The Old Curiosity Shop, Week 4 ~ and a Week 3 Wrap-Up

Wherein we revisit our third week’s reading of The Old Curiosity Shop (Week 32 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a summary and discussion wrap-up; and a look-ahead to Week Four.

Edited/compiled by Rach

“There are chords in the human heart—strange, varying strings—which are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch.”

Friends, this week’s read has been full of both rest and haste, joy and pain, and melancholy forebodings. What excellent insights we’ve had in our discussion!

But first, here are a few quick links and our “General Mems”:

  1. General Mems
  2. The Old Curiosity Shop, Week Three (Chs. 38-55): A Summary
  3. Discussion Wrap-Up
  4. A Look-Ahead to Week Four of The Old Curiosity Shop

General Mems

I want to offer the warmest welcome to family friend, Deacon Matthew Knight! Among the topics on faith and literature explored in his blog and podcast (including a year-long journey with Shakespeare and Tolkien), 2022 began for him as a year of Dickens. Finding out about our Club, has decided to join our schedule! (For those interested, it has been a delight to explore his thoughts on Pickwick and Sam–including “The Sacrifice of Samuel Weller”–and I’m looking forward to chatting with him on Pickwick and Oliver soon on his podcast.)

If you’re counting, today is day 224 (and week 33) in our #DickensClub! It will be Week Four of The Old Curiosity Shop, our sixth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the fourth 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 Three (Chs. 38-55): A Summary

We spend our first four chapters this week with Kit and company. Kit has been sought out by the “single gentleman,” as one who had known Nell and her grandfather; Dick Swiveller, seeing evidence of this interesting interview, tries to ply Kit for information, but to little avail. After this, Kit celebrates a day of rest with his family after receiving his income, and his mother and little Jacob makes friends with Barbara and Barbara’s mother.

They all go to Astley’s and eat oysters, and there is some wish, on Barbara’s part, for a flirtation with Kit, which the latter innocently evades. Back at work with the Garlands, Kit refuses an offer (of more money than the Garlands are able to give him) to work for the single gentleman, remaining loyal to the Garlands.

However, they all agree that Kit could be loaned to the gentleman from time to time; the single gentleman proposes Kit’s accompanying him on the search for Nell and the grandfather. Kit, however, acknowledges that his presence might do more harm than good, as the grandfather has some reason to distrust or dislike him. However, Kit suggests that his own mother, who was a trusted friend of both Nell and her grandfather, might serve the purpose, and he leaves to collect her. Finding her at the Little Bethel church, penitent for her overindulgence in oysters, Kit inadvertently makes a scene in trying to draw his mother away, but remains unruffled–almost to a degree that would have done our Sam Weller proud–in being called names by the preacher.

“Such is the difference between yesterday and today. We are all going to the play, or coming home from it.”

“A Parley with the Card-sharpers,” by Phiz.

Meanwhile, the grandfather, still guiltily taking Nell’s earnings for his nightly gambling sessions, is convinced by a couple of fellow gamblers that if he could only play a little longer, he is sure to win, and they convince him to steal money from his employer. Nell overhears the conversation, and, making sure that no theft has yet been made, convinces her grandfather to follow her out, that they must leave their employer because she had a terrible “dream”—using the situation she overheard to convince him—in order to avoid the guilt and shame of such temptations and the haunting of such dreams. The grandfather obeys, looking on her almost as a spirit.

Nell and her grandfather arrive at a dirty industrial city (Birmingham) after accepting a boat ride from some rough but generally well-intentioned men; she thinks that, by means of traveling on water for a time, they might better hide their tracks from any who might be pursuing them. They both feel the regret of being in the city, and the grandfather complains of her bringing him here.

They encounter a poor factory worker, who has nothing to offer them but a little warmth by the furnace, his only friend. Nell is able to get a little sleep. Before they resume their path through a dark, daunting, smoke-and-fire-ridden city, the poor man hands her two penny pieces for their journey.

“A Procession of Unemployed,” by Phiz. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.

“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…”

Nell realizes that she is losing health; only occasionally does her grandfather seem to notice her frail state, and never does he realize how ill she might be, until she faints in the street.

Thankfully, their old friend, the kindly schoolmaster, is there–Nell had seen him just before she fainted. The schoolmaster lifts her up and takes her to an inn, and a doctor is summoned. Once Nell is stronger, she tells the kindly schoolmaster of the whole of their journey; the schoolmaster marvels at her almost supernatural strength of purpose and purity of heart, and sees in her what he loved in his dying pupil. He is determined to help her. They all travel together back to his town, and Nell and the grandfather wait for him while he is on an errand of some urgency and hope, as he himself has had good fortune in his work situation since they had last seen him, and he has an idea for their benefit.

