About Week 47: I which my reading awakened an academic interest

Week 3 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop

Little Nell and her grandfather had left the Curiosity Shop and are now running away from Quilp and from their past. They have escaped the city and are now wandering the country in a small pilgrimage with no planned destination.

I shall leave them there, however, enjoying the fresh air and will come back to them later. I too was out of my lodgings last week, which explains my very late post, but I am back now! I couldn’t read as much as I wanted to but my reading for last week awakened an academic interest of mine but I had never thought about it in the way I was.

Let me explain: when I was completing my Master’s Degree, I focused my thesis on Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. In particular, I discussed the symbiotic relationship houses seem to have with their female owners (the Clennam House with Mrs. Clennam and Satis House with Miss Havisham). Without going into too much detail that may spoil your reading of these novels, if you haven’t read them yet, both houses are intimately connected to their owners. Both Mrs. Clennam and her house are crippled and Satis House decays and Miss Havisham does. Ultimately, both owners and their property *fall* together further highlighting that connection (you’ll have to read to find out).

I thought that this may be particular to Mrs. Clennam and Miss Havisham because of their arcs, but I’ve found this connection between house and owner very predominant in The Old Curiosity Shop and maybe I will find it as I continue my project.

Of course, in The Old Curiosity Shop the connection is not as marked but it does indicate that these homes are a reflection of their owners. This should be quite obvious, but I’ve just never seen this before (or maybe never noticed it) and it seems very Dickensian. Dickens would spend time describing where each of his character’s live. It’s why people call him wordy, but it’s just really relevant.

The Curiosity Shop itself is home to Little Nell and, without her and the objects that inhabit it (once Quilp gets a hold of it and gets rid of the curiosities) the shop looks “as dusty and dingy as if it had been so for months” and “a picture of cold desolation.” It even prompts the kids in the neighborhood to look around and see if they can see “the ghost” (Dickens 114). Basically, without Nell the shop becomes the neighborhood’s haunted house. It was already a bit creepy, thinking about these abandoned objects and the child living among them, but she was keeping it all alive and well and now that she is gone well… it’s just a haunted place.

And speaking of haunted houses…

I’ve already talked a bit about the fairytale-esque aspects of Quilp’s dwelling in Tower Hill with his pretty wife which is slightly different from Quilp’s wharf in that it’s not as dirty and dingy. This last one is very much like Quilp, it is dirty and old and it looks incredibly dangerous. The description only adds more to Quilp’s character by reminding us that it is  definitely a place we wouldn’t want to visit, as we definitely wouldn’t want to mess with Quilp.

In contrast to Quilp’s dwellings and the Curiosity Shop, both of which have a sort of sinister and darker aura, we have Dick Swiveller’s “rooms” and Kit’s home.

‘There are people who can be merry and can’t be wise, and some who can be wise (or think they can) and can’t be merry. I [says Dick] am one of the first sort’ (61)

Dick Swiveller’s house is definitely a show of his merriment and his capacity to see the best of everything. While it is only one tiny room, he calls it “his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers” (60) showing not only the power of language and fancy, but that he can turn a bad situation into something good by fancy or imagination (this will become important later) and it’s almost like the child’s play that is missing from Little Nell. As the narrator says, “to be the friend of Swiveller, you must reject all circumstantial evidence, all reason, observation, and experience, and repose a blind believe in the bookcase” (61). This “bookcase” is a piece of furniture in Dick’s home that acts as both bookcase and bed, but, in his fancy, Dick can see it only as a bookcase when it is a bookcase and only as a bed when it becomes a bed, even if there is evidence of it being both things. It is odd that Fred is his friend, but it is easy to see how, as the narrator tells us, his friends all take advantage of him. Dick Swiveller is innocent and playful and not only his way of speaking reveals this, his home does too.

Similarly, the little home of Nubbles’ family, where Kit lives with his mother and two siblings who are younger than he, is a warm space. I love how Dickens can describe this humble home as a comely place. It’s not that they shouldn’t be, it’s just striking because he often describes the slums and where the poor live as horrible places. And yet, there’s always light among the darkness and these are places like Kit’s house. Even the illustration evokes a happy place, a warm place, a comfortable place.

