Wherein we conclude our journey with Nell and the grandfather; with a summary of reading and discussion of the fourth week of The Old Curiosity Shop (Week 33 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club) and a final thematic wrap-up; with a look-ahead to our two-week break and our next read.
Edited/compiled by Rach
“Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told!”
Friends, we are at the end of our journey with Nell and the grandfather–and, especially this week, with Dick and the Marchioness! Since our Nell somewhat disappears in this final quarter, it has been, to some degree, “the week of the Marchioness.”
But before we get into our discussion and final thematic wrap-up, here are a few quick links:
- General Mems
- The Old Curiosity Shop, Week Four (Chs. 56-73): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- Final Thematic Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead
If you’re counting, today is day 231 (and week 34) in our #DickensClub! It will be the final day of The Old Curiosity Shop, our sixth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for any final comments about this read, or how you’ll be spending the break between Dickens reads! 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. If you want to take a look at Boze’s marvelous Introduction to Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop, they 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 Four (CHs. 56-73): A Summary
Schemes are afoot in Bevis Marks as Mr. Brass begins his work of destruction on Kit by his flattery and his offering Kit various little sums of money from a mysterious benefactor, implying that this is the single gentleman.
Kit ends up being more and more a go-between for the single gentleman and the Garlands–becoming fast friends–particularly during and after the former’s illness.
Meanwhile, many of us have become entranced by the unlikely relationship between two lonely characters: Dick Swiveller, often playing a solitary game of cards at the office during periods of particular boredom, and the small servant who resides with (and is abused by) the Brasses. Dick discovers her watching him playing cards at the keyhole; she is fascinated and wants company. He offers to teach her, and they play in her basement dungeon, and he bestows upon her the whimsical nickname, “the Marchioness.” She confesses that she often overhears things—including about the Brasses’ conflicted opinion about himself—and she has also discovered an additional key to the “prison” where she is locked up, so that she can let herself out at odd times and scrounge for some food.
When the Brasses begin to hint about certain items—including money—having gone missing from the office, Dick is fearful that blame may fall upon the Marchioness. Sally suggests that it could also be Kit, who is often there. Dick is sent off while Kit arrives, the latter on another errand for the single gentleman. The single gentleman wants to do something to help provide for Kit’s mother. Brass leaves Kit alone in the office briefly—having planted upon Kit a five pound note to frame him—and once Dick returns and Kit leaves, Brass pretends to be shocked at the money’s loss. Dick and Mr. Brass catch up with Kit, asking him to come quietly back to the office, which he does without hesitation. Dick unwillingly discovers the note in Kit’s hat, and Kit is shocked–and arrested. Further evidence of Kit coming into various amounts of money recently also tells against him.
Kit appeals to Mr. Brass to vouch for him that he has often given him money from his mysterious benefactor, but Brass dodges this, and finally denies it. Kit is enraged.
Quilp has had his revenge on Kit. When Brass comes to visit him, suggesting caution to Quilp about the proceedings regarding Kit, Quilp commands Brass to fire Dick once Kit’s trial is over.
Quilp is now sure there must be money in Nell’s family after all, since someone like the single gentleman is pursuing Nell and the grandfather.
Kit is found guilty. Dick starts to suspect something underhand in the whole thing, but is fired by Brass before he can begin to consider it all.
Then, Dick falls gravely ill. For weeks, he’s been delirious with fever. Upon waking, a shadow of his former self but alive, he thinks he is in a dream or a tale from 1,001 Nights, as there are herbs strewn everywhere, linen being cleaned—and the Marchioness there in his apartment, playing a solitary game of cards. She has cared for him during the whole of his fever, has run away from the Brasses’ home, and has even managed to pawn his wardrobe to get necessary items and pay the medical fees. More than that, Marchioness gives Dick crucial information about Kit: he has been sentenced to transportation abroad; but he is innocent. The Marchioness had overheard the Brasses discussing their plot against Kit—originating with Quilp, who is connected to the Brasses financially—and how they planted the money on him. She has had no one to tell, as the single gentleman was gone from the Brasses’ lodgings.
