The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
On the Every Man’s Library List
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. At once both terrifying and fascinating, The Old Curiosity Shop is a compelling voyage into the depths of human evil and childlike innocence. Nell and her grandfather venture throughout the English countryside in search of a safe haven – their journey modeled after that of Christian in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” It 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. The Old Curiosity Shop was printed as a separate book in 1841.
The hype surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last installment in the United Kingdom), “Is Little Nell alive?” In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume 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.
It’s difficult to determine precisely when the book takes place. 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 April 19, 1824. When the inquest rules (incorrectly) that Quilp committed suicide, his corpse is ordered to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart, a practice banned in 1826. And 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 attorneys”, 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. Pinpointing the actual time is a little difficult, but able to be narrowed down to a twelve year span.
Charles Dickens always uses real locations for inspirations in his books. A shop named ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ can be found at 13–14 Portsmouth Street, Westminster, London, WC2A 2ES, in amongst 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’ 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 made using the wood from old ships and the building survived the bombs of Second World War. There is also a shop in Broadstairs called The Old Curiosity Shop, where Dickens rented a home.
Nell and her Grandfather meet Codlin and Short in a Churchyard in Aylesbury. The Races where Nell and her Grandfather go to 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 industrialized 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.
I watched the 1979 nine-part miniseries created by the BBC on DVD. There were some secondary characters missing from the miniseries that I felt were important. Frederick Trent, Nell’s worthless brother, and Barbara, the maidservant of Mr. and Mrs.Garland and future of wife of Kit were omitted, who I felt were important to the meat of the story. The readers were able to understand that Nell was betrayed by her own blood for the pursuit of money, and by omitting Frederick, the viewer of the miniseries is not privileged to know this extra knife in the back that Nell was being subjected to. The miniseries ends with the grandfather grovelling on Nell’s grave, unlike the book, which gives you a follow up on all the important characters, tying up all the loose ends neatly. The music theme accompanying the beginning and closing of every section was very depressing.
While I have been gravely disappointed in the works of Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop definitely reset the standards I had on his work. It didn’t take long to weave a mesmerizing tale that kept me interested. As the tale unfolded, he mixes examples of vice and virtue, goodness and wickedness throughout. And this is where the book really excels. Dickens’ characters are well-drawn and eminently memorable. Also interesting is the contrast Dickens develops between the freedom and beauty of the countryside and the dingy depravity of the city. He movingly depicts the sufferings of innocent people oppressed by an out-of-date legal system and a repressive governmental hierarchy. The basic backbone of politics and corruption is a trademark of Dickens’ books. Definitely a worthy read.