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”:
- General Mems
- The Old Curiosity Shop, Week Three (Chs. 38-55): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead to Week Four of The Old Curiosity Shop
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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!’”
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.”
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!
Here, the Stationmaster reflects on the Garlands, in comparison with the Cheerybles:
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”:
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”:
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:
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.”
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”:
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!”
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.”
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.”
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.