:
Lenny responds, wondering whether Dickens himself has become seduced by these powerful female characters, comparing the Curiosity Shop‘s women to those in Nicholas Nickleby. Might we even call them “womens’ novels”?
The Stationmaster had a very intriguing idea about Mrs. Jarley: could she “be considered a second- or third-rate Miss La Creevy crossed with a second- or third-rate Vincent Crummles”?
The World of Dreams and Nightmares
I chimed in belatedly this week, and focused mostly on the “nightmare” of Nell’s grandfather, “Gollum-like,” sneaking in to steal money from his granddaughter. In the light of day, he is almost unable to acknowledge the existence of this shadow self, as this scene has always felt like one of the most haunting in literature to me:
A Look-Ahead to Week Three of The Old Curiosity Shop (9-15 aug.)
Friends, this week we’ll be reading Chapters 38-55.
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.