Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
by Michael Peverett
The Old Curiosity Shop and King Lear
“The old gentleman again!” he would exclaim, “a very prepossessing old gentleman, Mr. Richard – charming countenance, sir – extremely calm – benevolence in every feature, sir. He quite realises my idea of King Lear, as he appeared when in possession of his kingdom, Mr. Richard – the same good humour, the same white hair and partial baldness, the same liability to be imposed upon. Ah! A sweet subject for contemplation, sir, very sweet!” (Ch LVII)
This is Sampson Brass speaking to Dick Swiveller. Sampson is at a very early and tentative – indeed nervous – stage in complying with Quilp’s instructions to dispose of Kit. Old Mr Garland as Lear is the same kind of gloriously not-quite-right rhapsody that, soon afterwards, has him saying of the pony “He literally looks as if he had been varnished all over”. Sampson's speech also exemplifies something rather frequent in The Old Curiosity Shop; words that seem to have one intention about one thing but really and semi-ambiguously are concerned with a different matter altogether. For obvious examples one might note nearly everything that the parties say to each other during, and on the day after, the trip to Astley’s: especially Barbara. Or the narrator’s refusal to tell us in plain words that Nell’s health is failing when that's just what he is insistently suggesting. We describe the nature of this duplicitous talk in various ways according to the circumstances: delicacy, embarrassment, coyness, euphemism, playing with our emotions, cruelty, evasiveness, fraud, etc. But it’s when we don’t have a label ready to hand that things are most interesting.
Memories of Lear do huddle in the shadows of The Old Curiosity Shop. When the Victorian public sent agonized letters to the author imploring him to spare Little Nell, they were registering something like Samuel Johnson’s shocked reaction to the death of Cordelia, the scene he could not endure to re-read until he edited the play. The long pages in which the author whispers to us of Nell’s decline (Chs LII-LV) have seemed to most later readers as dull a succession of chapters as you can easily find in Dickens; these were the pages, however, that troubled generous hearts and drove up the circulation figures. (Edgar Allen Poe’s review gives a good idea of their impact on contemporary readers. For him the outstanding figures in the book were Nell, her grandfather, the man by the furnace, and the sexton.)
The last scene of Lear is patently Dickens’ template for Nell’s grandfather in Ch LXXI: “’She used to feed them....’....Of the strangers he took no heed whatever.... It was her hand, he said – a little – a very, very little – but he was pretty sure she had moved it....’There was ever something mild and quiet about her...’...’You plot among you to wean my heart from her...’
But the most important parallel with Lear is the radical breakdown of a unified narrative when Nell and her grandfather desert London (end of Ch XII). The heroine thus becomes isolated from further plot-development, just as Lear does when he makes for the heath (end of Act II). Each of them, once homeless, enters a different space, closely allied to insanity and already premonitory of death, a space in which the fundamental terms of existence become a prominent theme. It may perhaps be said that in each case the hero/heroine has forestalled the final chapter by leaving the party early. Whatever happens to them from this point already carries the burden of threnody; they can go on, but they can never go back. And in each case I think the audience stirs uneasily; something of dramatic tension is given up. On the other hand, the seriousness of the work (in potential, at any rate) is cranked up several notches.
Nell and her grandfather, therefore, spend a large part of the novel in the comparatively timeless space that is usually only opened up in Chapter the Last. When The Old Curiosity Shop’s own Chapter the Last finally arrives, it contains a few surprises. The vaguely positive pantomime energies of the villainous Quilp are eventually developed into his boy Tom Scott’s career as a tumbler with an Italian name. Then there are these:
two wretched people were more than once observed to crawl at dusk from the inmost recesses of St. Giles’s, and to take their way along the streets, with shuffling steps and cowering shivering forms, looking into the roads and kennels as they went in search of refuse food or disregarded offal. These forms were never beheld but in those nights of cold and gloom, when the terrible spectres, who lie at all other times in the obscene hiding-places of London, in archways, dark vaults and cellars, venture to creep into the streets; the embodied spirits of Disease, and Vice, and Famine.
These houseless wretches, so like and yet (by sheer authorial manipulation) so extremely unlike Nell and her grandfather, are the Brasses.