Meanwhile, the eccentric and hasty single gentleman is pushing on the journey with Mrs Nubbles to Mrs. Jarley’s. But they are disappointed upon arriving to find out about the disappearance of Nell and the grandfather. Rumor spreads about who Nell might really be.

The single gentleman confronts Quilp, who appears to be dogging their footsteps, which the latter denies. Kit later confronts Quilp too, for scaring his own mother. Quilp is still set on finding the whereabouts of the grandfather and Nell, feeling he has a score to settle with them, and Kit.

“Mr. Quilp, who loved nobody, had by little and little come to hate everybody nearly or remotely connected with his ruined client:—the old man himself, because he had been able to deceive him and elude his vigilance—the child, because she was the object of Mrs. Quilp’s commiseration and constant self-reproach—the single gentleman, because of his unconcealed aversion to himself—Kit and his mother, most mortally, for the reasons shown. Above and beyond that general feeling of opposition to them, which would have been inseparable from his ravenous desire to enrich himself by these altered circumstances, Daniel Quilp hated them every one.”

Meanwhile, upon Quilp’s return home, he sees that there has been a belief that Quilp has drowned; his wife appears sorrowful, but Mr Brass and his mother-in-law seem contented enough with the prospect. Quilp revenges himself on his wife and mother-in-law by quasi-moving out in order to live bachelor-fashion, so that he can drop in on them at any unexpected moment, and make their life a torment.

“Mrs. Quilp Visits Bachelor’s Hall,” by Phiz.

“Quilp locked the doors; and still embracing the case-bottle with shrugged-up shoulders and folded arms, stood looking at his insensible wife like a dismounted nightmare.”

Quilp then tries to get information out of Dick—who gets a bit maudlin that his Miss Wackles has now become Mrs Cheggs—about the Brasses and the single gentleman. We find out that the single gentleman has met with Nell’s brother Fred, and blames Fred for the situation that Nell and her grandfather are in.

“’Yes,’ said Dick, ‘the same. You needn’t mention her name. There’s no such name now. Her name is Cheggs now, Sophy Cheggs. Yet loved I as man never loved that hadn’t wooden legs, and my heart, my heart is breaking for the love of Sophy Cheggs.’”

Quilp then speaks to the Brasses about his dislike of Kit, a sentiment that they share, and they agree to help Quilp to devise a means “of putting him out of [Quilp’s] way.”

After this, Nell and the grandfather have their first taste of home and rest. The schoolmaster, Mr. Marton, has returned from his errand, happy in the news that one of the two habitations that belong to him will be for them—and in his kindness, it is the more spacious one that he has chosen for them—and that Nell can work at the church there, to replace the old keeper who has recently died. Nell will keep the keys and show it to visitors and open (or lock) the doors for services. Above all, it is the peace of a quiet, country life that they both had longed for, thanks to the schoolmaster.

“A Very Aged, Ghostly Place,” by George Cattermole.

“The sky was serene and bright, the air clear, perfumed with the fresh scent of newly fallen leaves, and grateful to every sense. The neighbouring stream sparkled, and rolled onward with a tuneful sound; the dew glistened on the green mounds, like tears shed by Good Spirits over the dead.”

“Oh! the glory of the sudden burst of light; the freshness of the fields and woods, stretching away on every side, and meeting the bright blue sky; the cattle grazing in the pasturage; the smoke, that, coming from among the trees, seemed to rise upward from the green earth; the children yet at their gambols down below—all, everything, so beautiful and happy! It was like passing from death to life; it was drawing nearer Heaven.”

“Nell’s New Home,” by George Cattermole.

Their new homes, though in disrepair, are lovingly worked on and made more habitable by the three, with the help of kindly townsfolk who assist them, including the kindly “Bachelor,” as he is nicknamed. He is an old friend of the clergyman’s, attaching himself to the latter gentleman and living at the parsonage ever since the death of the clergyman’s wife. He and the kindly schoolmaster and Nell and her grandfather take delight in reading aloud together of an evening.

“The bachelor, among his various occupations, found in the old church a constant source of interest and amusement. Taking that pride in it which men conceive for the wonders of their own little world, he had made its history his study; and many a summer day within its walls, and many a winter’s night beside the parsonage fire, had found the bachelor still poring over, and adding to, his goodly store of tale and legend.”

“Resting Among the Tombs,” by George Cattermole.

Nell still has premonitions of death, and she has lost her health, but remains peaceful, befriending the clergyman and the church and its tower and burial places. She helps the clergyman during his illness, and mourns the unvisited graves, as if haunted by the loneliness of death.

