The Old Curiosity Shop was first published in Charles Dickens’s weekly serial Master Humphrey’s Clock. Dickens originally intended the story to be narrated by the character Master Humphrey, but quickly changed his mind, and only the first three chapters are written in that form, with the narrator never being named. The main, or, rather, the focal, character of the story is Nell Trent. At the beginning of the story, her grandfather keeps the Old Curiosity Shop of the title. They leave it early on, but the shop with its miscellaneous old-fashioned wares, serves as a symbol for the rest of the story. Dickens wrote in his preface to the novel,
“[I]n writing the book, I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.”
As suggested by this, character rather than story is the highlight of The Old Curiosity Shop.
Though Nell is the focal character, she is absent from a great deal of the story, and is by no means the most interesting character. Nell is a saintly child, about fourteen years old. When her grandfather loses their home by gambling away all of his money (and more), she first nurses him through his subsequent illness and then leads him away from the shop and through all their travels. She is used to taking care of him, but after his illness leaves him enfeebled in body and mind, she must take complete charge. She selflessly supports and guides him.
Eventually she finds good employment with the cheerful Mrs. Jarley — the “genuine and only Jarley” of Jarley’s Wax-Works. Unfortunately, Nell’s grandfather finds opportunities to gamble and she unwisely gives him her money when he demands it, instead of saving it to care for him with. Her fear of being separated from her grandfather must account for this imprudence, as she is afraid he will take to stealing if she does not supply him with money for his addiction. When Nell accidentally learns that her grandfather intends to rob Mrs. Jarley to get more money to gamble with, she forces him to flee with her. Because she gave her money to her grandfather, they are now penniless, and she has nothing to care for him with.
This final flight is too much for Nell’s delicate health, and after travelling for some time, and being wet through and destitute of shelter, she collapses. By a remarkable coincidence, she faints at the feet of a schoolmaster who had befriended her earlier in her travels. He causes her to be nursed and cared for. Touched by his care for her, Nell tells him what she has never been induced to tell anyone else — the reasons for her flight.
“She told him all—that they had no friend or relative—that she had fled with the old man, to save him from a madhouse and all the miseries he dreaded—that she was flying now, to save him from himself—and that she sought an asylum in some remote and primitive place, where the temptation before which he fell would never enter, and her late sorrows and distresses could have no place.” (Ch. 46)
Why she tells the schoolmaster her troubles while withholding them from her other friends, such as Mrs. Jarley, is unclear. However, he considerately finds her a new position where the work is easy and there are no temptations for her grandfather. Despite this respite, and though she initially recovers, Nell’s health begins to sink further and further. The chapters where Dickens foreshadows her death are moving and very atmospheric — if rather dull.
Half the story is spent with the people Nell and her grandfather leave behind them in London. These characters include honest Kit Nubbles, the moneylender Quilp, and my favorite character, the incomparable Dick Swiveller. Kit was Nell’s former servant. He was devoted to her, and continues to consider as an ideal even long after her disappearance. Quilp lent Nell’s grandfather money until he learns that the grandfather is gambling it all away, and not investing it as he had led Quilp to suppose.
Dick Swiveller is introduced as a friend of Nell’s older brother, Frederick Trent. Fred is convinced that his grandfather is very wealthy. Because of his bad life, his grandfather doesn’t like him, and is therefore very unlikely to leave him any money. So, he comes up with a plan to marry off Nell to the tractable Dick. (“And she ‘nearly fourteen’!” protests Dick, before Fred assures him that he doesn’t mean him to marry her immediately.) Even after the shop is seized by Quilp and Nell and her grandfather disappear, Fred is convinced that his grandfather has money secreted away. Dick is introduced to Quilp in a most delightful scene when he goes to call upon Nell in furtherance of this plan, but finds Quilp in residence instead. Quilp hears a violent knocking upon the door and, thinking that it is his wife, plans to open the door silently and pounce upon her.
So far, however, from rushing upon somebody who offered no resistance and implored his mercy, Mr Quilp was no sooner in the arms of the individual whom he had taken for his wife than he found himself complimented with two staggering blows on the head, and two more, of the same quality, in the chest; and closing with his assailant, such a shower of buffets rained down upon his person as sufficed to convince him that he was in skilful and experienced hands. Nothing daunted by this reception, he clung tight to his opponent, and bit and hammered away with such good-will and heartiness, that it was at least a couple of minutes before he was dislodged. Then, and not until then, Daniel Quilp found himself, all flushed and dishevelled, in the middle of the street, with Mr Richard Swiveller performing a kind of dance round him and requiring to know “whether he wanted any more?”