The final image of the book is also unexpected:
He [Kit] sometimes took them [his children] to the street where she had lived; but new improvements had altered it so much, it was not like the same. The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place. At first he would draw with his stick a square upon the ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon became uncertain of the spot, and could only say it was thereabouts, he thought, and that these alterations were confusing.
Kit’s pettish vagueness is very unlike the personality we have seen in the rest of the novel. It suggests that the alterations are not to the street alone, and disquietingly enacts the sexton’s account of how graves cease to be tended, and Nell’s grief “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten” (Ch LIV). On that occasion the schoolmaster persuades her that “There is nothing, no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten”; its “blessed work” persists. At the end of the book Dickens finally seems prepared to lay that thought aside.
The accidental novel
Improvisation plays a fairly generous part in all Dickens’ early novels, but
The Old Curiosity Shop is often thought of as the most extreme instance, since Dickens was already engaged on it (as a fairly low-key amusement in a miscellany called Master Humphrey’s Clock) when he was forced to re-envisage it as a novel. Dickens’ initial conception was no doubt vague but must have been a sentimental narrative based around the child, perhaps not unlike his later Christmas Book, The Battle of Life (1846). The novel was thus already embarked on and committed to certain lines of development before there was any plan of a narrative sufficient to fill the pages.
This workroom view supplies some useful insights but is ultimately misleading. One obvious way of elongating a narrative that had got itself started without a plan was to disembarrass it of continuous plot and to restructure it along picaresque lines, and that may be why Dickens thought of sending his heroine on her travels (and thus away from the titular shop where he had doubtless at first planned to keep her). However, that still left some London-based characters who were plainly born to plotting and subterfuge, and who now found themselves scrapping over an essentially empty pot. The fault-lines are apparent; Quilp’s malignity loses its object and has to be re-trained against Kit; Dick Swiveller’s character is steadily re-modelled as we go along. At its most distracted, this hand-to-mouth improvisation produces the idling of chapters XLVII-XLVIII, in which two minor characters (the single gentleman and Kit’s mother) fail to spark each other into life during a journey that leads to no result whatever.
Improvisation also seems like quite a good explanation for the deep and inchoate material that the book liberates but does not master in a rational way; for the disengagement of the surface business of the book from centres of interest that are barely at the level of consciousness; for our recurrent sense that the characters in the book (magnificent as they may be) are, like characters in a dream, inconstantly symbolic of other things and of each other.
But it’s misleading, I think, if we then assume that Dickens never got his head right about the novel and just made a game play of the hand he’d unintentionally dealt himself, the result a novel that is still amazingly good in a patchily-inspired early-Dickens kind of way but undeniably rather a mess. It seems clear, on the contrary, that the author got serious about what he was doing at quite an early stage. “The difficulty has been tremendous – the anguish unspeakable,” he wrote to Forster. He was not talking about pulling the plot back on course (and in fact, as is apparent, he did not work very hard at that), but about a project he had become profoundly immersed in, particularly with regard to Nell. The “difficulty” implies a deeply-nurtured objective, though the “anguish” is the author’s own grief about young and innocent death, not any particular anguish of technical realisation. But his own strong feeling is, I suppose, conceived as instrumental in producing a feeling narrative.
This commitment to a definite and envisaged course must, I suggest, have come to birth very early indeed – perhaps around the time that Master Humphrey dismisses himself from the novel (end of Ch III). The next chapter already introduces Mrs Quilp, whose subsequent questioning of Nell (Ch VI) will cause the loans to dry up and precipitate the crisis that makes the old man and his grand-daughter run away. During that conversation the theme of Nell and her grandfather wandering “in the fields and among the green trees” is first introduced; what’s more, Nell associates it with the timeless country where her dead mother is said to have flown. In these same chapters Dickens begins to give casual indications of the season – early and fresh summer, with the trees in full leaf.