“A change had been gradually stealing over her, in the time of her loneliness and sorrow. With failing strength and heightening resolution, there had sprung up a purified and altered mind…There were none to see the frail, perishable figure, as it glided from the fire and leaned pensively at the open casement; none but the stars, to look into the upturned face and read its history…”

“’I rather grieve—I do rather grieve to think,’ said the child, bursting into tears, ‘that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.’

“‘And do you think,’ said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, ‘that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves—neglected as they look to us—are the chief instruments…Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!’”

“A Black and Dreadful Place,” by Daniel Maclise.

But Nell is cared for and loved and attended to by people of the village, and befriends a young boy who is missing his dead brother—he hopes that Nell will not have to leave him, but if she too were to become an angel, that she would tell his brother how much he is missed.

The grandfather has at last become fully attentive towards Nell; something about working with her to tend to the children’s graves has given him a belated wake-up call. However wounded his mind and spirit are, he now finds a purpose in caring for and thinking of her unselfishly.

“From that time, there sprung up in the old man’s mind, a solicitude about the child which never slept or left him. There are chords in the human heart—strange, varying strings—which are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch.”

Discussion Wrap-Up

What We Loved–and Didn’t

Chris put us onto a fascinating-looking link to a video series that Jeremy Parrott is starting, and the link to the video is here:

The Stationmaster finds this whole section of the book “the most boring part…or at least Little Nell and her grandfather’s part of it was. It just feels like their story is going in circles with nothing being accomplished.” But he thoroughly enjoyed a few elements during this week’s read, including the scene at Little Bethel. It was enjoyable to read about his memory of watching one of the adaptations, and how they were hoping every bit as much that Quilp was really dead, as his “mourners” appeared to be!

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

Here, the Stationmaster reflects on the Garlands, in comparison with the Cheerybles:

Adaptation Stationmaster comment

City vs. Country

Lenny brought us back around again to that recurring theme of the “City versus Country” which has been so striking since Pickwick, and was particularly notable in our chapters this week, with the contrast between “the smog-filled environs” to “the wide open and freeing spaces of the country”:

Lenny H. comment

I had the same thought this week, though I began by responding to Boze’s comment on the lyricism of many of these passages, but quickly passed into discussing the new quiet life of Nell and her grandfather in contrast to the industrial city, the descriptive passages of which were so vivid and dreamlike, echoing Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”:

Rach M. comment

And Chris answered my question about whether Birmingham was actually the industrial city, or the inspiration for it, with a link to the Charles Dickens Page’s map of the journey of Nell and the grandfather.


I want to briefly refer to Lenny’s wonderful remark on the theme of “consumption” here, which we had discussed earlier, related to Quilp’s ogreish “appetite”; he is ready to eat up everything and everyone around him:

Lenny H. comment

Dickens and Women

We’ve had wonderful discussion this week on the theme of Dickens’ women, and Chris really gave us so much food for thought here. Her notes from previous reads were delightful (“Nell IS the curiosity shop!”; her reversal of the Dickens line in noting that “Nell is majestic youth surrounded by perpetual age!”) We might look at Nell as representative of both the women and the children in society, as she herself is something of a child-woman, skirting the edges of young womanhood. Nell, Chris argues, is Dickens’ ideal, “the silent helpmeet who bears all, believes all, hopes all, but who also sees all, manages and tolerates all. It’s no wonder then that Nell wilts under the burden.”

Chris M. comment

Lenny responds beautifully; he keeps thinking of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft “and the ways in which she demonstrated the huge limitations that the British Society placed on the lives of women.” And: “Quilp, in all his monstrous hyperbole, is a symbol of that male dominance” that can “shut down” any opposition to himself. He suggests that Nell becomes “an hyperbolic symbol of female subjugation”:

Lenny H. comment

Of Brasses and Bumbles…

Chris delightfully suggests that the Brasses “have taken up the mantle of Mr and Mrs Bumble [from Oliver Twist] and improved upon it!”

Chris M. comment

Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Character Development, Plotting, and Lyricism

Chris writes some additional thoughts on the character development and scenes from this week’s read, that Nell is “the epitome of the ‘young, beautiful, and good’–another nod to Dickens’ reverence for Mary Hogarth.” She also comments on Chapter 39, “a gem in its description of the joy humble folks experience in having a night out. This could easily be one of Boz’s Sketches.”

Chris M. comment

Boze and I have been discussing the Shop, and, during a recent Skype session, almost read a passage aloud–except that we became distracted by rereading passages related to Mr. Jingle and our old Pickwickian friends!