“There’s plenty more of it at the same shop,” said Mr Swiveller, by turns advancing and retreating in a threatening attitude, “a large and extensive assortment always on hand—country orders executed with promptitude and despatch—will you have a little more, Sir—don’t say no, if you’d rather not.” (Ch. 13)
Quilp develops a dislike to Dick despite (or, rather, because of) this prepossessing incident. As a result, he decides to help Fred and Dick in their plan to wed the latter to Nell for her money — knowing as he does that she is actually penniless. When he finds that Nell and her grandfather are being sought by a wealthy gentleman interested in them, he concludes that they will have money coming to them and accordingly drops Dick — but not before Dick makes the acquaintance of Samson Brass and his sister, the charming Sally, as well as their little unnamed servant, whom Dick calls the Marchioness.
Mr. Richard Swiveller himself admits that he is not a particularly clever chap. He tells his friend,
“there is a proverb which talks about being merry and wise. There are some people who can be merry and can’t be wise, and some who can be wise (or think they can) and can’t be merry. I’m one of the first sort. If the proverb’s a good ‘un, I suppose it’s better to keep to half of it than none; at all events, I’d rather be merry and not wise, than like you, neither one nor t’other.” (Ch. 7)
Dick is addicted to flowery speech, quotation, and too much wine. (“Fred … remember the once popular melody of Begone dull care; fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.” &c. &c.) His outgo exceeds his income to the point that he keeps a little book where he enters “the names of the streets that I can’t go down while the shops are open”.
Still, Dick is not without a modicum of intelligence, as evidenced by his response to his employers’ lodger sleeping for six-and-twenty hours at a stretch. “We have been distracted with fears that you were dead, Sir,” he tells him, “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.” (Ch. 35). Add to this, a cheerful disposition, a good-hearted and pleasant, though not firm, character, and a fanciful disposition, and you have Dick Swiveller.
Quilp gets Sampson Brass, a lawyer that he does business with, to take the rather unreliable Dick as a clerk — to keep him close. (“I’m sure of him where he is, whenever I want him for my own purposes, and, besides, he’s a good unconscious spy on Brass, and tells, in his cups, all that he sees and hears.” Ch. 50.) There, Dick finds favour in the eyes of Miss Sally Brass, another entertaining character.
Dick is something new to the stern, close Miss Brass, the sister and worthy partner of the oily Sampson. Miss Brass had been remarkable in childhood “for an uncommon talent in counterfeiting the walk and manner of a bailiff … which was only to be exceeded by her exquisite manner of putting an execution into her doll’s house, and taking an exact inventory of the chairs and tables.” (Ch. 36). This amiable female delights in tormenting her servile brother Sampson. She is rather a favorite of Quilp’s. “Is that my Sally?” croaked the dwarf, ogling the fair Miss Brass. “Is it Justice with the bandage off her eyes, and without the sword and scales? Is it the Strong Arm of the Law? Is it the Virgin of Bevis?” He considers her as “the female who has all the charms of her sex and none of their weaknesses”.
“It was on this lady, then, that Mr Swiveller burst in full freshness as something new and hitherto undreamed of, lighting up the office with scraps of song and merriment, conjuring with inkstands and boxes of wafers, catching three oranges in one hand, balancing stools upon his chin and penknives on his nose, and constantly performing a hundred other feats with equal ingenuity; for with such unbendings did Richard, in Mr Brass’s absence, relieve the tedium of his confinement. These social qualities, which Miss Sally first discovered by accident, gradually made such an impression upon her, that she would entreat Mr Swiveller to relax as though she were not by, which Mr Swiveller, nothing loth, would readily consent to do. By these means a friendship sprung up between them.” (Ch. 36)
Their friendship extends to the point that when they want to see anything outside, Sally and Dick retire to the dim window and Mr Swiveller hitches off Sally’s brown head-dress from her head, dusts the window with it, and then hands it back — “and its beautiful wearer … put it on again … with perfect composure and indifference” (Ch. 37). Despite all this, Dick still considers Sally as a Dragon. He muses, “I wonder whether she is a dragon by-the-bye, or something in the mermaid way. She has rather a scaly appearance. But mermaids are fond of looking at themselves in the glass, which she can’t be. And they have a habit of combing their hair, which she hasn’t. No, she’s a dragon.” (Ch. 36)
Dick befriends Sally’s mistreated and starved little (“three feet high”) servant girl — a sharp-witted and cunning girl with a penchant for airing her eyes at keyholes. He teaches her the taste of beer and how to play cribbage. After Quilp tells Brass to discharge Dick, the Marchioness, learning that he is sick, runs away and presents herself at his apartments (as Dick calls his single room). “So I run away that night, and come here, and told ’em you was my brother, and they believed me, and I’ve been here ever since”, she tells Dick when he recovers from his fever and finds her with him. She nurses him through his illness, pawning his clothes to buy the medicines he needs, and then assists him in saving the innocent Kit from a plot of Quilp’s (in which the Brasses participated) to have him transported for theft.
