Let’s get the spoiler out of the way at once:
“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Or, if you prefer the longer version,
“One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears—of laughter.”
No matter how you word it, that’s a challenge if I ever heard one.
If you take up the challenge, pay attention to one thing: it is not “death scene” but simply “death”. Although Nell does eventually get a death scene, it is very much an afterthought. The heartbreaks and tearjerkers involve the other characters’ reactions to her death.
The Old Curiosity Shop is not likely to be anyone’s favorite Dickens novel. (Then again, there exist people who profess to admire Mansfield Park, so perhaps I am over-hasty.) But it’s got, in the person of Dick Swiveller, the second-best supporting character in all of Dickens. That alone makes up for any number of sins.
“Let us be beggars,” said the child
Upon these tenements, the attention of the child became exclusively riveted
“It is a very beautiful place,” said the child
The child sat down
. . . and that’s just the illustration captions. Throughout the book, Nell Trent is described as a child. In fact my first impression was that you could count on your fingers the number of times the author, in his own voice, calls her Nell or Nelly instead of “the child”. But when I—which is to say, my text editor—
In Chapter Seven we learn that Nell is “nearly fourteen”, making her exactly the age of Juliet. (Contemporary readers may not have realized this, as the role was invariably played by actresses in their forties.) In the next few chapters, two different characters will talk about marrying Nell in a few years’ time; a third is accused—by his mother, who ought to know—of being in love with her. Since the narrative covers at least half a year, she must have turned fourteen by book’s end.
Now, consider “Let us be beggars”. Charles Dickens knew perfectly well that children much younger than Nell, both boys and girls, were working seventy-plus-hour weeks in mines, factories or domestic service. But Nell is just far enough up the social scale that actively looking for work is, in the most literal way, unthinkable. When she does work for money, it is always because some kind-hearted individual—there are surprisingly many of them—spontaneously creates a job for her.
If you stop and pay attention to what Nell actually does, you will notice that she is far less passive than the author would have us believe. She is not a helpless dependent; during most of the book, she is the sole support of her grandfather, a compulsive gambler whose mind wanders ever further from reality.
What could the child do with the knowledge she had, but give him every penny that came into her hands, lest he should be tempted on to rob their benefactress? If she told the truth (so thought the child) he would be treated as a madman; if she did not supply him with money he would supply himself; supplying him, she fed the fire that burnt him up and put him perhaps beyond recovery.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of Nell as a fully realized character. The Preface says forthrightly that the author’s intention was to:
surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial . . .
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Old Curiosity Shop. It isn’t simply a novel without a hero, like the best-known work of That Other Victorian Author. It’s a novel without a heroine, without an antihero, without a protagonist—without any center to it at all, making it a collection of lean-tos without anything for them to lean to.
Even if you didn’t know, it would be obvious that The Old Curiosity Shop originally appeared serially—because the number of illustrations doesn’t drop off as the book progresses. There may even be more of them in later chapters.
Since the installments came out weekly rather than monthly, everyone had to work fast; Dickens used four separate illustrators. As listed by the ever-useful Victorian Web:
The collaborative team (or “Clock Works” as Dickens dubbed it) consisted of Samuel Williams (1788–1853) and Daniel Maclise (1807–1870) supporting the chief illustrators, George Cattermole (1800–1868) and Phiz.
“Phiz” is Hablot Knight Browne (1815–1882) who ended up working on ten of Dickens’s novels.
The Old Curiosity Shop was originally published in the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock, starting in the fourth issue and filling up most of the first two volumes. In fact it might be more accurate to say that it was published as the periodical Master Humphrey’s Clock: after the first couple of months, each issue consisted solely of an installment of the current novel.
As soon as the serial publication was done, the novel was reissued as a freestanding book. The first edition didn’t even bother to change the pagination; a few times in early chapters the author had to dash off new material to make it come out even. The preface (below) explains the whole thing more clearly.
The chapters have no titles. Instead, every recto (odd-numbered) page has a headnote. I’ve retained these for the ebook, keeping them as close as practicable to their original location, except where a note obviously refers to a chapter that starts at mid-page.
