I have difficulty talking about The Old Curiosity Shop. This is my third attempt at writing a review for it. It’s one of my least favourite Dickens novels, and that ought to make it an easy topic for review, because I find criticism easier to write than praise. The thing is, it’s still Dickens. Somehow, it still turns over in the back of the mind months after reading, when it ought to have been displaced by the far more enjoyable books read since.
And I can’t attribute that lingering quality to its complexity, because it has all the subtlety of a piano falling from the sky. Nor to its emotional effect, since in that regard, Oscar Wilde’s famous put-down hit the mark. So why is it still hanging around, taking up valuable grey matter real estate? Perhaps for the same reason that a crappy film I saw fifteen years ago still bounces around my brain sometimes when I can’t remember the plot of my favourite television show season-to-season: Truths don’t always have to be well-expressed in order to stick.
The emotional heart of The Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens working out, in its rawest public form, his grief over the loss of his sister-in-law and his unresolved feelings for her. It’s a loss that snuck into the endings of a couple of his previous works, but it dominates the stage in this one. The end result is about a greater loss, though. Dickens is very preoccupied with innocence, with feminine purity and passivity, but when that innocence is the thing that you fall in love with, death is the only way the love can survive. Such a state of arrested development can only persist in memory; the Little Nells and, mayhap, the Mary Hogarths of the world cannot survive contact with the adult world without blossoming into something beyond the realm of Dickens’s idolisation. And so, they cannot survive.
Quilp is an interesting figure in regards to this because, although he is clearly presented as the villain of the piece, the revulsion with which he is presented and received seems out of proportion to the scale of his actual misdeeds. He’s written like a creature out of fable, and from everyone from his wife to his lawyer he receives the kind of horrified reverence due to the demonic; at the same time, for one so homely and misshapen, he is oddly eroticised, with his wife even in the midst of his abuses describing him as one no woman would find easy to resist. Given one of his first interactions with Nell is to eye her up as the next Mrs. Quilp when she comes of age, his relationship with her also seems sexualised despite the lack of intimate contact. In some ways, perhaps, Quilp may be Dickens’s own personal exorcism of the demons which drove him to foster such feelings for his wife’s sister, and the inability to grow beyond such infatuation when its object was preserved in the perfect stasis of death.
Although the novel operates primarily on a very personal level, it would be unlike Dickens not to have a political angle and a sprawling cast of secondary characters, many of whom are more compelling than the main protagonists. In The Old Curiosity Shop he goes on a bit of an anti-industrialist bent, with Nell and her grandfather’s joy fluctuating in response to the urbanity of their surroundings, reaching its nadir when they are in a hellhole of the industrial Midlands and its zenith when they are ambling without direction through a series of countryside adventures straight out of a picaresque.
Characters introduced for comic relief often end up being some of Dickens’s most compelling; in this novel, I was far more charmed by the entire story of Kit and his family and career than I was by the sweetness of Little Nell. Dick Swiveller didn’t quite charm me as he did many readers, but he does show some of the greatest growth as a human being, and the woman whom he eventually marries proves an interesting mirror to Nell: Where Nell’s saccharine innocence is incompatible with adult life, Sophronia is allowed to grow beyond it into a fully realised woman.
I don’t know that I will ever reread The Old Curiosity Shop. I expect that if I did, I might find it insufferable. It does mark a fascinating, if not always enjoyable, point in the journey through Dickens’s novels and his life, though.