We would love it if Little Nell and her grandfather would join them in their homely bliss, that they would take the room Kit offered them and they would surely be happy there but, alas! then we wouldn’t have the adventures to come.

Of course, like Kit, we will wait and see if they will ever come back.

May we meet again!

A.

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Week 46: In which I consider the child

Week 2 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop.

The section I read for this week, comprising chapters 7 to the 13th, was a very emotionally charged moment in Little Nell’s story. She is definitely down on her luck now (terminology intended!) and about to lose it all.

We’ve finally discovered what Nell’s grandfather has been up to and he becomes a figure of pity. I do, however, have mixed feelings about him, which I think the narrator shares with me.

Master Humphrey looks disapprovingly at Nell’s grandfather because he does not let her be a child and play and because he leaves her alone at night and I tend to concur with his view.

However, in Chapter 9, we see a very pitiful figure asking Quil for mercy, asking him to consider the fate of “the Child,” Little Nell.

We find out that he has been gambling a lot of money, which he gets from Quilp, so that he can win a fortune for Nell, and he mentions how he is now due to win. It is definitely a shameful behavior but he says he is not as bad as the others he gambles with because he is doing it for Little Nell, not for his own gain. He became afraid of what would happen to him after his death and began gambling the little fortune he had yet, strangely, he didn’t sell any of the shop’s articles. Maybe he was attached to them, like Nell seems to be, or maybe he didn’t want to worry her.

Anyway, Little Nell tells him that she would rather be a beggar than to see him so stressed out, and they both seem to age faster after her grandfather makes that choice.

As a mother, I definitely understand that you try to do everything for your child, and sometimes you even consider doing things you wouldn’t be proud of, but he didn’t truly consider how gambling could end up leaving her worst off than how he started, which is what Quilp represents.

But I find this representation of Nell’s grandfather as very interesting because, knowing a bit about Dickens’s life, one learns about his own father being imprisoned for debt and how Dickens had to work to maintain his family. I think this representation is a good light to look at his own father, thinking that he was doing it for a good reason (for his children) instead of for selfish reasons, but we cannot he sure.

On a larger scale, he represents everything Dickens truly hated: whatever stops children from being children.

Allegorically, Nell’s grandfather represents a world of responsibility and hard labor. Nell has to live for his care and be responsible for him. She gets no wages and without him the alternative is submitting herself to either her brother (who wants to marry her off) or Quilp, a fate we wouldn’t wish on anyone. Truly, she is better a child than growing up for her prospects look bleak.

Her grandfather represents that cruel world that prevented a child from enjoying imaginative play and carelessness. She is being forced to grow up and that is killing her.

But what about you, dear reader, what did you make of Nelly’s grandfather? I’m curious to know so let me know in the comments!

May we meet again!

A.

PS: I’ve mentioned a lot how I think The Old Curiosity Shop is like a fairy tale for adults. One thing I find so fascinating is how Dickens, a man who excelled beyond measure at naming his characters, would not give a name to Nell’s grandfather.

Week 45: In which we meet Master Humphrey and then…

Week 1 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop. 

Wow! Don’t you just love it when a story just grips you and won’t let you go?

That’s what the opening chapters of Old Curiosity Shop have always done to me. I’ve often reread them, reveling in the effect they have on me. Is it the narrator? the intrusion into the mysterious life of the curiosity-dealer? the innocent child among the grotesque and decrepit objects in the shop? the fantastical characters we meet along the way?

For me, three things stand out in these seven opening chapters: Master Humphrey and his disappearance, the Old Curiosity Shop itself, and Daniel Quilp. Let’s delve into these:

***

Where else would we get a disappearing narrator than in a serialized novel?

