Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Old Curiosity Shop

the_old_curiosity_shop_08Charles Dickens’ novel about ‘Little Nell’ (hardly ever called ‘Little’ in the story, just ‘the child’) has been on my Shelf of Shame for ever, because I was totally put off the idea of reading about a pathetic, heart-breaking deathbed scene. I knew about nothing else in the novel to interest me. But now, I regret having gone so long without having known about the magnificently awful Sally Brass. How long have I gone without enjoying the good-hearted enthusiasms of Mrs Jarley and Dick Swiveller, and the horrific malignant genius of Quilp! Dickens’ characters are the best parts of this novel, because the plot is a straggled patchwork, with lots of frayed and unfinished ends.

The central story of teenage carer Nell and her struggles to keep her gambling-addicted grandfather from further temptations is rather horribly also a tale for our own era, if we think of gambling machines and casinos rather than card-sharps, or even transpose the card-playing for drugs. But I think it’s quite easy to ignore the glutinous triggers for moralising sympathy that Dickens injects into the plot whenever it’s Nell’s turn to be on the page. She is a cardboard figure, and annoyingly improbable in her perfect turned-out neatness despite living out of a handbag for weeks on end on the road. She doesn’t develop or change, and dies pretty much as she lives. She’s an untouchable icon of perpetual vulnerability to whom nothing bad ever actually happens, but is under constant threat from greedy men licking their lips and clashing wedding rings together in anticipation of gaining possession of her person, and her putative inheritance.

Little Nell and Quilp from the 2008 BBC film

Little Nell and Quilp from the 2008 BBC film

She has an untrustworthy brother, Fred, who disappears rapidly from the story when Dickens became more attached to his dubious associates. Fred is convinced that Grandfather is secretly rich. On the basis of this, the demonic wheeler and dealer Quilp loans gambling money to Grandfather, and young-lad-about-town Dick Swiveller ditches his genteel girlfriend Sophy Wackles on the assurance that Nell and her eventual fortune are his for the taking. Of course, there is no money, but because Quilp has advanced a small loan, he will not relinquish his grip until his victim has been drained dry as a suitable return on his investment. He is a horrible Nemesis in his pursuit of Nell and Grandfather, because he too wants Nell for himself. He already has a wife, whom he torments viciously, but it’s quite clear that she will be thrown in the river once Nell is available to be the second Mrs Quilp.

Like Quilp, Sally Brass, the brilliantly malign female lawyer, starts bad and stays bad, but dominates every page she is on. Kit the shiningly honest houseboy starts good and stays good. Grandfather starts good, but loses his mind, gives into gambling and becomes a crazed problem gambler whenever there is money he can steal. Dick Swiveller starts equivocally amoral, but veers steadily towards goodness, which is useful because without him the plot would crash under the weight of Dickens’s vile creations. The good are flat and boring; the wicked are tremendous in their energy and deviousness. The Old Curiosity Shop is a terrific collection of curiosities (as millions of reviewers have already said), but is a bit over-done on the malice.

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), originally serialised in Dickens’ magazine Master Humphrey’s Clock, and now available anywhere books are sold (possibly even airport bookshops)

Kate podcasts about the books she really, really likes in

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

6 comments on “The Old Curiosity Shop

  1. Elaine Simpson long
    March 17, 2014

    This is my least favourite Dickens. I rTher agree with Oscar Wilde’s remark that one would have to have a heart of stone not to lUfh T the death of Little Nell.

  2. Elaine Simpson long
    March 17, 2014

    Sorry that is meant to be LAUGH. This pesky ipad has a will of its own!

  3. Andrea Stoeckel
    March 17, 2014

    I have just downloaded a free copy off This has also been one I “haven’t but should be reading”

  4. Simon T
    March 17, 2014

    Not one to add to the top of my list, then! I did start it once, but gave it up early on.

  5. Hilary
    March 22, 2014

    Kate, I think all I can say about this is, thanks for the warning! I think this one stays stuck on the shelf of shame in my house.

  6. sshaver
    March 25, 2014

    It doesn’t get creepier than Quilp. I wonder if that’s why Nabokov liked Q-names.

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2014 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 19th century, Fiction: crime, fiction: mystery, Shelf of Shame and tagged , , , , .



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