When Nell and her grandfather first talk about taking their chances in the open fields (Ch IX), this is Nell’s childish ideal and it has no meaning for her grandfather; he is still hoping to borrow more money, and besides it's not really a very sensible plan. The sensible solution that most penniless people would look for (to go and live for a while with a friend) is in fact proffered in Ch XI. There would be difficulties, no doubt (i.e. overcoming the grandfather’s distrust of Kit), but Dickens does not make clear that Nell would refuse. In the end it is the grandfather who precipitates their flight; he derangedly submits to her manifestly childish idea and the whole subject is so sacred to her that Kit’s alternative is never discussed. Both parties are already half-driven by a death-wish though neither foresees the harshness of their choice.
The wanderings are described in three groups of chapters; in between them the scene switches back to what the London crew are getting up to. The first phase is Chs XV-XIX (departure from London, Codlin and Short, the races). The second and longest phase is Chs XXIV-XXXII, describing the stay with the schoolmaster and then the time with Mrs Jarley; this is the most settled phase but it’s also when the grandfather’s re-exposure to gambling starts to sound ominously. The third phase (matching the first in length) is Chs XLII-XLVI; the flight from Jarley’s, the barge trip, the night by the furnace, the collapse and the schoolmaster’s apparent rescue. The last section assigned to Nell is the static and premonitory graveyard chapters mentioned earlier (Chs LII-LV). It’s clear that Dickens designed the architecture of all this very attentively.
Once roofless, seasons become critical. Dickens is very unemphatic but he has a good grasp of their passing, and as it happens they closely match the actual dates of serialisation, from April 1840 to February 1841. When Nell and her grandfather set off it is early summer (“June” – Ch XII), the time of full sunlight before waking, of country fairs and horse-races and flowers, the corn still green. It’s the perfect time of year for forgetting, at least for a while, that we can’t really live outside; the prospect of fair weather extends hopefully into so dim a distance. During their time with Mrs Jarley it’s high summer – close weather, a thunderstorm, the long tranquil evenings of following the sisters. By the time they depart there are indications of September – morning mist, and a day or so later (when the barge arrives in the industrial town) a long, cold rain. When Nell (after the schoolmaster has rescued them) is looking out from the church porch she looks at fallen leaves strewing the paths. She is autumnally gardening during the premonitory chapters, and thinking of spring. When Kit and the others travel west to find her already dead, it’s midwinter.
Ch XV begins with a description of leaving London in early morning; but “description” is an inadequate word for the astounding excitement of these fateful pages. They pass through the commercial districts and through wide tracts of populous poverty until
At length these streets, becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only garden patches bordering the road, with many a summer-house innocent of paint and built of old timber or some fragments of a boat, green as the tough cabbage-stalks that grew about it, and grottoed at the seams with toadstools and tight-sticking snails..... Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and haystacks; then a hill; and on the top of that the traveller might stop, and – looking back at Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud (if the day were clear), and glittering in the sun; and casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet – might feel at last that he was clear of London.
Near such a spot as this, and in a pleasant field, the old man and his little guide (if guide she were, who knew not whither they were bound) sat down to rest. She had had the precaution to furnish her basket with some slices of bread and meat, and here they made their frugal breakfast.
It’s a blissful spot. If we share with that generalised traveller who stands on the hill a shout of joy arising from the liberation of this comprehensive survey, we are suddenly reminded by that parenthesis in the second paragraph that our two wanderers are not in his case. They are not roaming for pleasure, they are never going back, and they’re not on their way to anywhere else in particular; Nell, as guide, is merely heading out. The strangeness of their situation comes back to us.
They are an odd and damaged pair, and the damage is best understood as referring to their lethal relationship rather than to the two of them separately. Nell’s grandfather is helpless without Nell, and he is helpless to Nell; in fact he shuts off any practical course of survival. At the very first labourer’s cottage they stop at (still in Ch XV) they are offered the chance to stay overnight, but the old man's fretfulness means they have to toil onward instead. Even during this first idyllic picnic, he soon becomes distressed:
“I can do nothing for myself, my darling,” said the grandfather, “I don’t know how it is, I could once, but the time’s gone. Don’t leave me, Nell; say that thou’lt not leave me. I loved thee all the while, indeed I did. If I lose thee too, my dear, I must die!”
