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The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is the third book I’ve read by this author. I didn’t like the story or characters as much as Great Expectations, but I enjoyed it better than Hard Times.

The Old Curiosity Shop is a long story but I found it to be a comfortable read because the chapters are short and full of action. My edition also contained so many illustrations by George Cattermole and Phiz that I got through this book much faster than I originally expected to.

The Old Curiosity Shop follows various groups of characters who revolve around Little Nell, an angelically beautiful child who lives with her elderly grandfather in his curiosity shop in London. Nell’s grandfather is a gambling addict who is convinced he will win Nell a fortune, but instead he loses their home to the worst of the bad characters in this book, a vicious and greedy dwarf named Quilp. After becoming homeless Nell and her grandfather leave London on foot to escape Quilp and several other characters who are convinced that Nell’s grandfather still has more money secreted away.

Nell and her grandfathers fell in with various characters as they journeyed around the countryside including a pair of puppeteers who make their living from Punch and Judy shows, a kindly old woman who owned a travelling waxworks show and a kindly schoolmaster. They would have stayed longer with some of the people they met, however Nell’s grandfather’s gambling caused Nell to force their departure, while with another group, their whereabouts were revealed to Quilp and they hurriedly left before he could find them.

Eventually Nell and her grandfather found a safe haven, although by this time Nell’s health had been ruined trying to protect her grandfather and keep him safe. During my research I learned that this story was originally told in installments and in New York, crowds surged the wharves in 1841 to learn if Little Nell had lived or died.

The other characters are a mixture of the best and worst of human nature. Kit, a serving boy who had worked for Nell’s grandfather in London, was amongst the best of characters. He was kind and honourable, a loving, generous son to his widowed mother and a good friend to Nell and her grandfather. The nastier characters included Quilp’s fawning solicitor, Sampson Brass and his sister, Sally, who falsely accused Kit of stealing so Quilp could have his revenge on the boy. Kit was almost transported to Australia for a crime he did not commit, but luckily, other characters were able to expose the truth before this happened.

Although Nell was the central character, her actual character was probably the least interesting or realistic in the whole book. She was portrayed as beautiful, sweet-tempered and selfless but there was no depth to her character. To me she seemed to be a symbol or a flag that the other characters fought for.

I’ve enjoyed the fantastically descriptive names Charles Dickens has given his characters in each of his books which I’ve read. My favourite character (and name) in The Old Curiosity Shop was Richard Swiveller. His name and character matched in that he was sometimes good and sometimes bad although never wicked, good-humoured, rather lazy and looking for an easy fortune rather than one he had to work for. Swiveller generally meant well and behaved well so long as doing so didn’t inconvenience him, although eventually he acted as the hero to help Kit out of his predicament.

The copy I read was second-hand and I wasn’t very far into the book when I saw that the previous reader had underlined certain sections and written notes in the pages. I was horribly disappointed by not being able to read their writing! For example, the section saying that Swiveller was a member of the Lodge of Glorious Apollos was underlined with a comment that I couldn’t read. Why? Was it something to do with the fact that Swiveller would eventually become Kit’s saviour? Was the previous reader studying the book and if so, what were they looking for? I wish I knew.

There is plenty of humour in this story, but I didn’t find myself laughing aloud the way I did when I read Great Expectations.

I suppose a Dickens’ story wouldn’t be one without drama and moral lessons, in this case gambling, which is still a massive problem for society. I appreciated that The Old Curiosity Shop showed that gambling also affects the gambler’s families.

The Old Curiosity Shop was book twenty two in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

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