Boze reflects that we might be able to pinpoint the very spot at which “Dickens realized how it was going to end…at roughly the spot where he describes Nell gazing on the stars.” During this passage, and many passages in our read this week, “his prose acquires a new urgency, an intensity and lyricism and poetry he hadn’t shown to date in any of his previous works. There’s a momentum to the final quarter of the novel, like a train travelling across country.”

Boze H. comment

A Look-Ahead to Week Four of The Old Curiosity Shop (16-22 Aug)

Friends, this week we’ll be reading the last quarter of The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapters 56-73.

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.


  1. I’m going to do a quick comment about the more comedic elements of this section. Later, I’ll comment about the dramatic stuff.

    I love the character of the newspaper loving turnkey.

    For most of the book, I thought Sampson Brass’s character was just OK. But his last set piece in Chapter 66 was hilarious, especially this bit.

    “I have heard of a poet, who remarked that feelings were the common lot of all. If he could have been a pig, gentlemen, and have uttered that sentiment, he would still have been immortal.”

    Speaking of bad guys, it’s fitting that Quilp, who liked to drink boiling water (I’ve never been able to take that detail seriously), should meet his end by drowning in icy water. But was anyone else surprised that after fantasizing about Sampson Brass bobbing up three times before drowning, he only comes up once (by my count?) Seems like a rare missed opportunity for irony on Dickens’s part.

    I don’t know if anyone reading this is a fan of Phineas and Ferb. There’s probably not a lot of fan-overlap with that show and Dickens. But if you are, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Barbara is a total Isabella.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. There’s this school of criticism that believes Dickens was a great writer in spite of his tendency to be touchy-feely. G. K. Chesterton felt that Dickens should have been simply a comic writer. John Carey believed the “real” Dickens was all about anger and violence. Even John Mullan, whose book, The Artful Dickens, argues that Dickens is great in the technical sense of the word, not just a guilty pleasure, and that the things in his books that are considered flaws are actually part of his art, has little good to say about what are referred to as “sentimental” passages in Dickens.

    I really don’t belong to this school of criticism. For me, the tearjerking and heartwarming scenes aren’t a necessary evil but as much a part of Dickens’s appeal as the spooky or uproarious ones.

    But I agree with Chesterton that the Marchioness is a better heroine than Little Nell. And the funny thing is it’s not like the Marchioness is a super modern character. She’s just as much a Victorian character type as Nell. It’s just she’s a better one. Actually, Miss Edwards was also a better Victorian-style heroine than Nell.

    Part of that may be because Dickens keeps reminding us that we should love and pity Nell to the point that it gets annoying. With the Marchioness and Miss Edwards, he just lets the characters and their situations speak for themselves. It also may be that these characters are worse off than Nell in that they’re stuck with their persecutors while Nell escapes from and barely interacts with Quilp. (Unless we see the real villain in Nell’s story as her grandfather, a depressingly plausible interpretation.) And Miss Monflathers has an interesting motivation for resenting Miss Edwards too. It would have been interesting to explore that more.

    That’s not to say everything about Nell’s story is a waste of time. This passage describing her grandfather’s grief at her passing is good. I won’t say great since the content is pretty obvious to anyone who’s experienced grief, but it does a good job of describing the obvious.

    “If there be any who have never known the blank that follows death—the weary void—the sense of desolation that will come upon the strongest minds, when something familiar and beloved is missed at every turn—the connection between inanimate and senseless things, and the object of recollection, when every household god becomes a monument and every room a grave—if there be any who have not known this, and proved it by their own experience, they can never faintly guess how, for many days, the old man pined and moped away the time, and wandered here and there as seeking something, and had no comfort.”

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    1. Thanks, Stationmaster! I feel like I’ll write at more length on this too, but I hear where you’re coming from. I really like Nell but I think the Marchioness was just a brilliant invention, and her relationship to Dick so unlikely, so fun — those little moments of hand-holding care are more poignant for being quasi-comical, the expressions of surprise and affection are somehow sweeter for being “shown” or expressed in Dick’s very quirky way. Love those two!!! I love it how, when he gets his annuity as an inheritance from his aunt, his very first thought is that he can finally make a scholar of the Marchioness & make her more comfortable! They are absolutely adorable together 💙

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    2. Stationmaster: You and Rach (below) are really moving in on some important aspects of CURIOSITY SHOP. The key is the contrast between Nell and the Marchioness. While both of these child/women have been beaten down by their own particular antagonists (Nell by Quilp; the Marchioness by Sally Brass), the Marchioness ends up thriving and being the “survivor” of the two. While both of these young ladies seem inherently intelligent, wily, and filled with goodness, it’s the way in which they use their intelligence that makes their differences. The Marchioness uses rather bold means to achieve her survival; she rises up out of the dark basement “dungeon” of the law office, manages to find an old key that allows her to unlock the door of her prison, and ranges freely through the premises in search of food and drink–anything to help her survive her imprisonment. Slyly, she’s very inventive, knows more about the Brasses than they know about her, and succeeds in bringing about their punishment and downfall. Her eyeballing through the keyhole the various operations of the law firm is another element of her resourcefulness. One might say that in order to live some kind of life, for the most part she’s had to become her OWN benefactor, before Dick comes into her life. In short, she “brings down,” ultimately, the house of Bevis Marks and saves Swiveller’s life as he, in turn, will better hers.