When Dick’s aunt dies, she leaves him an annuity of one hundred and fifty pounds a year. Dick is delighted! “For, please God, we’ll make a scholar of the poor Marchioness yet! And she shall walk in silk attire, and siller have to spare, or may I never rise from this bed again!” He is as good as his word. As soon as he recovered from his illness, he buys her “a handsome stock of clothes” and puts her to school, giving her the name Sophronia Sphynx, which he considers “euphonious and genteel, and furthermore indicative of mystery”. Being a clever girl, she is soon removed to a governess, who looks upon Dick as “a literary gentleman of eccentric habits, and of a most prodigious talent in quotation.” The Marchioness grows up “good-looking, clever, and good-humoured” (Ch. 73), and becomes Dick’s wife!
After Dick and the Marchioness, Daniel Quilp is one of the most interesting characters in the book. He is a thoroughly evil man, but his freakish and eccentric humors (among other things, “he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again” Ch. 5) make him quite interesting and even amusing. His evilness consists in his maltreatment of his wife, his pleasure in making anyone frightened and miserable, and his unscrupulous treatment of those, like Kit Nubbles and Dick Swiveller, who have crossed or displeased him in any way. He is decidedly ‘larger than life’, as it is difficult to imagine a real person drinking off a saucepan of freshly boiling spirits with as much composure as we would drink a glass of water.
Oddly enough, although Quilp is ostensibly the villain of the story, he does not actually do much to Nell (the heroine) and her grandfather. Thinking that the grandfather is investing, he lends him money. When he finds that it is being gambled away instead of invested, he very sensibly refuses to lend anymore. The Curiosity Shop becomes his in payment of the grandfather’s debts to him. Quilp tells the grandfather to leave on a certain day — waiting until he has recovered from his illness — but Nell convinces him to leave a little earlier and secretly. When Quilp learns that Dick is planning to marry Nell for the money that he knows she doesn’t have, he maliciously decides to help Dick and Fred find her. However, when he learns that a rich man is also seeking them (and that therefore they must have money coming to them), he changes his mind. And that, my friends, is the grand sum total of his relationship with them. In at least one of the movie versions of The Old Curiosity Shop, Quilp is portrayed as hunting for them under the conviction that they have secreted away some more money. As stated, however, this was not the case.
Though many of the characters of The Old Curiosity Shop were delightful, there were a few that I did not care for. I did not like the single gentleman. He was annoying and inconsiderate. Very rude, in fact. And why did he wait so long to find his brother? In chapter 69, he tells Mr. Garland that he kept up enough communication with his brother to know that Fred’s “profligate and hardened course drained him of money as his father’s had, and even sometimes occasioned them temporary privation and distress; it was then that there began to beset him, and to be ever in his mind, a gloomy dread of poverty and want”. Obviously this impoverishing took some time. It was only recently, however, that the brother began to dream of their “young, happy life” more often than before, speedily settled his affairs, and went to find his brother (“with emotion such as men can hardly bear and live”, no less).
I found interesting the number of unnamed characters in the story. Nell Trent’s grandfather is never named. Since he is her maternal grandfather, we don’t even know his last name. His brother is referred to as “the single gentleman”. Then there is the schoolmaster, who is never called anything else, and the Bachelor, who we learn at the end is a brother of Mr. Garland, and therefore must share his name, besides the various other characters who are not in the story long enough to need names.
I generally like a much stronger story-line than The Old Curiosity Shop can boast, but its characters were so delightful and interesting that I enjoyed it very, very much.
I read The Old Curiosity Shop from September 5 – 17, 2012.
By John Watkins Chapman (1832 – 1903): The Old Curiosity Shop.
By Harold Copping (1863 – 1932): Grandpa’s Favorite, Little Nell in the Old Church, Dick Swiveller Meets the Marchioness, & Dick Swiveller’s Surprise.
By Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne, 1815 – 1882): A Game of Cards, Mr. Swiveller’s Pugilistic Skill, Mr. Brass at the Keyhole, The Marchioness at Cards, & A Quiet Game of Cribbage.
By Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke, 1856 – 1937): Daniel Quilp, Dick Swiveller, The Marchioness, Sally Brass, & Sampson Brass.