Dick sends the Marchioness off with a note for the Garlands, and a notary.
She brings Abel Garland to Dick’s lodgings, where the whole story is related to him. Several others, including Mr. Garland, Mr. Witherden, and the single gentleman, are brought into the knowledge; the single gentleman provides Dick with food and necessaries, and they all go about procuring Kit’s release.
Mr. Brass interrupts a conversation between these gentleman and Sally—they will make a deal with her, if she’ll testify against Quilp, who is behind the proceedings. Mr. Brass, in spite of his sister’s warnings, gives them the information they need, hoping that in doing so, he will make things go easier on himself.
Quilp, at the counting house at the wharf, gets warning from Sally that all has been revealed by her brother. Thinking he hears someone coming for him, he puts out the light, loses his sense of direction, and falls into the water. He drowns.
Kit is released and reunited with friends, family and patrons—including Barbara, and the two of them show their mutual love. Mr. Garland requests that Kit him and the single gentleman on a journey to meet up with Nell and the grandfather. Yes, they’ve been discovered, via information from Mr. Garland’s brother—the “bachelor!” Although Nell and her grandfather are in a safe situation, Nell has fallen very ill.
On the journey, we learn the history of the single gentleman: he is the younger brother of the “grandfather”—the two had long been estranged—and had been in love with the same woman (Nell’s mother). Remembering their childhood closeness and associations, the younger brother has returned, only to find them gone.
The weather is bad on their journey. When Kit enters the grandfather’s house, he finds him in a kind of reverie, and tells Kit absently that Nell is asleep—but something is wrong.
The single gentleman reunites with his brother, but the grandfather seems to have almost no ears to hear nor eyes to see anything other than Nell; he is haunted.
Once they all enter the next room, they find Nell dead—and she had been so for some time. In the coming days, the grandfather’s brother and friends struggle with how to communicate the news to him. The grandfather dies soon after.
“The magic reel, which, rolling on before, has led the chronicler thus far, now slackens in its pace, and stops. It lies before the goal; the pursuit is at an end.”
Quilp’s body washed ashore. His wife profits financially from his death, and is married far more happily after. Mr. Brass is arrested for perjury and fraud, and his sister appears to have been seen in the precincts of St. Giles among the poorest beggars, though we might prefer to think of her as the stuff of legend:
“Of Sally Brass, conflicting rumours went abroad. Some said with confidence that she had gone down to the docks in male attire, and had become a female sailor; others darkly whispered that she had enlisted as a private in the second regiment of Foot Guards, and had been seen in uniform, and on duty, to wit, leaning on her musket and looking out of a sentry-box in St James’s Park, one evening.”
Abel Garland becomes happily married, and goes into partnership with our notary friend, Mr. Witherden. Kit’s pony “preserved his character for independence and principle down to the last moment of his life.” Our bachelor friend ends up living with Mr. Garland after the clergyman dies.
“Mr Swiveller, recovering very slowly from his illness, and entering into the receipt of his annuity, bought for the Marchioness a handsome stock of clothes, and put her to school forthwith, in redemption of the vow he had made upon his fevered bed. After casting about for some time for a name which should be worthy of her, he decided in favour of Sophronia Sphynx, as being euphonious and genteel, and furthermore indicative of mystery…And let it be added, to Dick’s honour, that, though we have called her Sophronia, he called her the Marchioness from first to last.”
Of course, Dick and the Marchioness marry, once she has come of age—by their best guesstimate, her age having been another subject of mystery.
Kit ends up happily married, prospers in the world, and tells Nell’s story to his children. The poor schoolmaster—now poor “no more”—remains in the country. The single gentleman becomes a kind of Pickwickian benefactor to humanity—and in particular, those who had been kind to Nell and the grandfather–“and trust me, the man who fed the furnace fire was not forgotten.”
