The Old Curiosity Shop

Front Cover
Barnes & Noble, 2009 - Fiction - 557 pages

On a blustery winter afternoon in 1840, crowds flooded the docks of the New York and Boston harbors. For months, Victorian audiences had followed the orphan Little Nell’s adventures in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop as she and her beloved grandfather fled the moral and material ravages of London and the machinations of the villainous dwarf, Quilp. Calling wildly to the English ship carrying the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, the devoted readers breathlessly demanded the fate of the novel’s heroine.

For today’s reader, The Old Curiosity Shop not only illustrates a poverty that looks uncannily familiar, but forges a heroism from the small acts of caring that make modern life meaningful. The most popular of Dickens’ novels in his lifetime, it remains both a page-turner and a masterpiece.

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User Review  - Gold_Gato - LibraryThing

This is the only work from Dickens which first hit me via a different media, namely a really poor BBC telly presentation. It was so bad, I stayed away from it and only relented when I realized there ... Read full review

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User Review  - denmoir - LibraryThing

Every now and then, disillusioned by modern literature, I return to Dickens. I have just read "Our Mutual Friend" Dickens wonderful word pictures of people, every character vivid and believable is far beyond anyone writing today. Read full review

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About the author (2009)

INTRODUCTION

On a blustery winter afternoon in 1840, crowds flooded the docks of the New York and Boston harbors. Calling wildly to the English ship carrying the next installment of Charles Dickens'' The Old Curiosity Shop, they breathlessly demanded the fate of the novel''s heroine, Little Nell. For months, Victorian audiences had followed the orphan''s adventures as she and her beloved grandfather fled the moral and material ravages of London and the machinations of the villainous dwarf, Quilp. For months, the devoted readers had laughed at the novel''s energetic parade of circus acts, puppet shows, and wax works and trembled over the innocent child''s encounter with debasing destitution and the malevolent demoralization of her own grandfather''s addiction. Indeed Little Nell set the precedent that Harry Potter would follow over a century later: she was the first trans-Atlantic serial literary star. The novel''s tragic denouement was greeted with universal shock. The Irish politician Daniel O''Connor allegedly broke into tears and hurled the novel out a window. In fact, the tragic ending is one of the most daring moves in English literature, a brave defiance of audience desires and expectations. For today''s reader, The Old Curiosity Shop not only illustrates a poverty that looks uncannily familiar, but forges a heroism from the small acts of caring that make modern life meaningful. The most popular of Dickens'' novels in his lifetime, it remains both a page-turner and a masterpiece.

Born on February 7, 1812, to a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, Charles Dickens spent his early years first in Portsmouth and then in London. When he was twelve years old, his father was imprisoned for debt, a traumatic experience that Dickens revisited in various ways throughout his fiction. While the rest of the family stayed with his father, Dickens was sent to work in the Warren''s Blacking Factory, a rat-infested, dilapidated building, where he typed up and labeled pots of shoe polish, sitting sometimes on display in a window where pedestrians could view him at what he felt to be menial and demeaning work. In 1829, he became a freelance reporter at Doctor''s Commons Courts and in 1832, a shorthand reporter of Parliamentary debates in the House of Commons. He began in 1833 to publish vignettes of London life, using the pseudonym Boz, a nasal corruption of Moses, a character in Oliver Goldsmith''s popular 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield. In 1836 he was financially able to marry Catherine Hogarth, who would eventually bear him ten children before their official separation in 1858 due to his infatuation with the young actress Ellen Ternan. One of the most popular and prolific writers of all time, Dickens invented novels that stand as virtual monuments: Oliver Twist (1838), Dombey and Son (1848), David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1857), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1865) have thrilled readers all over the world. After a series of grueling tours performing public readings, Dickens'' health deteriorated and he died in 1870, leaving unfinished his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His tomb is in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey where he rests among the giants of English letters.

