Week 4 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop.
Wow! I almost didn’t make my reading for the week. To be 100% honest with you, I got distracted by other books (The Turn of the Screw and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both stories that Dickens would certainly approve of!) and by our Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations.
Also, keeping up with this honesty, the parts with Little Nell and her grandfather can be quite boring. As with the first time I read this novel, I find myself far more drawn to the adventures of Dick Swiveller, Master Quilp, and Kit.
But this week it really struck me how masculine this novel is and how threatening the world Dickens is painting in this novel is for women.
Now, I often hear a lot of criticism of how Dickens was very sexist and yes, he was, but it was the 19th century so I think people shouldn’t read Dickens and expect to find feminist icons. I mean that would be awesome, but unrealistic.
Dickens was concerned with showing the people of his time what the world outside of the comfort of their homes was. He began his career as a journalist and it is easy to see how he had an interest in showing the truth of what he saw, even within the imagined London of his creation.
In this sense, I think the representation of characters like Nancy in Oliver Twist and Mrs. Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop are extremely important. They aren’t feminist icons, not really, but they are *real*, their stories are real. Dickens saw many battered wives in his walks and saw how his society treated women, and thus that is what he wrote about.
He received a lot of criticism about Nancy, with contemporaries telling him that no one could love a man like Sikes and that just wasn’t real. But Dickens was right to respond that yes, indeed, that does happen and he was writing to show the world that there are plenty of Nancys and Sikes out there, there’s darkness in the world. But there is also light, and that is why Nancy has a huge part in Oliver’s happy ending.
Honestly, it is why I love Dickens so much.
In the case of Nell and Mrs Quilp, they are both terribly mistreated by the society in which they live. They are treated like property with people discussing their fates as if their opinions didn’t matter (and to them, it doesn’t matter how they felt or what they thought).
Quilp, Swiveller, Fred, and even the grandfather, all of them abuse Little Nell in one way or another and try to decide her fate. Quilp is the obvious bad guy so we are not surprised in that he wants to consume Nell, quite literally. Swiveller is being manipulated, but once he knows he will inherit everything he thinks the grandfather has, he doesn’t even stop and think about how Nell would feel if she learned about his plans of marrying her for money. Fred is the worst brother ever and the grandfather is definitely very comfortable with Nell as his caretaker. She is basically his wife.
Kit is a very interesting case because he also desires Little Nell, his mother even jokes that he is in love with her, and wants her to move in with him. He is so disappointed when she doesn’t. I get that he loves her but no one really thinks much about what Nell feels. I think only Master Humphrey, when he was around, actually cared about her.
What Dickens is creating here, is not only a world that is very cruel to children (much like the world in Oliver Twist and most of his novels), but also telling us about a world that is really cruel to women.
Even when they want to help each other, like Mrs. Quilp who wants to help Little Nell, they cannot because their space is violated by the men around them. Poor Mrs. Quilp is definitely someone that deserves our pity and I find it interesting how Mrs. Jiniwin (her mother) lives with her and tells her she should stand up to Quilp. She never quite tells her to leave him and we know that she wouldn’t really be safe if she did. Moreover, Quilp also manipulates her and it’s like Dickens making fun of his critics, of people telling him that they should just have them leave. Mrs Jiniwin talks a whole lot about how she ruled over her husband, but Quilp definitely controls her and you can see how, by constantly telling her daughter how she should behave, she is also a bit like Quilp.
And then, we learn that Fred Trent was also one of Mrs. Quilp’s intendeds. Poor girl! What luck! I am pretty sure she had no say in the matter. I cannot remember what happens to Mrs Quilp but I’ll keep my eyes open this time around.
I have been trying to formulate a clearer argument this week but I just have these thoughts. I keep thinking about all the masculinity in the novel and how invasive and corruptive it feels for the female characters, especially for Nell.
Dickens was also terrible to women even though he learned in later life, probably because he had daughters. He married his wife believing in the ideal Victorian woman, the “angel of the house” it was called (keeper of house, mother of many children, caretaker, overall innocent and lovely) and he left her when he discovered he wasn’t really into that. He was awful to his wife when he asked her to leave the house and stay away from their children when he met a much younger woman. However, he did advocate for women’s rights, tried to help prostitutes and women who couldn’t find employment as well as women in workhouses who were separated from their children. He also fell in love with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, mostly because she was very strong-willed, independent, and clever. Dickens admired her and it’s why we get characters like Estella in Great Expectations and Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend who are a separation from that ideal woman represented in characters such as Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit and even Little Nell (they are always very childish and definitely have no sexuality).
Dickens’s own daughter had a hand in how he saw women later in life too. Kate Dickens, his favorite daughter, was clearly a feminist and a wonderful person with a very strong character (like her father’s). Just last year I read Charles Dickens’s Favorite Daughter: the Life, Loves, and Art of Katey Dickens Perugine and, if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It is a very captivating tale about the Dickens family as seen through Kate’s life. Dickens is obviously a big presence in the novel and you get to learn a lot about him as a father and family man, but the story is Kate’s and she lived a very interesting life that reveals a lot about the changes of the late Victorian period.
Lucinda Hawksley, one of Dickens’s descendants, writes about a time in which Kate apologizes about her father’s depiction of women but also defends him:
‘he was a very young man when he began to write with no doubt a sincere admiration for the young women of his generation which indisposed him from any dissection of their characters for the benefit of an inquisitive public’ (Hawksley 357)
When I read his works, I do feel the “sincere admiration” for some of his female cast, for Nancy, for example, and definitely for Little Nell. I also truly believe he improves as he grows older and his later novels have significantly better and more rounded female characters, but they are not often the main ones and that’s alright.
I’ll keep my eyes open for more female characters and their development in this story. I am very interested in the Marchioness and I hope I can write about her story soon.
Hope my ramblings made some sense! Thank you for reading!
May we meet again!