      It’s difficult to say whose been dealt the worst “hand” here. Nell is “above ground,” has her grandfather and kit as friends, and seems, at first, to have some advantages the Marchioness hasn’t. She’s more than capable as her grandfather’s keeper, cooks for him, arranges the living space for him, and seems to have a good relationship with him. And she has Kit who is continually, on the sly, watching out for her. Her antagonist (Quilp) is, maybe, more threatening to her than Sally Brass is to the Marchioness, but even that is debatable. Brass keeps the Marchioness on short rations, is virtually and cruelly starving her while at the same time beating her physically every night. Nell knows the danger vis-a-vis Quilp is mainly sexual. And she also recognizes the threat that he can ruin her father, who has become wholly indebted to Quilp due to her grandfather’s gambling loses. She must flee! Yet there is something wrong-headed about her romantic thought that by leaving the city and its evils behind and becoming beggars, she and her grandfather will somehow get along, will quell the disease that has taken over her grandfather’s personality. But the pitfalls of his dementia and gambling mania are too much for her, and in spite of the various benefactors they meet with during their journey, Nell simply doesn’t have the physical and mental strength to survive. Their chief benefactor becomes Mr. Marton, the schoolmaster–who recognizes in Nell both her mental and physical fatigue and tries to revive her to the point where she can regain both physically and mentally the will to thrive and live! And I believe this is where the chief difference lies between these two characters. The Marchioness has more belief in her powers to survive than does Nell. Nell wants to run and forage while the Marchioness is willing to stay and duke it out with her antagonists. In fact, she rise to the top in this narrative while Nell, tragically, sinks to the bottom and dies.

      Yes, both of these young women are heroic, but it’s the Marchioness who ultimately thwarts the evil of Sampson and Sally and, ultimately, Quilp. In a manner of speaking, she becomes the “detective, here, solving the crimes committed by the main antagonists, and setting to rights the little community of friends who have come to surround her and Dick with presents and celebration. In this, then, I agree with you, Stationmaster, that “the Marchioness is a better heroine.” She’s the catalyst that turns away the tide of evil that has beset our little family of characters. Her actions defeat the evil that is at the center of this novel.

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      1. I hate to say this when she’s one of my favorite characters in the book, but I think you may be giving the Marchioness too much credit. It’s true that she brings down the Brasses, but she wouldn’t have done this of her own initiative. She needs Dick Swiveller to push her. Of course, he needs her too. Maybe that’s another reason people like their romance.


  3. I have a theory as to why the death of Little Nell is so famous or infamous, apart from the fact that it’s the only time Dickens killed off a story’s main character. (Unless people think Syndney Carton is the main character in A Tale of Two Cities?)

    Usually, when a sympathetic character dies in Dickens, it’s important to the plot or furthers the book’s social message. Nancy dies in Oliver Twist because of her refusal to leave Sikes and Fagin’s gang and little Dick dies to remind the reader that not every kid born in the workhouse is as lucky as Oliver. Smike’s death in Nicholas Nickleby isn’t as necessary but it serves to really shame his father and drive him to suicide. And Smike is established as pathetic and disabled from the beginning that, while we’d want him to live a long and happy life if he were a real person, the only dramatic ending for his character is to die tragically.

    Nell, on the other hand, is shown to be quite capable when she’s not ill. There’s really no reason why her story couldn’t have had a happy ending. Dickens even teases us by having Mr. Garland tell Kit he’s heard that she’s recovering. The book could have had either a happy ending or a sad one without sacrificing artistic integrity. Dickens chose to give it a sad on for sadness’s own sake.

    The 2007 movie, if my memory serves, tries to make Nell’s death more of a punishment for her grandfather. She wakes up to find that a necklace (or something) that belonged to her mother is gone. She sneaks outside and sees grandfather has gambled it away. He sees her and calls out, but she runs away into the woods and faints. It feels as if her grandfather’s addiction has killed her. (On a metaphorical level, that is. Really, it was her penchant for wandering around outside in her nightgown during winter.) They really zing in the anti-gambling message.