Successful Dickensian Couples
The Stationmaster really led the way in our discussion this week, especially about the Marchioness. Although I am placing his first comment under another heading–so as to keep the discussion on Dickens’ Women and the “Writing Lab” in immediate succession–my response to him related to that marvelous couple, Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness:
Boze was equally delighted by this strange pair–specifically, the Marchioness’ unexpected presence in Dick’s lodgings, like something out of the Arabian Nights–which is also Dick’s first thought upon waking after his weeks-long illness. This allusion “really drives home how strange and surreal the experience of being loved is”:
Chris is right in on the celebration of these two quirky worthies! She argues that it is “Dick’s coming of age”–and perhaps just as well for him that he had an annuity and not a lump sum from his aunt–and a happy ending for the Marchioness, whose “life was hell from the start.”
Dickens’ Women: Nell and the Marchioness
The Stationmaster compares Nell and the Marchioness, feeling that the sentimentality surrounding the construction of Nell’s story is too much; that “Dickens keeps reminding us that we should love and pity Nell to the point that it gets annoying.” More than that, the Stationmaster writes, “I agree with Chesterton that the Marchioness is a better heroine than little Nell.”
Lenny considers the differing circumstances in Little Nell’s life versus that of the Marchioness, and have each dealt with it somewhat differently–the Marchioness becoming a “detective” of sorts:
Marnie doesn’t see as much dissimilarity between Nell and the Marchioness, and argues that “the novel belongs to Nell”:
Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Comedy, Characterization, Deaths, “Multiple bildungsromans,” and “Surprise Heroes”
I’m highlighting this passage from the Stationmaster, as he brings up a crucial question, in terms of Dickens’ writing choices:
We’ve pondered our preferences vis-à-vis Nell and the Marchioness, and we move into a discussion on why one works better as a potential leading lady. Was there too little of Little Nell in the final quarter, or too little of the Marchioness early on, so that the latter’s sudden involvement in the story really takes over?
Lenny responds, suggesting that “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!?”
I responded to the Stationmaster and Lenny by considering that it is that essential combination of comedy/quirkiness in the midst of a situation of pathos that can make some characters more effective in Dickens:
The Stationmaster had commented on the comedy right at the outset. He also writes of the appropriateness of how Quilp meets his end:
We were so glad to see Daniel back to join in our discussion, and he comments on Dickens’ ability to draw characters “with starkly drawn contours,” whose “physical attributes often seem to ‘mirror’ their mental-moral qualities”:
The Stationmaster had another fantastic point about the essential purpose–or lack of it–for Nell’s death, thereby questioning Dickens’ choice. “Usually,” he writes, “when a sympathetic character dies in Dickens, it’s important to the plot or furthers the book’s social message…Nell, on the other hand, is shown to be quite capable when she’s not ill,” and that “there’s really no reason why her story couldn’t have had a happy ending”:
The Stationmaster considers Dick as “the character in the book with the most range, morally speaking,” and that he ends up “becoming the surprise hero of The Old Curiosity Shop“:
And Chris agrees. Dick is “the regular guy who does the right thing”:
Final Thematic Wrap-Up
In keeping with our “Final Wrap-Up” tradition, I’ve tried to pull together the primary themes we’ve discussed in our journey with Nell and the grandfather–those which are new to this read, and those which have carried over from Dickens’ Sketches and novels from the outset:
- Dickensian Contrasts: Nell and the Curiosity Shop, Light and Shadow, Comedy and Tragedy (We’ve all discussed this; Nell in stark contrast with her surroundings. Chris wrote of Nell, in reverse of Dickens’ line: “Nell is majestic youth surrounded by perpetual age!”)
- Crime and Violence (Quilp; Marnie and Rach both felt Quilp almost too difficult to read about sometimes. The Stationmaster remarks on the appropriateness of Quilp’s demise.)
- Mental Health, Trauma, and Addiction (We discussed this particularly in the first week; Rach discussed addiction and the “Gollum-like” nature of the grandfather as he steals from his own granddaughter in the middle of the night, like a figure of nightmare. Lenny has often referred to the grandfather’s mental illness or “dementia.”)
