The Old Curiosity Shop - Published in weekly parts Apr 1840 - Feb 1841
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Illustrated by George Cattermole and Phiz, with a single illustration each from Samuel Williams and Daniel Maclise. This installment novel, published in Master Humphries Clock, was so popular that its weekly sales rose to a hundred thousand. It tells the story of Nelly Trent and her grandfather as they wander the English countryside, north of London, trying to evade Daniel Quilp, probably Dickens' most evil villain. Nell's grandfather has borrowed money from Quilp to support a gambling habit and has lost everything, including the curiosity shop. As the conclusion of the story neared Nell is exhausted from the travel and lack of food. Dickens was inundated with letters begging him to spare Nell's life. With the last installment arriving by ship, crowds in New York shouted from the pier "Is Little Nell dead?"
| Principal Characters:
Character descriptions contain spoilers
Codlin and Short
The Single Gentleman
| Old Curiosity Shop Links:|
The Dickens Page
The Victorian Web
Herb Moskovitz's excellent article Punch and Dickens
Pain no longer?
The inspiration for Nell is believed to be Dickens' sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. Dickens was devoted to his wife's younger sister and when she died suddenly in 1837 at the age of 17 he was devastated. He took a ring from Mary's finger and wore it the rest of his life, he also said that he wanted to be buried in the same grave as Mary.
However, several passages in The Old Curiosity Shop perhaps reveal a coming-to-terms with the loss of Mary 3 years earlier. In chapter 17 the old woman visiting the grave of her husband who died a young man tells Nell that early in her grief she came there to cry and mourn and hoped to die too but that now it is "pain no longer, but a solemn pleasure" to visit the grave.
In chapter 26, as Nell is visiting the graves of children in the churchyard, the narrator says that she did not sufficiently consider to what a bright and happy existence those who die young are borne, and how in death they lose the pain of seeing others die around them.
In chapter 54, as Nell laments the uncared-for graves in the churchyard, the sexton tells her that at first the graves are tended every day by "tender, loving friends" but later the tending falls to once a week, then once a month, and later not at all. As Nell says she grieves to hear it, the old man says that on the contrary, he takes it as a good sign for the happiness of the living.
Later in chapter 54 Nell is speaking with the schoolmaster in the neglected churchyard and says she "grieves to think that those who die about us are so soon forgotten" he tells her that the unvisited graves are the inspiration of good actions and good thoughts of those who remember the dead and have chosen to go on living.
Deathbed of Little Nell
Dickens' instructions to George Cattermole for the illustration The Death-Bed of Little Nell:
"The child lying dead in the little sleeping room, which is behind the open screen. It is winter-time, so there are no flowers; but upon her breast and pillow, and about her bed, there may be strips of holly and berries, and such free green things. Window overgrown with ivy. The little boy who had that talk with her about angels may be by the bedside, if you like it so; but I think it will be quieter and more peaceful if she is alone. I want it to express the most beautiful repose and tranquility, and to have something of a happy look, if death can...I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it."
Dickens describes the scenery along the road Nell and her grandfather take on their way out of London.
Damp rotten houses, many to let, many yet building, many half-built and mouldering away- lodgings, where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take-children, scantily fed and clothed, spread over every street, and sprawling in the dust- scolding mothers, stamping their slipshod feet with noisy threats upon the pavement-shabby fathers, hurrying with dispirited looks to the occupation which brought them 'daily bread' and little more-mangling-women, washer-women, cobblers, tailors, chandlers, driving their trades in parlours and kitchens and back room and garrets, and sometimes all of them under the same roof-brick-fields skirting gardens paled with staves of old casks, or timber pillaged from houses burnt down, and blackened and blistered by the flames-mounds of dock-weed, nettles, coarse grass and oyster-shells, heaped in rank confusion-small dissenting chapels to teach, with no lack of illustration, the miseries of Earth, and plenty of new churches, erected with a little superfluous wealth, to show the way to Heaven.
At length these streets becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small 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 toad-stools and tight-sticking snails. To these succeeded pert cottages, two and two with plots of ground in front, laid out in angular beds with stiff box borders and narrow paths between, where footstep never strayed to make the gravel rough.
Then came the public-house, freshly painted in green and white, with tea-gardens and a bowling green, spurning its old neighbour with the horse-trough where the waggons stopped; then, fields; and then, some houses, one by one, of goodly size with lawns, some even with a lodge where dwelt a porter and his wife. Then came a turnpike; then fields again with trees and hay-stacks; then, a hill, and on the top of that, the traveller might stop, and-looking back at old 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.
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