Monday, January 17, 2011

A Girl and Her Grandfather

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop 

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.(From the author's introduction)

Following the publication of Nicholas Nickleby Charles Dickens started a new publication called Master Humphrey's Clock that was to be a miscellany of selections by various writers including Dickens himself. One of the first short pieces was The Old Curiosity Shop, a Tale of Master Humphrey, but when the public demanded another novel Dickens expanded his concept for this story into his next novel.

The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a young girl, Nell and her Grandfather. Nell is one of Dickens young girls who are beautiful and, in this case, possesses a certain strength. Her Grandfather is addicted to gambling and seems to need the care of Nell more than she needs his care. Her innocence holds some appeal but I have found her appeal is limited and insufficient to hold my interest. Early in the story Nell and her Grandfather leave London due to his indebtedness to an evil dwarf named Daniel Quilp. If this brief outline suggests the melodramatic it is not far from it. The interest of the reader is maintained primarily through Dickens ability to create fascinating evil characters in Quilp and Nell's brother Fred. Quilp seems to be almost satanic in the way his character and physical appearance are described when he is introduced in chapters three and four. Later he is described as engaging in a "demon dance" (p. 170) and when he tells Mrs. Nubbles that he "doesn't eat babies" neither she nor you as the reader are sure that he is telling the truth, although he may prefer to just torment characters rather than actually eat them.

Dickens is effective in creating a mood and establishing contrasting themes of dark and light, night and day, old and young, city and country, big and small and cleanliness and filth; fundamentally depicting a battle between good and evil. Rather than creating another novel that indites social evils like Oliver Twist or Nicholas, Dickens uses biblical allusions and references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to establish the story of Nell and her Grandfather as, at least partly, an allegorical tale. Over the next two weeks I will find out what fate holds for this duo and where their peregrinations through the countryside lead them.

Dickens finished writing The Old Curiosity Shop at 4 a.m. on January 17, 1841. The story had been in serialization for ten months, and Dickens had been in torment over the planned ending, unable to bring himself or his characters to face the death of his heroine, the all-sacrificing Little Nell:
"I tremble to approach the place a great deal more than Kit; a great deal more than Mr. Garland; a great deal more than the Single Gentleman....  I am slowly murdering that poor child.  It wrings my heart. Yet it must be."
Having lived with Nell, serially speaking, for so long, his readers must have felt the same dread, and in the preceding months they had written to Dickens by the hundreds to ask that Nell be spared. But the legendary testimonials of anguish — for example, the American readers who anxiously shouted "Is Nell dead?" to the steamer captain delivering the fateful last installment to the New York docks — are matched by the scoffs at Dickensian sentimentality. Most famous of the latter is Oscar Wilde's "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." A third category of reader, among them the postmaster of the real village at which the fictitious Nell was supposed to have died, saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. He managed to organize a hoax which was so convincing — details included a faked burial entry in the local church records — that many literary travelers paid to visit Nell's 'grave' in Tong, Shropshire. As in many other tales of this sort, the gullible literary traveler is usually described as an American, arriving with their copies of the book, or china figurines of Nell. The village of Tong still maintains the story of Nell's death, and tends her grave site.

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