    The 1995 miniseries sort of does the opposite. We get a scene prior to her death where the grandfather seems like he’s totally kicked the gambling habit. It really feels like a happy ending is being set up and Nell’s death is even more frustrating and pointless. Both adaptations however soften the ending by keeping the grandfather alive or at least not explicitly showing his death. I guess everyone feels the ending is too sad.

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  4. Greetings, Fellow Inimitables!

    I have been missing from the conversation, due to a “taxing” (wonderfully busy) vacation and a couple of projects that have absorbed my time and energy.

    I have read and benefited much from the excellent insights you all have offered. THANK YOU!

    “Zooming” back from”The Old Curiosity Shop” a bit, it has occurred to me that Dickens is creating characters that are truly memorable. Perhaps in their sometimes starkly drawn contours, several seem to me to be almost allegorical.

    Their physical attributes often seem to “mirror” their mental-moral qualities.

    Nell is delicate, beautiful, and sweet in appearance and comparably so in soul.

    Quilp is monstrous in appearance and the same in attitude and behavior.

    Because Dickens is such a masterful observer and describer of human beings and their conditions, he always makes his characters more than caricatures.

    But, at times, it seems that they embody and symbolize some essential quality in an allegorical manner.

    What thinkest you?



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  5. The Marchioness is a charming character and Swiveller’s relationship with her is lovely. In fact, I didn’t care much for the obnoxious (to me) Dick Swiveller until he starts to become curious about the little servant and then befriends her. But the novel belongs to Nell – it’s Nell who has Dickens’ heart at this time, still haunted by Mary Hogarth, so I’m fine with Dickens, as Chris lays out in her fine Marchioness essay, wanting to protect Nell, wanting to keep the focus on her, despite the intriguing implications and possibilities in the mystery of the Marchioness’s parentage.

    As much as I enjoy the Marchioness and her story arc, I can’t see a big difference between her character and Nell, although Lenny’s breakdown between the two has good points to make. But to me, they seem quite similar except for what happens to each. Why is one esteemed and the other disparaged? Michael Steig, in Chris’s fourth attachment, gives negative comparisons of Nell vis a vis the Marchioness, similar to so many other critics. He describes her as “bloodlessly fragile and passive”. How is the Marchioness stronger and more active than Nell, who journeys throughout the country, through urban and rural jungles, constantly making decisions that affect her very life, and the life of her grandfather. “The Marchioness is capable of positive action.” And Nell doesn’t take action? – only at practically every turn in the novel. Are they the right, wise, adult decisions? If a monster like Quilp was after me or mine, I think I’d want to get out of his lair, the city – as far away as possible. The romantic vision of the countryside is something that she could be “selling” to her grandfather to get him to come along and perhaps selling to herself to give her courage; also it’s a vision that Dickens himself, at least to some extent, may have shared, along with many other romantic writers of the time.

    “She is capable of entering with a relationship with Dick of a kind that would be unthinkable for her contemporary, Nell.” I don’t see the Marchioness at all sexual in her relationship with Swiveller, at least in the course of the book. Nell’s 14-year old life is truncated before she can grow into such a relationship, not to mention having to sacrifice other areas of her life, specifically because of the very adult responsibility that she takes on to protect and care for another human being. If she could have stayed with the schoolmaster from their first meeting, in a quiet village, I could see her developing in a similar mature way – romantically, sexually – as the Marchioness is allowed to grow finally. And the courage that Nell shows throughout the book dwarfs any that we see in our glimpses of the Marchioness. The only difference I see is that Dickens gives the Marchioness help (Swiveller) to lift her out of her crushing situation whereas Nell is crushed by hers before she can be helped (by the Schoolmaster and others).

    BTW, I agree with the Stationmaster that Phiz (at Dickens’ direction, I’m sure) strangely and unfortunately continued to portray the lovable Smike and Kit as wretched and somewhat grotesque – even after Smike reached the Nickleby’s home and Kit started with the Garlands, at which point in their narratives one would expect them to be more normalized. The trouble with the Marchioness is that if Phiz had softened the depiction of her, I have a feeling that she would have looked a lot – perhaps too much – like Nell. And that certainly would have been distracting and detracting from Nell. The similarity between the two characters would have been even more apparent.