- Theatricality; the Dream-World vs. Reality (Boze and Rach focused on the dreamlike nature of The Old Curiosity Shop with its 1,001 Nights references and the strangeness of the surroundings; the repetition of certain words–e.g. “dream”–or of Quilp being referred to as an ogre/ogreish; even the grandfather becomes a figure of nightmare (see “Addiction”). Lenny, Chris, and Marnie had wonderful insights on its often stark reality; Lenny saw Quilp as more along the lines of a sharp-practicing businessman.)
- Consumption (Lenny and Rach discussed this especially; Quilp, the “ogre,” is consistently “consuming” those around him.)
- Money (Recurring theme in Dickens; here, it is either greed, cruelty, or both that pursues Nell and the grandfather at every turn–until friends come to their aid.)
- Dickens’ Women (Perhaps the most prominent theme this month; in particular, comparing/contrasting Nell and the Marchioness. But Chris also had the most marvelous things to say about Miss Brass, and the Stationmaster did on Mrs. Jarley. The Stationmaster defended Nell as a truly “active” protagonist. While most of us really liked Nell–Marnie was a very eloquent advocate for her–many of us found a greater character in the Marchioness–Lenny, Rach, Chris, and the Stationmaster especially; the Stationmaster really led the discussion here during our final week. Chris shared a marvelous post on the Marchioness. Lenny suggests that we might even call the Shop and Nickleby “womens’ novels”; he is reminded of Mary Wollstonecraft and sees Nell potentially as a “symbol of female subjugation.” Chris: Nell 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.”)
- City vs. Country; Dickens’ Romanticism (We have all referred to this in one way or another; Rach loved the descriptive passages about the industrial city and its Blakean “dark Satanic Mills.” Lenny discussed the contrast between “the smog-filled environs” to “the wide open and freeing spaces of the country.” Lenny also wrote beautifully about “Romanticism” in the wrap-up of our first week, wondering whether the Shop might be Dickens’ “most Wordsworthian novel,” and that perhaps the “fairy-tale” quality of it is more akin to Wordsworth’s grappling of psychological realities, his “unknown modes of being.” Boze wrote of the “lyricism” of our Week Three reading portion: “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.”)
- Mutability and Mortality (Lenny first brought this theme up early on during our journey with Dickens; though we’ve not addressed this theme by name, it saturates The Old Curiosity Shop.)
- Memory (Again, an ongoing theme in Dickens; manifesting particularly in Nell’s lament at the unvisited graves.)
- Benevolence as Reconciling Influence (Particularly in the Garlands, the single gentleman, and Mr. Morton.)
- Dickens’ “Writing Lab”: Characterization, Contrasts, “Surprise Heroes,” Sentimentality; Allegory; the Ability “To Leave Something Always In Suspense” (We’ve all talked about this in one degree or another. We discussed the “sentimentality” that Shop is often accused of as having–and Marnie really spoke in Dickens’ defense; Lenny was struck by the realism of the portrayals this time around; Boze marveled at Dickens’ ability to appeal to contemporary sensibilities and also his ability–essential for a writer–“to leave something always in suspense.” Chris and Daniel wrote of allegory, and Dickens’ ability to lift characters to the level of allegory without losing their individuality; the Stationmaster was an eloquent advocate for such “surprise heroes” as Dick and the Marchioness.)
- Dickensian Children: Childhood as a “Special State”; Children Taking the Role of Adults (From our wrap-up of the first week. Lenny discussed the “wounded” children in Dickens during our wrap-up of Week Two–this is all representative of a larger systemic fault.)
Friends, what a delightful journey it has been. We’ll now be enjoying a 2-week break from our scheduled reads just in case you want to add in extra non-Dickensian reading, or what Chris calls our “in-between readings”–which, for many of us, are just extracurricular Dickensian material!
Our updated schedule can be found here.
A few of us might still keep up the conversation during the break. Otherwise, I very much look forward to seeing you on September 6, for Boze’s introduction to Barnaby Rudge!