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Monday, July 6, 2009

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was one the most popular (if not the most popular) novelist during the Victorian period. He published The Old Curiosity Shop in his weekly serial publication “Master Humphrey’s Clock” from 1840 to 1841. I have always heard the story that Dickens’ American fans storms the piers of New York City shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive” to find out the end of this story. It’s amazing to think about so much excitement for a book. (Actually I guess it sounds like the parties awaiting the arrival of the new Harry Potter novels.) I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about.

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a beautiful, sweet, and innocent girl named Nell and her grandfather. They live in the titled Old Curiosity Shop, but not for long. Grandfather has a gambling addiction. He wants to make money to ensure that Nell will not have a life of hardship, but instead he gambles away all of his money as well as extensive amounts of money that he has borrowed from the shady “dwarf,” Daniel Quilp. After losing it all, Little Nell and her Grandfather wander through England. The book is the story of their journey as well as of cast of other characters left in London such as Kip, their servant; Sampson and Sally Brass (Quilp’s lawyer and his sister); Richard Swiveller (Little Nell’s brother’s friend), and others.

I loved Dickens’ detailed characters. They were all so interesting – especially to see that the way people have not really changed over time. Gambling addiction is not a new problem. I do have a problem with his female characters, they seem rather one dimensional. Sally Brass is a smart woman that works at law with her brother; therefore she is a subject of ridicule. Little Nell is a bit “too perfect.” I didn’t love her as much as I think Dickens’ meant the reader too.

The treatment of servants in the book was also interesting. The “Marchioness” doesn’t have a name and lives locked in the Brass’ basement. She is hardly given any food and somehow exists like this. I found this more than a little disturbing!!!’’

I read a book-of-the-month club edition. It has the original illustrations, which I really enjoyed looking at while I read. I also loved the description on the right-hand page on top of the current action, such as “Bank-note gone.” One wonders if you can get a quick summary of the book by only reading the headers!

SPOILER ALERT. I did not like the entire ending chapter of Little Nell’s death. It was (dare I say it?) rather sappy actually. It would have been more striking to not go on and on and on about it and her angel spirit floating away and such. Also her death didn’t really seem to serve the story that well. She hadn’t been mentioned for 100 pages or so, while we were with Kit and the others in London.

Overall, I liked the book, its world, characters, and descriptions a lot. But I don’t think I would have been waiting at the pier to find out what happened to Little Nell. This was a good Dickens novel, but not as good as my favorites (David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities).

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