7.6/101 Votes Alchetron
Cover artist George Cattermole
Media type Print
Publisher Chapman & Hall London
Originally published 1841
Illustrator George Cattermole
|Characters Quilp, Dick Swiveller, Nell Trent, Kit Nubbles, Grandfather|
Adaptations The Old Curiosity Shop (2007)
Similar Charles Dickens books, Novels, Classical Studies books
The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel by Charles Dickens. The plot follows the life of Nell Trent and her grandfather, both residents of The Old Curiosity Shop in London.
- Plot summary
- Framing device
- Major characters
- Other characters
- Literary significance and criticism
- Allusions to actual history, geography
- Major editions
The Old Curiosity Shop was one of two novels (the other being Barnaby Rudge) which Dickens published along with short stories in his weekly serial Master Humphrey's Clock, which lasted from 1840 to 1841. It was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841. The Old Curiosity Shop was printed in book form in 1841.
Queen Victoria read the novel in 1841, finding it "very interesting and cleverly written."
The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Nell Trent, a beautiful and virtuous young girl of "not quite fourteen". An orphan, she lives with her maternal grandfather (whose name is never revealed) in his shop of odds and ends. Her grandfather loves her dearly, and Nell does not complain, but she lives a lonely existence with almost no friends her own age. Her only friend is Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop, whom she is teaching to write. Secretly obsessed with ensuring that Nell does not die in poverty as her parents did, her grandfather attempts to provide Nell with a good inheritance through gambling at cards. He keeps his nocturnal games a secret, but borrows heavily from the evil Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely deformed, hunchbacked dwarf moneylender. In the end, he gambles away what little money they have, and Quilp seizes the opportunity to take possession of the shop and evict Nell and her grandfather. Her grandfather suffers a breakdown that leaves him bereft of his wits, and Nell takes him away to the Midlands of England, to live as beggars.
Convinced that the old man has stored up a large and prosperous fortune for Nell, her wastrel older brother, Frederick, convinces the good-natured but easily led Dick Swiveller to help him track Nell down, so that Swiveller can marry Nell and share her supposed inheritance with Frederick. To this end, they join forces with Quilp, who knows full well that there is no fortune, but sadistically chooses to 'help' them to enjoy the misery it will inflict on all concerned. Quilp begins to try to track Nell down, but the fugitives are not easily discovered. To keep Dick Swiveller under his eye, Quilp arranges for him to be taken as a clerk by Quilp's lawyer, Mr. Brass. At the Brass firm, Dick befriends the mistreated maidservant and nicknames her 'the Marchioness'. Nell, having fallen in with a number of characters, some villainous and some kind, succeeds in leading her grandfather to safety in a far-off village (identified by Dickens as Tong, Shropshire), but this comes at a considerable cost to Nell's health.
Meanwhile, Kit, having lost his job at the curiosity shop, has found new employment with the kind Mr and Mrs Garland. Here he is contacted by a mysterious 'single gentleman' who is looking for news of Nell and her grandfather. The 'single gentleman' and Kit's mother go after them unsuccessfully, and encounter Quilp, who is also hunting for the runaways. Quilp forms a grudge against Kit and has him framed as a thief. Kit is sentenced to transportation. However, Dick Swiveller proves Kit's innocence with the help of his friend the Marchioness. Quilp is hunted down and dies trying to escape his pursuers. At the same time, a coincidence leads Mr Garland to knowledge of Nell's whereabouts, and he, Kit, and the single gentleman (who turns out to be the younger brother of Nell's grandfather) go to find her. Sadly, by the time they arrive, Nell has died as a result of her arduous journey. Her grandfather, already mentally infirm, refuses to admit she is dead and sits every day by her grave waiting for her to come back until, a few months later, he dies himself.