By the time he began The Old Curiosity Shop in April of 1840, the twenty-eight-year-old Dickens was already a celebrity as the author of the wildly popular The Pickwick Papers (1836-7), Oliver Twist (1837-9), and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9). Still reeling from the "Bozmania" of 1838 during which Dickens'' original pen name became a household word, the English public fêted him at public dinners, followed his activities in the daily press, produced multiple stage versions of his novels, and disseminated copies of his portrait--one done by none other than the society painter Daniel Maclise. But in many ways The Old Curiosity Shop is a deeply personal novel; it has its roots in the sudden death, in his arms, of Dickens'' beloved seventeen-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837. Dickens mourned Mary''s loss through various rituals, composing the inscription on her tomb, planning on being buried next to her, and dreaming of her every night for the nine months following her death. In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens became the unprecedented master at transforming this grief into art.

Using the idea of a pilgrimage to structure the story, Dickens tells in The Old Curiosity Shop how Little Nell, a beautiful thirteen-year-old orphan, must flee with her grandfather from London where his gambling debts have forced the foreclosure of his business, caused their eviction from the shop where they live, and precipitated his mental breakdown. The primary agent of these disasters is the moneylender Daniel Quilp, a deformed and malevolent dwarf, who also encourages Nell''s dissolute brother in his greedy designs to have his friend Dick Swiveller marry his sister, whom the Grandfather in delusion has portrayed as an heiress. To advance this project, Quilp places Swiveller as a clerk in the law office of Mr. Brass, the corrupt lawyer who will later try to frame Nell''s loyal friend Kit as a thief. While Nell''s journey with her grandfather destroys her health and becomes increasingly metaphorical as it brings her closer to death, the London scene turns on Swiveller''s exciting reformation as he develops from a profligate clown into a comedic hero.

The Old Curiosity Shop was at first conceived as a short piece, not a whole novel, written for a new magazine, Master Humphrey''s Clock, whose organizing principle rested on a storytelling club whose founding member, for some eccentric reason, kept disparate manuscripts in his clock. Dickens intended the project to provide a respite from the breakneck pace of serial publications, but The Old Curiosity Shop soon took on a life of its own as readers came to expect the story of Little Nell''s flight from the gargoyl-like Quilp to continue from issue to issue. Hence the novel was born as a response to reader demand and stands both as an illustration of Dickens'' emotional connection to his audience as well as of his improvisational skills. This evolution from short story to serialized novel explains the sudden shift early in the novel from Master Humphrey''s first-person narration to an omniscient third-person narrator. Later in the novel, Dickens will justify Master Humphrey''s disappearance by identifying him as the Single Gentleman, Nell''s long-lost great uncle. When the serialized publication of The Old Curiosity Shop concluded in February of 1841, Master Humphrey''s Clock served as the vehicle for Dickens'' next novel, Barnaby Rudge.

There is some poetic justice in Dickens'' reluctant surrender to the serial novel form; he was not only its inventor in April of 1836 with the first installment of The Pickwick Papers, but also its most successful practitioner. Although the nineteenth century is famous for the expansion of the middle-class reading public, the prohibitively high cost of books during the first half of the century forced publishers to find other means of disseminating literature: circulating libraries whereby novels, published in a three-volume format, were made available to paying subscribers one volume at a time, and serialization, whereby installments were published weekly or monthly, provided the vast majority of middle-class readers with access to both fiction and nonfiction. In exemplifying the dominance of the serial novel form, The Old Curiosity Shop underscores suspenseful pacing and the intimate immediacy of routine engagement as determining aesthetic structures--much like a television series today. The Old Curiosity Shop also marks the moment in which Dickens for the first time shared directly in the profits from his work, receiving a fee for each installment in addition to an advance, and, more significantly, held the copyright jointly with his publisher, Chapman Hall. As novel writing became increasingly professionalized, Dickens led many writers away from understanding their work as the sale of labor and toward conceptualizing their works as intellectual properties.

The most famous statement ever written about The Old Curiosity Shop is Oscar Wilde''s flippant remark that "One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell." We can see then that whereas the novel''s initial readers may have drowned in tears, a second wave of readers was dissolving in laughter. And indeed many of those readers were frustrated not only by the novel''s cumbersome frame and melodramatic plotting, but also by its sentimentality. It is useful to remember here that sentimentality was a convention of eighteenth-century literature and one of many discourses from which Dickens, with his fine ear for the different social languages that composed his cultural moment, drew. Crudely speaking, sentimentalists of the eighteenth century generally contrast with Hobbesians, the former believing in the natural sympathies that allow human beings to form social bonds and the latter believing that life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and sho

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