A ripping yarn from Dickens

Victorian drawing of the cluttered old curiosity shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to settle down with a novel by Charles Dickens every couple of years. I find his sprawling, fantastic tales a comfort, particularly when life is unsettled. His villains are awful, his heroes virtuous, and his complicated plots fun to unravel. You also get a vivid sense of life at another time, however cartoonish he can sometimes make it.

The Old Curiosity Shop has largely been forgotten now, but it was hugely popular when it was first published in Dickens’ weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, from 1840 to 1841. The book begins with a first person narrator describing how he meets a lost girl, Nell Trent, as he walks the streets at night. He brings her back to the old curiosity shop in which she, an orphan, lives with her doting but daffy grandfather. For two more chapters, he learns more about this curious couple before abruptly saying, “And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.”

From here on, the novel is told in the third person, floating freely between different characters. The primary story concerns Nell and her grandfather’s flight from London through areas that vary from darkly industrial to pastoral. Christopher Nubbles (“Kit”), who is Nell’s loyal servant, has his own troubles back in London as he worries over Nell’s fate. Both their hardships are orchestrated by the maliciously evil Daniel Quip, who is a somewhat painful caricature to the modern eye. The most interesting character in the book is probably Dick Swiveller, a friend of Nell’s older brother, who undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel to become an unlikely hero.

Along the way, there are numerous minor characters, such as Quilp’s grovelling attorney and his hard-hearted sister, along with their servant, who plays a key role in unraveling their nefarious plans. Nell and her grandfather run into a diverse cast that includes industrial workers, puppeteers, professional gamblers, the owner of a wax museum, and a compassionate schoolmaster who tries to rescue them.

This is a fairly early Dickens book that lacks some of the depth of his later novels, but he interweaves the numerous story lines deftly and keeps the plots chugging along like a network of well-oiled trains. The underside of capitalism and industrialization are vividly exposed, as is the maltreatment of children in England at the time.

The novel tends to be a little too sentimental, even for my romantic tastes, with Nell and Kit laughably innocent and virtuous and Quilp stunningly malicious, to the extent that he regularly beats the figurehead of an old ship he’s salvaged with a poker because he thinks it looks like Kit. While I wouldn’t say this is one of Dicken’s best novels, it’s fast and easy to read and, ultimately, a fun and satisfying yarn.