Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Michael5000 vs. Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop

2012 Assessment: “I haven't read it. The title made me think maybe I had, but I was thinking of the rag and bone shop from Bleak House.”

Current Reading: I listened to a version from Naxos AudioBooks.

The biggest disappointment of The Old Curiosity Shop is that it has so very little to do with an old curiosity shop. This is simply not plain dealing. Using such a title lays out the promise that we readers will get to spend time lurking among oddities and knick-knacks considered quaint and queer even by people of the Victorian age, with all its massive trade surplus of old curiosities. But no, the shop in question is simply a location where things happen to happen (as it were) in the first few chapters, and for all the descriptions we are given it might as well be an old law office, or an old inn, or an old marine chandler’s shop, to choose three examples of businesses that Dickens made come to life far more vividly than he did this one.

Now, it may well be that Dickens’s original plan was more old-curiosity focused than the novel that actually got written. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Like many novels of the day, this one was originally published as a serial. Unlike most of them – at least unlike most of them that are still read today, anyway – Old Curiosity Shop shows clear evidence of major rethinking after the first bits were already in print. The first few chapters are told in first person by a narrator who meets a charming young girl in the street and helps her find her way home to – wait for it! – an old curiosity shop, where she lives with her grandfather. While he’s there, they receive colorful visitors, and Dickens starts to have trouble figuring out where to put his narrator while he’s overhearing all of the plot-laden conversations. Eventually, he gives up, and the narrator says something like “look, I’m just going to tell the rest of this story in third person,” then vanishes without a trace. It’s quite something.

So, it’s not at all unlikely that there is an unwritten novel here in which the narrator character stuck around and became significant, and much was made of the old curiosity shop and its old curios. But it probably isn’t a very good unwritten novel, or else Dickens wouldn’t have gone through the embarrassment of abandoning it so conspicuously.

The charming young girl, by the by, is the famous Little Nell, and you might have two notions about her. One is the crowds who gathered on the pier in the United States, begging people arriving from across the Atlantic to tell them whether Little Nell survived. This is a great story, but common sense warns us to be suspicious of the scale of the phenomenon. The second is Oscar Wilde’s quip that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter.” This is a great line, but a bit vague in its application, since Little Nell dies offstage. Certainly, most modern readers will, I think, find Little Nell a fairly insubstantial fluff of virtue, sympathize with Wilde, and wonder why the Americans were so invested in her survival. For myself, I only felt that she went from remarkably robust pluck to feeble ill-health with surprisingly little transition, although I might be wrong about this. Missing key transitions is a constant risk when you read by ear.

Plot: Nell is in the care of her grandfather, who is in the grips of gambling addiction. When he can not pay back the money he has borrowed from an evil dwarf – you heard me, an evil dwarf – he and Nell take to the road for a new life of privation and grinding poverty. A variety of secondary characters begin looking for the vagabonds for a variety of reasons, scheming with and against each other for comic and tragic effect. A young wastrel named Dick Swiveler and a waif he calls The Marchioness form an unlikely relationship that is nevertheless rather charming. But meanwhile, Nell’s health takes a sudden turn for the worse.

Prognosis: Although it is not as episodic as some of the Dickens novels, I found that Old Curiosity Shop had sections and scenes that I found effective and entertaining, and others that bored me to tears. This was, for instance, the alternative means I found for shedding tears over Little Nell’s unfortunate exit. I don’t think we’d be reading this book today if its author hadn’t written his masterpieces. But if we happened on it by chance in that alternative universe, we might still decide it was “neglected.”

Second Opinion: In a 2011 Guardian poll, 1.2% of respondents listed The Old Curiosity Shop as their favorite Dickens novel, putting it third-to-last ahead of only Martin Chuzzlewit and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 12/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels. On deck are Oliver Twist, Little Dorritt, and the Mystery of E


UnwiseOwl said...

Non art-tournament content!
I am so excited!

Michael5000 said...

Well, you know, Dickens...