The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Note: I’ve found this hard to write about without giving away some spoilers.

I’d listed The Old Curiosity Shop in my Classics Club Spin,  but was really hoping to get one of Thomas Hardy’s books. Without this push from the Classics Club this book would have stayed on my TBR list for a long time because all I knew about it was that it’s the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death and I feared it would be too sentimental for my liking. And much to my surprise I have finished it in time for the deadline for reading our Spin book this Friday, even though it’s such a long book.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It’s not just a sentimental, melodramatic story. It’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey. There are numerous allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and popular songs of the day. There are long passages where Nell doesn’t feature and is hardly mentioned, so it’s by no means a totally sentimental tale.

Several of the characters stand out for me, Quilp is an obvious choice. He takes delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He’s scarcely human, grossly wicked, hideous in appearance, full of lust, ferocious, cunning, and malicious. A fiend who

… ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with 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 until they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. (page 47)

Other characters who stood out are Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick at first appears as a profligate friend of Nell’s brother, Fred but takes on a larger role later in the book. Working in a law office for Mr Brass and his sister, Sally Brass, he befriends the small, half-starved girl who is a servant locked in the basement, calling her the Marchioness. He rescues her and also Kit, Nell’s friend, when he is wrongly accused of robbery.

There are many more I could mention, including the people Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels – wonderful scenes  of the travelling Punch and Judy show; Mrs Jarley’s wax-work figures, over a hundred of them that she takes around the countryside in a caravan; the gypsies who take advantage of Nell’s grandfather’s addiction to gambling; the poor schoolteacher who take in Nell and her grandfather; and the Bachelor who they meet at the end of their journey.

I also liked the description of the landscape as Nell leaves London, the change from town to countryside, then later through the industrial Midlands with its factories, furnaces and roaring steam-engines where people worked in terrible conditions. Nell and her grandfather spend a night in one of the furnaces, sleeping on a heap of ashes.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. (pages 334-5)

Nell, herself, is a sweet, self-effacing and innocent character, who is left to look after her grandfather as he fails to overcome his gambling addiction. She goes into a decline and her slow death is, I suppose inevitable, although thankfully it is not described by Dickens. Child death is one of the themes of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell’s death is not the only one.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written in 1840 – 1841 and serialised weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock beginning on 4 April 1840 and ending on 6 February 1841. During this period the circulation of the periodical rose to a staggering figure of 100,000. It was Dickens’ fourth novel, influenced by the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837, which had profoundly shocked him. His work on The Old Curiosity Shop, particularly as he came to writing the end, revived the anguish he had experienced on her death.

The Old Curiosity Shop

I read the Penguin Classics e-book which has the original illustrations by George Cattermole, Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’), Daniel
Maclise and Samuel Williams.

The furnace

Despite the sentimentality I did enjoy reading The Old Curiosity Shop and it has made me keen to read more of Dickens’ books.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin, this book also qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and the Victorian Bingo Challenge.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: Book Review

The Moonstone is one of those books that I thought I’d read because I know the story, but actually I hadn’t. I know it because years ago I watched a TV dramatisation and the images of the Indians, the jewel, the shifting sands and Sergeant Cuff have remained in my mind ever since.

I downloaded the free e-book  to my Kindle.

I was surprised by how easy it is to read, written from several viewpoints and all so individual.  The Moonstone, a large diamond, originally stolen from a statue of an Indian God and said to be cursed is left to Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her 18th birthday and that night it is stolen from her bedroom. Chief suspects are three Indian jugglers, who are Hindu priests dedicated to retrieving the jewel. Suspicion also falls on Rosanna Spearman, one of the maids, who later drowns herself in the quicksands.

I loved the way Collins has written this book from so many different perspectives, giving a rounded picture of the investigations into the Moonstone’s theft. I particularly liked the first narrator Gabriel Betteredge, the house-steward and his reliance on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe for comfort and enlightenment:

I am not superstitious; I have read a heap of books in my time; I am a scholar in my own way. Though turned seventy, I possess an active memory, and legs to correspond. You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as ROBINSON CRUSOE never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years’”generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco’”and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad’”ROBINSON CRUSOE. When I want advice’”ROBINSON CRUSOE. In past times when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too much’”ROBINSON CRUSOE. I have worn out six stout ROBINSON CRUSOES with hard work in my service.

Then, there is Sergeant Cluff, the detective who loves roses who leaves the mystery unsolved. A year later matters move on, the investigations pick up and eventually the culprit is revealed. There are many red herrings, false trails and plenty of suspense and tension before the denouement. I loved this book for its wealth of vividly drawn characters, its mystery and atmospheric settings and also its humour. Now I want to read more from Wilkie Collins.

The Victorian Literature Reading Challenge

Completed – see end of post.

Following on from my decision to take part in more reading challenges in an attempt to reduce my tbr list I’ll also be taking part in the Victorian Literature Challenge in 2011. This is hosted by Bethany at words, words, words.

Bethany writes: Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. If your book wasn’t published during those particular years, but is by an author considered ‘Victorian’ then go for it. We’re here for reading, not historical facts! Also, this can include works by authors from other countries, so long as they are from this period.

Choose from one of four levels:

Sense and Sensibility: 1-4 books.
Great Expectations: 5-9 books.
Hard Times: 10-14 books.
Desperate Remedies: 15+ books.

Again, I’m choosing my books from my tbr list. All these were written in the Victorian period. I’m aiming for the Sense and Sensibility level and if I complete that I’ll go for the next level and so on.

  • An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
  • Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  • The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  • Lorna Doone by R D Blackmore
  • Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  • News from Nowhere by William Morris
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
  • Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Tower of London by W H Ainsworth

That’s a lot of books, but I’ll be happy if I read just four of them during the year.