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  6. It’s good to see people who really deserve to be happy end up that way. Dick and the Marchioness each struggled so much. Dick’s coming of age, on his own, through all the vicissitudes of being a young, poor, British, Londoner “gent” is a wonderful portrait. I’m really happy that he was given a modest annuity by his aunt rather than the full amount of her estate, which would have spoiled him horribly. This will ensure that he will continue to strive to persevere. The Marchioness, well, her struggles are unfathomable! That poor girl’s life was hell from the start. They found true love through their loneliness – their need to connect with another human – and through their feelings of humanity – just because someone is down and out does not mean they are not worthy of attention. True, Dick did engage with the “small servant” through boredom, but his sympathy was immediately awakened by her situation – his first act is to feed her – and remains intrigued by her. She, no surprise, takes to him because he is the first person to ever treat her kindly, but that she should go to such lengths to ensure his literal survival is a testament to her innate (surprisingly? perhaps not) compassion.

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    1. Dick Swiveller is probably the character in the book with the most range, morally speaking. At first, he’s, well, not mean but just kind of stupid and oblivious. He sees how terribly the Brasses treat the Marchioness but doesn’t quite comprehend it. Then he ends up saving her and Kit and becoming the surprise hero of The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens wrote a lot of great surprise heroes like that.

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      1. Agreed – He’s the regular guy who does the right thing. I don’t think this is an accident but rather another of Dickens’s lessons, i.e., when you see a wrong and can right it, by all means, do! Like the old saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.

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  7. Love the mention of getting distracted by Jingle… I adore the scene in this week’s reading in which Dick awakens from sickness to find himself being tenderly tended by the Marchioness, and how he compares it to a scene out of the Arabian Nights (which, as we know, was the book that Dickens referenced the most in his writings). “I’m in Damascus or Grand Cairo. The Marchioness is a Genie, and having had a wager with another Genie about who is the handsomest man alive, and the worthiest to be the husband of the Princess of China, has brought her away, room and all, to compare us together.” The allusion really drives home how strange and surreal the experience of being loved is, how it feels like the most wonderful enchantment, or a dream from which you might wake at any moment.

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  8. It’s interesting (to me) that while there are definitely people in this group who are fans of Nell’s character, the discussion for this week’s reading, which features her tragic fate, is still being dominated by the Marchioness (and to a lesser extent, Dick Swiveller.) I guess it’s because the Marchioness is such a surprise. I mean she’s established earlier but it’s only in this section that she becomes a major character while Nell is prominent throughout. This is the only part where we can really talk about her. If Dickens really was worried about her upstaging Nell, as has been speculated, maybe he shouldn’t have kept her offstage for so long.

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  9. Stationmaster, once again your perceptions about the Little Nell and Marchioness duality seem so right on.

    First, let me quote what I think is your distinguishing passage, and then I’ll work off of that:

    ” I guess it’s because the Marchioness is such a surprise. I mean she’s established earlier but it’s only in this section that she becomes a major character while Nell is prominent throughout. This is the only part where we can really talk about her. If Dickens really was worried about her upstaging Nell, as has been speculated, maybe he shouldn’t have kept her offstage for so long.”

    It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin to address this narrative phenomenon–The Marchioness and the London sequences displacing or taking over the “Nell” part of the narrative, but I’ll start with your notion of “surprise.” We’ve discussed the idea of surprise as it’s entered into our previous three novels and the ways it’s jolted readers into new narrative awarenesses and given the novels more vitality. In terms of plot, it carries ideas and expectations along toward a new level of intensity and continually renews our interest in events and characters while the novel progresses. In all our novels thus far, many surprises are built around the sudden appearances of “Benefactors.” We see that again in CURIOSITY SHOP with the “adoption.” of Kit by the Garlands, the sudden appearance of the Single Man at Bevis Marks, and, then, the mystery of the servant girl in the Brass’s basement.

    So, she begins, more or less as a casual reference point for the sadistic side of Sally Brass (she torments and starves her maid and cook)–but we, or maybe just me, see this as a kind of offhand sidelight to deepen the negative side of Sally’s character. But the very placement of this tiny girl in the dark, dungeon-like basement is more than a descriptive aspect for character detail, it presents the germ of a mystery that Grows when the servant girl meets Swiveller and they form their relationship, eating, playing cards together, and bringing joy to each other’s lives.

    But the monumental part of this SURPRISE surfaces when the newly called “Marchioness” asserts herself as the catalyst for the narrative development of the last 1/4 of the novel. Now we get to Stationmaster’s other important point and I’ll quote again:

    ” If Dickens really was worried about her upstaging Nell, as has been speculated, maybe he shouldn’t have kept her offstage for so long.”

