“The Old Curiosity Shop”: A Strange and Moving Tale

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This spiritual tale is Dicken’s 4th after “Nicholas Nickleby”.

“Dark and dream-like, The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with unforgettable, grotesque characters: Quilp, a demonic dwarf who eats eggs in their shells and drinks boiling rum, a loving grandfather with a terrible gambling addiction, frail but loving Nell and her wicked brother Frederick, corrupt, abusive lawyer Sampson Brass and good hearted hero Kit Nubbles. Famously one of Dickens’s most moving tales, The Old Curiosity Shop is also one of his strangest and most memorable.”

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1) I really enjoyed the book, it was partly this edition too (Penguin English Library) that started my more dedicated reading of his lesser known novels.

2) It is a tragic story of young, loving Nell who escapes from the inner city of London with her grandfather to take refuge in the English countryside. There is great juxtaposition between Dickens’s vivid descriptions of  the city versus that of the quiet solitude they experience on the road out of London. It is not hard to understand why the grandfather would develop a paranoia that they are constantly being chased and have to move on, further, quicker to their journey’s end.

3) The reason for their flight is due to- Daniel Quilp. Seen as one of Dickens’s most evil villains- a devilish dwarf who abuses his wife and terrifies everyone around him. He is controlling and takes sadistic pleasure in the suffering of other people. Nell’s grandfather borrows money off him, and naturally Quilp uses this to his advantage. He takes control of the old man’s property (the curiosity shop) upon his illness…in fact, there is nothing Quilp won’t do…as you will find out.

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4) This illustration pretty much sums it all up. Quilp cackling away in a corner, delighting in terrifying people while Nell’s grandfather hides his head in despair; while poor, loving Nell comforts him.

5) When you read the novel, you have a feeling the end will be tragic. It is believed the inspiration of little Nelly Trent is from Dickens’ sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. When she died in 1837 at the age of 17 he was heartbroken. He wore a ring of Mary’s the rest of his life, and wanted to be buried in the same grave as her upon his death.

6) “Then, on it came again, silent and stealthy as before, and replacing the garments it had taken from the bedside, dropped upon its hands and knees, and crawled away. How slowly it seemed to move, now that she could hear but not see it, creeping along the floor! It reached the door at last, and stood upon its feet. The steps creaked beneath its noiseless tread, and it was gone.” – This has to be one of the most nightmarish images in a Dickens book. I could just imagine a hunchbacked creature with spindly legs stealthily crawling about my room at night – right out of a horror film. Of course what makes it worse is this ‘creature’ Nell sees stealing money from her room is no other than her own grandfather.

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Kit is taught by Nell in the old curiosity shop

7) The character of loyal and endearing Kit Nubbles creates a contrast against Quilp and the scheming lawyer Sampson Brass.  He is dedicated to the well being of his family and loves little Nell dearly. Quilp hates him with a passion, resenting his dedication to the family, taking great pains to destroy the boy. He even has a wooden figure head put up in his home to represent Kit, which he defaces and attacks at every given chance. Poor Kit!

8) The novel is definitely dreamy and dark, and as the summary makes reference to, is no doubt one of Dicken’s strangest and most memorable novels. It exists in a little sphere of its own – existing in a snow globe.

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Nell takes comfort among the tombstones

9) Nell’s innocence is corrupted by her grandfather’s gambling addiction…weeks of weary travel and they are reduced to beggars. This no doubt affects her health.  She is often described as an angel, a little girl who takes comfort among the tombstones, appreciating the stillness and the quietude of the nature around her. Strangely her character is not as well developed as you might hope , and does not appear too often as the main protagonist.

10) I’m a big fan of illustrations in Dickens. There are great illustration per chapter in this edition which really brings the narrative to life.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and one of the first I finished before I began the idea of writing a review on Dickens. I really recommend “The Old Curiosity Shop” for those who are just starting on Dickens and want one of his lighter books to read. It is a touching story and one that you will remember for a long time afterwards…

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