The mechanism of the relationship couldn’t be clearer. He has slipped into mental dependence on a child, and the child is helpless to resist his emotional demand. She cannot think beyond her duty; he would die! Her own existence becomes purely a carer’s, and revolves entirely around him. She can have no pleasures unrelated to him – that is, no normal pleasures (she just sleeps through the Punch and Judy show). At the public-house the landlady is kindly to her, but
As nothing could induce the child to leave him alone, however, or to touch anything in which he was not the first and greatest sharer, the old lady was obliged to help him first.
To call Nell idealised or lacking in personality is to miss the point. She cannot possibly help behaving in an “ideal” way because the relationship has steadily developed along lines that force her to do this. It’s impossible to speculate how she might “naturally” behave without the constraint of this relationship, which is lodged so deeply that she only exists within it. The frequency of early mortality in Dickens’ time is often mentioned in connexion with The Old Curiosity Shop – the frequency of juvenile self-sacrifice is just as relevant.
Dickens, therefore, takes us on a tour of England through the eyes of two wanderers who are incapable of engaging with it except in damaged and morbid ways. The picaresque momentum, the promise of action-filled episodes and inset narratives by people they run across, the promise which perhaps first led Dickens to send them forth on their wanderings, never in fact develops, because Nell isn’t interested.
The extremism of Nell’s viewpoint comes out during this very first stop. The pleasant field reminds her of a picture in the Pilgrim’s Progress, and she says:
“Dear grandfather... only that this place is prettier and great deal better than the real one, if that in the book is like it, I feel as if we were both Christian, and laid down on this grass all the cares and troubles we brought with us; never to take them up again.”
“No – never to return – never to return” – replied the old man...
(He appears to agree with her, but he isn’t really listening; each is locked in a separate though equally drastic view of their experience.) Nell does not see the place they’re in as different in kind from Christian’s allegorical vale; she sees it as precisely a place with that significance, and though noting that it is prettier and better, she does not understand sanely that this is because it has the reality of what we call an actual place; in fact she finds it less real than the place spoken of in the book, with its immense potency for spiritual resignation. In any landscape her eye only quickens at portals to the world in which her imagination lives: graveyards and death-beds above all. She doesn’t know she is doing this to herself; her eye registers an utter disengagement from the things that other people live for. It’s only as a carer for the dead that her life has a meaningful role and she can enjoy a mournful companionship; it’s only in the environments of death that she becomes eager to learn something.
The novel’s account of their wanderings is therefore continuously duplicitous: it promises a wealth of participatory detail, and Dickens is always getting started on this as only he can, but in Nell’s story all local colour is a dream in which she cannot involve herself.
The dancing-dogs, the stilts, the little lady and the tall man, and all the other attractions, with organs out of number and bands innumerable, emerged from the holes and corners in which they had passed the night, and flourished boldly in the sun.
Dickens could give way to the delights of race-day, as to the delights of Astley’s, but a sombre and highly judgmental undertone is lurking here. Nell's presence constrains him from quite giving way even to Mrs Jarley’s view of her wax-work, and we end up not quite disbelieving in her lowness of spirits. Nell (“frightened and repelled by all she saw”) automatically turns race-day into a test that is pre-determined to fail; she plucks her humble nosegays not in the practical hope of earning some money but as a pitiful cry for attention, which only other unhappy people (like the ruined lady in the carriage) can interpret.
Many a time they went up and down those long, long lines, seeing everything but the horses and the race; when the bell rang to clear the course, going back to rest among the carts and donkeys, and not coming out again until the heat was over.
This in fact gives a true sense of how huge entertainments are experienced in a filtered way, and not only by Nell; none of the stallholders would get to see much horse-racing. The narrator abdicates his position as master of ceremonies. Nell’s viewpoint is therefore challenging, since she shares an unillusioned point of view with anyone else whose daily agenda is merely to keep head above water. Also, we see how Nell’s frail nosegays are, for us and the visitors, just another detail in the agreeable local colour.
Nell as action hero
It is not to be supposed that a child who so greatly values seclusion, humility and meditation will undertake such actions as to get her involved in the world around her. But she does have great power.