This etext is based on the undated Chapman & Hall edition. Apparent errors, especially punctuation oddities, were checked against the 1841 first edition and the 1876 edition, both also from Chapman & Hall.
Page numbers ending in “a” were printed as unpaginated plates (blank on the back) facing a numbered page. The ones in [brackets] have been moved to the nearest paragraph break.
Typographical errors are marked with and are listed again at the bottom of each file. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space.
Language: The author consistently says “resource” where one might expect “recourse”, as in “he had no resource but . . .” The spelling “an’t” is used consistently.
CROWN EDITION. Price 5s. each Volume.
1. THE PICKWICK PAPERS. With 43 Illustrations by Seymour and Phiz.
2. NICHOLAS NICKLEBY. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
3. DOMBEY AND SON. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
4. DAVID COPPERFIELD. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
5. SKETCHES BY “BOZ.” With 40 Illustrations by Geo. Cruikshank.
6. MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
7. THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP. With 75 Illustrations by George Cattermole and H. K. Browne.
8. BARNABY RUDGE: A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty. With 76 Illustrations by George Cattermole and H. K. Browne.
9. OLIVER TWIST and TALE OF TWO CITIES. With 24 Illustrations by Cruikshank and 16 by Phiz.
10. BLEAK HOUSE. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
11. LITTLE DORRIT. With 40 Illustrations by Phiz.
12. OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. With 40 Illustrations by Marcus Stone.
13. AMERICAN NOTES; PICTURES FROM ITALY; and A CHILD’S HISTORY OF ENGLAND. With 16 Illustrations by Marcus Stone.
14. CHRISTMAS BOOKS and HARD TIMES. With Illustrations by Landseer, Maclise, Stanfield, Leech, Doyle, F. Walker, c .
15. CHRISTMAS STORIES AND OTHER STORIES, including HUMPHREY’S CLOCK. With Illustrations by Charles Green, Mahoney, Phiz, Cattermole, c .
16. GREAT EXPECTATIONS. UNCOMMERCIAL TRAVELLER. With 16 Illustrations by Marcus Stone.
17. EDWIN DROOD and REPRINTED PIECES. With 16 Illustrations by Luke Fildes and F. Walker.
Uniform with above in size and binding.
THE LIFE OF CHARLES DICKENS. By John Forster. With Portraits and Illustrations. Added at the request of numerous Subscribers.
THE DICKENS DICTIONARY: a Key to the Characters and Principal Incidents in the Tales of Charles Dickens.
THE LAZY TOUR OF TWO IDLE APPRENTICES; NO THOROUGHFARE; THE PERILS OF CERTAIN ENGLISH PRISONERS. By Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. With Illustrations.
OLD CURIOSITY SHOP.
with seventy-five illustrations.
LONDON: CHAPMAN & HALL, ld.
In April, 1840, I issued the first number of a new weekly publication, price threepence, called Master Humphrey’s Clock. It was intended to consist, for the most part, of detached papers, but was to include one continuous story, to be resumed, from time to time, with such indefinite intervals between each period of resumption as might best accord with the exigencies and capabilities of the proposed Miscellany.
The first chapter of this tale appeared in the fourth number of Master Humphrey’s Clock, when I had already been made uneasy by the desultory character of that work, and when, I believe, my readers had thoroughly participated in the feeling. The commencement of a story was a great satisfaction to me, and I had reason to believe that my readers participated in this feeling too. Hence, being pledged to some interruptions and some pursuit of the original design, I set cheerfully about disentangling myself from those impediments as fast as I could; and, that done, from that time until its completion The Old Curiosity Shop was written and published from week to week, in weekly parts.
