February 7, 2012 sees the bicentennial birthday of Charles Dickens, long regarded as one of the finest writers in the world — and one of my favourites. His fans are celebrating in their own ways. Mine is to catch up with some of his novels that I simply haven’t gotten to yet. Among them is The Old Curiosity Shop, somewhat unusual among Dickens’ works in that he was never going to write it in the first place.
Dickens wrote serially, like many authors of his day, and this means not only that his books tend to be rather longer than the modern norm, but that his plots tend to be more complex and labyrinthian as well. This one started life as a short story in a weekly periodical called Master Humphrey’s Clock which Dickens edited and published himself. He then decided to continue the story, and before long it was almost the only feature of the magazine. The novel Barnaby Rudge followed before Master Humphrey’s Clock was cancelled in 1841.
A quick summation of the premise: An old man and his granddaughter, Nell, live and run a shop selling antique knickknacks (hence the title). They live in near poverty and their chief debtor is a deformed dwarf named Mr. Quilp. To escape the misfortunes come upon them because of her grandfather’s gambling addiction, Little Nell leads them in running away to the countryside. Half the plot describes their wanderings while the other half focuses on the efforts of both their friends and foes to discover where the two pilgrims have gone.
To be honest, I began The Old Curiosity Shop without great expectations. It isn’t one of Dickens’ better known works, and the only thing that seems to save it from total obscurity is the reputation of sentimentality that surrounds his treatment of the heroine — and especially (SPOILERS!) her death at the end of the story. Normally I avoid spoilers entirely, but it does feature heavily in discussions of the book, so perhaps there’s no harm done. I knew this one going in and it didn’t necessarily abrogate my enjoyment of the novel.
And I did enjoy it, to my surprise. It is an earlier novel by Dickens, and thus is perhaps a little more concerned with diverting and entertaining than exploring and developing characters, but it still does an admirable job of that. I was initially annoyed by the tendency of the narrative to return to London just when I wanted to meet more interesting people with Little Nell and her grandfather, but luckily that plotline was filled with people who were just as interesting. And the greatest pleasure I’ve always found in reading Dickens is on full display here: his mastery of the English language.
Dickens writes like almost no other author I’ve read. The best way I can describe it is that he writes in cartoons. This may owe something to the illustrations that always accompanied his novels, but it’s true that his characters are broadly drawn with clean, bold lines and bright colours; they tend to be rendered in caricatures of human form, though the best of them do seem to have real souls. But the most memorable of them seem to have an even greater capacity for squashing and stretching than anything to come out of the Disney studios. The symbolic and sometimes insane names he gives them help with this perception.
And there are quite a number of them as well. Dickens’ novels are stuffed to the brim with people, infusing the stories with the life and busyness that make the plots such page-turners. The Old Curiosity Shop is no exception in this regard. In fact, the wide cast of characters resembles nothing more or less than the profusion of old curiosities in the eponymous shop’s window. They are odd figurines, grotesque, unique, sometimes humourous — yet always fixed in the moral positions for good or bad in which they emerged from the mold that formed them.
With characters that stick in the mind, plots that twist and turn like the alleyways of Victorian London, and a beautiful revelling in the poetic possibilities of English prose, the novels of Charles Dickens deserve to stand the test of time. The Old Curiosity Shop may carry the reputation of being an old curiosity itself, and more than once it does dip too deeply into the well of sentiment (why does Little Nell die anyway?), but it has merits enough on its own to make it worth reading at least once.