    And this is exactly what happens. The novel “leaves” Nell at the end of Chapter 55 as she becomes more integrated into the society of the village, making friends with the bachelor, the sexton, and the Schoolmaster–while taking care of the graveyard, “minding” the church, and meditating and mourning those many people in the village who have died before her. And that’s IT! No more Nell until Kit and Garland and the single man arrive at Nell’s new “home” in the snowy chill of the night at the end of Chapter 70! That’s FIFTEEN CHAPTERS without Nell as the center of attention, 15 chapters where any number of narrative machinations have taken place far away in London that have, largely, mysteriously arisen out of the Brass’s basement, set into motion a whole bunch of new subplots, and have virtually settled the lives of many of the characters involved. And then we get to Nell, who, surprise, surprise–has died! It’s no wonder, then, that the Marchioness becomes our nominee for the other heroine of this novel.

    I just have to say that I love this kind of plotting, and I think it came to Dickens and this novel out of necessity. One of the distinguishing factors of this novel has to do with the notion of Raison D’etre! Maybe I’ll just translate that as “a reason for living,” or as a justification for one’s existence. In this regard, Nell has become the personification of “raison d’etre” in that, from the get go, she is motivated to help others, motivated to survive–by hook or crook. Heck, she’s the poster girl for RAISON D’ETRE!!!! And by the time she gets through Chapter 55, she’s found her true occupation! and Dickens knows it and has no more to give her to do. He’s just got to change tack and give other characters some things to do, to get them moving into the various aspects of the plot that he’s thus far set forth. Nell has found her “occupation’ in life and is fulfilled by it. What about the others? And so they begin to play out, in some strange ways, some good, some bad, their own raisons d’etre. Their goals are many and their quests take them in different directions, but they really get motivated and begin on some personal quests, solving mysteries, putting people in jail, forcing others to flee or commit suicide, or go on the final major quest of their own–which is to find and bring back Nell. What an irony, eh? That Nell and her fate and HER own picaresque journey should lead others to follow in her foot steps; she, the one who quests with more hardships than any other character in the novel should wind up being the goal of the others’ quests! Hence, maybe, her “saintliness” which she has attained in the eyes of her newly chosen community becomes, symbolically, the end to which the other virtuous characters aspire to. And the one young man who is, in part, the leader of this new quest is Kit (for short) but whose chose name is “Christopher!” And he’s carrying, symbolically, the cage with Nell’s bird in it to her new residence where she has just died.

    Thus, then, the last 1/4 of the novel BELONGS TO THE LONDONERS who carry the narrative forward as they define their own meaningful quests in life. Could we say that this novel has multiple bildungsromans!? That seems quite plausible, but that’s material for another interesting essay.

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    1. Lenny, this is marvelous and I’ll be pondering it for a bit. Stationmaster, your points are really, really excellent. I agree with Marnie that Nell is just as “active”; and I do like Nell, unlike many critics, but as Boze and I were talking about recently, I think perhaps a combination of things are at play, including how some of Dickens’ creations appealed especially to a very particular sensibility; others seemed to have an appeal that transcended that.

      I’m trying to think of why, in terms of writing, the Marchioness is so particularly effective. I think Lenny and Stationmaster have hit it: she is unexpected, she’s entirely unlikely, she has a lot of unconscious spunk and quirky mannerisms. (I’m one who, though I love Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, always wanted to read a novel where our “other” survivor, the quirky dolls’ dressmaker Miss Jenny Wren, is the heroine.) I think it’s the interspersed *humor* and *quirkiness* of the Marchioness that makes her incredibly effective.

      I’d compare it to Pickwick and Nickleby, in a way, versus Oliver–though Oliver has some bits of fantastic (often dark) humor, its tone relative to Oliver himself is so unremittingly full of sobriety and pathos that, ironically, some of the effectiveness is potentially lost. Whereas I always marvel at the contrast of, say, Jingle’s heartbreaking situation in the Fleet prison, to what had gone before: we’ve had so much joy in his naughtily quirky self that, when he’s in such a dire situation and shown such unexpected mercy from Pickwick, it manages to bring tears to my eyes every time. Similarly, we might say that the cunning, the sarcastic humor in our lead character in A Tale of Two Cities is one of the reasons we’re so endeared to him: here’s a character who does the unexpected, who is better than he lets on, who doesn’t give a fig for what others think of him–but who does the far, far better thing anyway. His is a story that appeals to sensibilities of every era, for anyone who has a touch of romance. Whereas Nell…we truly feel for her, we want the best for her; but all the while, we sense where this is going; the lack of variation in tone of her character and circumstance lends a kind of inevitability to her fate.

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    2. I actually meant that Dickens shouldn’t have kept the Marchioness offstage so long, not Nell. If we were more acquainted with her by the novel’s climax, we might not be wanting more, and she wouldn’t risk upstaging Nell.

      You’re right too though that the long gap between Nell’s last appearance and the revelation of her death does mean there’s a risk of readers losing interest in her. I think the idea behind it though was to make them really, really worried/curious about her.

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