The child sat silently beneath a tree, hushed in her very breath by the stillness of the night, and all its attendant wonders [nb the stars]. The time and place awoke reflection, and she thought with a quiet hope – less hope, perhaps, than resignation – on the past, and present, and what was yet before her. (Ch XLII)
The word “hope”, at first qualified by “quiet” and then progressively withdrawn, – because how would you think hopefully about the past, and how meagre is that expression for the future, “what was yet before her”? – emphasises the extent to which she has shut down. At the sound of the clock she goes home, and passing a gipsy encampment makes “a movement of timid curiosity”, the utmost she can stretch to, – the gipsies being at any rate not quite so occluded as Miss Monflathers and her like behind their gates. Then, realising her grandfather is by the fire, she creeps along the hedge to spy, in a carer’s sort of way.
In this way she advanced within a few feet of the fire, and standing among a few young trees, could both see and hear, without much danger of being observed.
Dickens suppresses the inevitable dogs in order to make it conceivable that Nell could execute this R L Stevenson kind of manoeuvre, and very agile she seems among the young trees: if she was a stayer-in at nights, this could hardly be expected, but then she might have had a support network, which would have been much more useful. As it is, her only (strong and impassioned) response to what she discovers here is to drag her grandfather away on a hopeless escape that can only end one way. And it does, of course, though the good fortune of meeting the schoolmaster delays it for a few months. It would be incorrect to say that she chooses her death, or that it’s a cry of rage or any kind of statement for the attention of the world she has been indifferent to. But she does make it happen.
1. In between the end of The Old Curiosity Shop and the beginning of Barnaby Rudge, Dickens briefly returned his readers to Master Humphrey and his companions. They voice some disquiet about why the “single gentleman” is never given a name. Master Humphrey has a surprise in store for us.
‘My friends... do you remember that this story bore another title besides that one we have so often heard of late?’
Mr. Miles had his pocket-book out in an instant, and referring to an entry therein, rejoined, ‘Certainly. Personal Adventures of Master Humphrey. Here it is. I made a note of it at the time.’
I was about to resume what I had to tell them, when the same Mr. Miles again interrupted me, observing that the narrative originated in a personal adventure of my own, and that was no doubt the reason for its being thus designated.
This led me to the point at once.
‘You will one and all forgive me,’ I returned, ‘if for the greater convenience of the story, and for its better introduction, that adventure was fictitious. I had my share, indeed, – no light or trivial one, – in the pages we have read, but it was not the share I feigned to have at first. The younger brother, the single gentleman, the nameless actor in this little drama, stands before you now.
The story is thus unexpectedly re-oriented into an account (characteristically cloaked) of “the chief sorrows of my life”. Poe complained that Master Humphrey and the single gentleman do not even look alike, and when The Old Curiosity Shop was published independently, this revelation was dropped.
Nevertheless, it’s an odd and beautiful idea. It must have arisen at the same time that Dickens was disentangling Master Humphrey from his narrative at the end of Ch III (though Humphrey’s sorrows are mentioned at the very start of Master Humphrey’s Clock). How, he no doubt asked himself, to account for this deeply interested party having no further involvement in Nell’s story; not being thought of, for instance, when Nell and her grandfather are desperately seeking an escape from their situation? Then he suddenly reviewed Master Humphrey’s presence in the curiosity shop and re-conceived it as a fiction within the fiction: a fiction of a kindly but helpless wraith who observes the other characters interacting, but to whom no-one says anything that tends to involve him in their affairs. And now we understand that the Master Humphrey who appeared as an old man alongside Nell’s grandfather was in fact an anachronism; these scenes took place twenty years formerly, when Master Humphrey was still in the full vigour of middle age; and when he was urgently searching for Nell but would never see her alive. What is also poignantly emphasised is the isolation of Nell from anyone who could have helped her: an isolation that she and her grandfather impose on themselves, but absolute nonetheless. The shrewd visitor who sees at once how much is amiss; who should be her salvation; proves to be merely a fictional “if-only” who expresses the unconsolable regret of another character in a later time.
2. In the days when people tried to draw maps of Little Nell’s Journey, it was agreed that she died in Tong (Shropshire) – a location later supplied by Dickens himself. The industrial town would probably have been Birmingham. The earlier part of their journey was thought to pass by Hampstead and across Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in the direction of Warwickshire. But in the account of the journey itself all place-names are pointedly absent.
from A Brief History of Western Culture