The events of the book seem to take place around 1825. In Chapter 29 Miss Monflathers refers to the death of Lord Byron, who died on 19 April 1824. When the inquest rules (incorrectly) that Quilp committed suicide, his corpse is ordered to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart, a practice banned in 1823. Nell's grandfather, after his breakdown, fears that he shall be sent to a madhouse, and there chained to a wall and whipped; these practices went out of use after about 1830. In Chapter 13, the lawyer Mr. Brass is described as "one of Her Majesty's attornies" [sic], putting him in the reign of Queen Victoria, which began in 1837, but given all the other evidence, and the fact that Kit, at his trial, is charged with acting "against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King" (referring to George IV), this must be a slip of the pen.
Master Humphrey's Clock was a weekly serial that contained both short stories and two novels (The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge). Some of the short stories act as frame stories to the novels.
Originally the conceit of the story was that Master Humphrey was reading it aloud to a group of his friends, gathered at his house around the grandfather clock in which he eccentrically kept his manuscripts. Consequently, when the novel begins, it is told in the first person, with Master Humphrey as the narrator. However, Dickens soon changed his mind about how best to tell the story, and abandoned the first-person narrator after chapter three. Once the novel was ended, Master Humphrey's Clock added a concluding scene, where Master Humphrey's friends (after he has finished reading the novel to them) complain that the 'single gentleman' is never given a name; Master Humphrey tells them that the novel was a true story, that the 'single gentleman' was in fact Master Humphrey himself, and that the events of the first three chapters were fictitious, intended only to introduce the characters. This was Dickens' after-the-fact explanation of why the narrator disappeared and why (if he was their near relation) he gave no sign in the first three chapters of knowing who they were. It is a clumsy device, and at least one editor thinks "it need not be taken seriously."
Dickens's original artistic intent was to keep the short stories and the novels together, and the short stories and the novels were published in 1840 in three bound volumes under the title Master Humphrey's Clock, which retains the original full and correct ordering of texts. However, Dickens himself cancelled Master Humphrey's Clock before 1848, and describes in a preface to The Old Curiosity Shop that he wishes the story to not be tied down to the miscellany within which it began. Most later anthologies published the short stories and the novels separately.
Literary significance and criticism
Probably the most widely repeated criticism of Dickens is the remark reputedly made by Oscar Wilde that 'One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter.' (Nell's deathbed is not actually described, however.) Of a similar opinion was the poet Algernon Swinburne, who called Nell "a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads."
The Irish leader Daniel O'Connell famously burst into tears at the finale, and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was travelling.
The hype surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens fans were reported to have stormed the piers in New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the final chapters in the United Kingdom), "Is Little Nell alive?" In 2007, many newspapers claimed that the excitement at the release of the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The Norwegian author Ingeborg Refling Hagen is said to have buried a copy of the book in her youth, stating that nobody deserved to read about Nell, because nobody would ever understand her pain. She compared herself to Nell, because of her own miserable situation at the time.
Allusions to actual history, geography
A shop named 'The Old Curiosity Shop' can be found at 13–14 Portsmouth Street, Westminster, London, WC2A 2ES, amongst the buildings of the London School of Economics. The building dates back to the sixteenth century, but this name was added after the novel was released, as it was thought to be the inspiration for Dickens's description of the antique shop. At one time it functioned as a dairy on an estate given by King Charles II to one of his many mistresses. It was built using timber from old ships, and survived the bombs of the Second World War.
Nell and her grandfather meet Codlin and Short in a churchyard in Aylesbury. The horse races where Nell and her grandfather go with the show people are at Banbury. The village where they first meet the schoolmaster is Warmington, Warwickshire. They meet Mrs. Jarley near the village of Gaydon, Warwickshire. The town where they work at Jarley's Waxworks is Warwick. The heavily industrialised town where Nell spends the night by the furnace is Birmingham (after they have travelled on the Warwick and Birmingham Canal). The town in which Nell faints and is rescued by the school master is Wolverhampton in the Black Country. The village where they finally find peace and rest and where Nell dies is Tong, Shropshire.
Other real locations used in the novel include London Bridge, Bevis Marks, Finchley, and Minster-on-Sea.