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The Old Curiosity Shop

by Charles Dickens

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5,155611,755 (3.67)264
Heart-wrenching tale of Little Nell and her doting grandfather who flee from cold and brutal London in the 1840s to escape debt and to roam the English countryside as beggars.

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Written in 1840, when Dickens himself was less than 30 years old, [b:The Old Curiosity Shop|429024|The Old Curiosity Shop|Charles Dickens|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1332523435l/429024._SY75_.jpg|5246858], while still a lovely read, introduces themes and writing that would become so much more mature and complex in Dickens’ later novels, [b:Little Dorrit|31250|Little Dorrit|Charles Dickens|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1496619146l/31250._SY75_.jpg|80851] and [b:Dombey and Son|50827|Dombey and Son|Charles Dickens|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1320513735l/50827._SY75_.jpg|4998726]. That this is one of his more sentimental efforts can be easily explained by knowing that Dickens was still grieving the premature loss of his young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died at the age of 17.

The death of Mary Hogarth was a blow that Dickens perhaps never recovered from. He was quite young himself, and Mary makes appearances in many of his novels, as angelic female characters, lost before their time. What the loss of one so young must undoubtedly trigger in anyone is a sense of their own mortality, an issue each of us grapples with daily.

That this was paramount in Dickens’ mind at the time of this writing seems to me to be evidenced in the following passage from the book:

The child admired and praised his work, and shortly afterwards departed; thinking, as she went, how strange it was, that this old man, drawing from his pursuits, and everything around him, one stern moral, never contemplated its application to himself; and, while he dwelt upon the uncertainty of human life, seemed both in word and deed to deem himself immortal. But her musings did not stop here, for she was wise enough to think that by a good and merciful adjustment this must be human nature, and that the old sexton, with his plans for next summer, was but a type of all mankind.

The story of Little Nell is the central one of The Old Curiosity Shop, but it runs parallel to a second story, which I think of as Kit’s story. While the two tales overlap in places, they seemed to me to be two distinct threads, with only a tenuous attachment. What they do have in common is the same villainous enemy seeking to do them harm, the dwarf, Quilp. Quilp is a villain of no subtlety. He is rotten from the brim to the dregs, and his inner character is reflected in his outer visage. He is the frightful thing a child hopes is not lingering under the bed or in the closets when the light goes out. He is, in fact, almost a caricature of evil, which, for me, lessens his impact. I tend to be more frightened by the evil that lies hidden beneath kinder words and countenances.

In the same vein, Nell is so good and so sweet that she becomes almost a symbol of childhood innocence and virtue, instead of a real little girl in a precarious position. While I was moved to tears over Florence Dombey and Amy Dorrit, I shed none for Nell. This told me that she affected me in a less personal way. Her Grandfather is, I believe, meant to elicit our sympathies, but like Mr. Dorrit, he never completely redeems himself for me. Without him, exactly as written, however, the extent of Nell’s love and devotion could never be portrayed.

The book has been compared to a fairytale, and it fits the description well. The child is in peril, the evil forces pursue her, particularly in the form of a Rumpelstiltskin-like Quilp, good forces collude to save her. But there is more depth than that to this tale. There are the actions of the Grandfather, which bring himself and Nell into the clutches of such evil and leave them exposed to a world where even the elements of nature can be cruel. There are sharp contrasts between the bucolic countryside and the industrialized city, where the fires burn day and night and threaten to suck everyone into a nightmare existence.

Kit’s story, I believe, saves the book from being maudlin or saccharin. He adds both humor and reality to the story and as it progresses, his story becomes the meat of the tale–the portion where you begin to see the inner workings of the characters, both good and bad. It is primarily in this story line that we see my favorite character from the book, Dick Swiveler and the marvelous Marchioness. What I like about Dick is that he grows over the course of the story. He swivels, if you will, from not seeing clearly, or perhaps even caring about others, to being one of the most insightful and caring characters penned. With him comes the Dickensian humor that brightens the bleakest of Dickens’ tales.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It is an established fact that Dickens at his worst spreads a richer table than most authors at their best. If I were not comparing this to other Dickens novels, it would doubtless get a five-star rating. As it is, it is a smidgen below his best, so I give it four-stars and encourage everyone who hasn’t done so to read it. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
  laplantelibrary | Apr 20, 2022 |
  laplantelibrary | Apr 9, 2022 |
Here's what I wrote after reading in 1984: "Theme of childish innocence and goodness surrounded by the grotesque and bizarre acted by Little Nell, Quilp, and the Brasses. Richard Swiveller and the Marchioness most enjoyable." ( )
  MGADMJK | Dec 10, 2021 |
Dang you Charles Dickens! I wasn't going to cry. ( )
  auldhouse | Sep 30, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (59 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Charles Dickensprimary authorall editionscalculated
Andrews, MalcolmIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Browne, Hablot KnightIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cattermole, GeorgeIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Easson, AngusEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frank ReynoldsIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frith, W. P.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lesser, AntonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maclise, DanielIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Page, NormanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Page, NormanPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schlicke, PaulEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schweinitz, Maria vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sharp, WilliamIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wicklow, Earl ofIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Williams, SamuelIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Although I am an old man, night is generally my time for walking.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Heart-wrenching tale of Little Nell and her doting grandfather who flee from cold and brutal London in the 1840s to escape debt and to roam the English countryside as beggars.

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Average: (3.67)
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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140437428, 014119958X

Urban Romantics

An edition of this book was published by Urban Romantics.

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