When the story was finished, that it might be freed from the incumbrance of associations and interruptions with which it had no kind of concern, I caused the few sheets of Master Humphrey’s Clock, which had been printed in connection with it, to be cancelled; and, like the unfinished tale of the windy night and the notary in The Sentimental Journey, they became the property of the trunk-maker and the butterman. I was especially unwilling, I confess, to vi enrich those respectable trades with the opening paper of the abandoned design, in which Master Humphrey described himself and his manner of life. Though I now affect to make the confession philosophically, as referring to a bygone emotion, I am conscious that my pen winces a little even while I write these words. But it was done, and wisely done, and Master Humphrey’s Clock, as originally constructed, became one of the lost books of the earth—which, we all know, are far more precious than any that can be read for love or money.
In reference to the tale itself, I desire to say very little here. The many friends it won me, and the many hearts it turned to me when they were full of private sorrow, invest it with an interest, in my mind, which is not a public one, and the rightful place of which appears to be “a more removed ground.”
I will merely observe, therefore, that, in writing the book, I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.
Master Humphrey (before his devotion to the trunk and butter business) was originally supposed to be the narrator of the story. As it was constructed from the beginning, however, with a view to separate publication when completed, his demise has not involved the necessity of any alteration.
I have a mournful pride in one recollection associated with “little Nell.” While she was yet upon her wanderings, not then concluded, there appeared in a literary journal, an essay of which she was the principal theme, so earnestly, so eloquently, and tenderly appreciative of her, and of all her shadowy kith and kin, that it would have been insensibility in me, if I could have read it without an unusual glow of pleasure and encouragement. Long afterwards, and when I had come to know him well, and to see him, stout of heart, going slowly down into his grave, I knew the writer of that essay to be Thomas Hood.vii
|The Old Curiosity Shop||Frontispiece|
|The beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams||11|
|“Go on ladies, go on,” said Daniel. “Mrs. Quilp, pray ask the ladies to stop to supper”||27|
|Mr. Swiveller had Miss Sophy’s hand for the first quadrille, and so gained an advantage over his rival||53|
|“Let us be beggars,” said the child, passing an arm round his neck. “I have no fear but we shall have enough”||60|
|In a pleasant field, the old man and his little guide sat down to rest||97|
|“It’s Grinder’s lot, an’t it?” cried Mr. Short in a loud key||111|
|“I remember . . . eight male and female dwarfs setting down to dinner every day, who was waited on by eight old giants”||120|
|The puzzled dunce . . . drew closer to the master’s elbow and boldly cast his eye upon the page||157|
|Nell rode slowly through the town every morning, dispersing handbills from a basket||180|
|Mr. Brass, with his eye curiously twisted into the keyhole||221|
|Mr. Swiveller poured forth the few remaining drops as a libation upon the gravel||243|
|“He has no right to think that I’d be led away to go to him, sir,” said Kit||251|
|Nell sat in the open air with the old man by her side||271|
|Maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, . . . rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction||282|
|viii Upon these tenements, the attention of the child became exclusively riveted||292|
|“Would the gentleman like this room?” said a voice||297|
|“With regard to the descriptive advertisement,” said Sampson Brass, taking up his pen||306|
|Mr. Quilp, in his uproarious hospitality, seated himself upon an empty beer-barrel||318|
|“It is a very beautiful place,” said the child, in a low voice||322|
|The child sat down in this old, silent place, among the stark figures on the tombs||331|
|The bachelor was sitting on the stile close by, watching them in silence||339|
|The Marchioness, holding her cards very tight in both hands, considered which to play||357|
|Kit stood afar off, with his head resting on the arm by which he held to one of the bars||379|
|“Is it like Kit—is it his picture, his image, his very self?” cried the dwarf||383|
|There she sat, intent upon her game||395|
|The small servant . . . stood rooted to the spot||409|
|He crept in, shut the door, kissed his greasy glove as servilely as if it were the dust, and made a most abject bow||412|
|Mr. Chuckster, on taking his ground, planted one hand on his hip, and with the other adjusted his flowing hair||433|
|He darted off with breathless eagerness, and, still carrying the birdcage in his hand, made straight for the spot||441|
|There, upon her little bed, she lay at rest||447|
|Every day, and all day long, he waited at her grave for her||453|