Let me explain. I’ve always seen the change in Point of View as Master Humphrey’s disappearance just because it sounds more Dickensian but honestly, Dickens just wanted to change POV in his narrative but it was already out so what happens? Master Humphrey says the following:

And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves (Dickens 35)

Mind. Blown.

The first time I read this, I was in shock because I didn’t know this was possible. As a writer, we are always told POV is extremely important and we must chose the best voice to tell our story and then this happens. A narrator aware of his position as narrator decides, “oh shots! my bad! This story should be told from the third person”

This would never happen today (except maybe in comics) and it’s sad. It really makes me wish for serialized fiction.

To understand Master Humphrey (and his mysterious disappearance) we must think of the publishing story of Old Curiosity Shop.

First of all, it wasn’t intended as a novel. Dickens, tired of serializing two or three novels at a time in monthly installments, decided to open his own publication (Master Humphrey’s Clock) where he would have Master Humphrey, an old man with a walking problem, find papers with great stories written or meet strangers who would tell him stories, both of which were submitted by other authors. This way, Dickens would get a break.

Yeah, right.

People weren’t happy about this so sales dropped. They wanted the new Dickens novel! I would’ve too.

So he began The Old Curiosity Shop, which he wanted to publish sporadically and ended up serializing weekly. The characters took over and the sales went sky high. It ended up being one of his best novels.

So that is why Master Humphrey just disappears from our narrative. It just happened very organically. It is a display of an author’s writing process you don’t get to see after extensive editing. It really makes the story incredibly unique in my book

***

The Curiosity Shop itself is a wonderful place filled with remnants of past lives. It is a place full of untold stories and, most likely, magical objects. I am very attracted to it and wish to know more about it but its main function in the story is to contrast with the innocence of little Nell.

When we first meet her in the illustrations, she looks so tiny, and even oppressed, surrounded by all these objects. It’s a dark place but a very unique place and Master Humphrey remarks what Dickens tells us in his Preface

‘It would be a curious speculation,’ said I, after some restless turns across and across the room, ‘to imagine her in her future life, holding her solitary way among a crowd of wild grotesque companions; the only pure, fresh, youthful object in the throng’ (22)

The shop shows us how Nell stands “pure, fresh, and youthful” among all the forgotten objects that invoque thoughts of old, rusty, and damaged things.

I will leave it here and promise to discuss more about the Shop in a later posts.

***

Finally, Daniel Quilp.

Oh Quilp!

If there is a character who is fantastical and real at the same time that is Daniel Quilp. He is so intriguing and repulsive.

I will write a post about him later because he is not going anywhere yet and yes, it gets better.

But the chapter with Mrs Quilp (Chapter 4) is the most feminist (in its opening), hilarious, and disquieting chapter ever. It’s is incredibly sexually charged (repressed Victorians, where?) and truly introduces Quilp by first showing us his fairy tale wife who lives in Tower Hill and anxiously awaits his coming. She is the princess in the Tower, married to a cruel Rumpelstiltskin, a trickster with words.

I love it!

Ok. I will stop now.

So much to talk about but there’s a lot more coming. What did you think of the opening? Please tell me in the comments!

Thank you for reading and may we meet again!

A.

Week 44: In which I continue my journey

Happy October everyone!

 

Like December was Dickens’s favorite month and Christmas his favorite holiday, October is my favorite month of the year and Halloween/Day of the Dead my favorite celebration. It also happens to be my birthday month, so that just adds to the fun.

This is why I am so incredibly happy that I will be reading one of my favorite of Dickens’s novels this month. So, here it is, my next adventure: The Old Curiosity Shop.

When I first started this project, I had intended to read all the Dickens’s novels I had yet to read, which were mostly his early novels. But I got so invested in the project I decided to re-read them as well and this will be my first reread. My goal is to finish reading all his novels before I turn thirty, which will be in October two years from now, that will make it 11 books in two years! I hope I can make it!

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But back to my next read.

The Old Curiosity Shop is, sadly, not a popular Dickens’s novel and it hasn’t been read as often, probably because Nell’s plot is quite sentimental (a popular thing for the time). But it truly is a very rich novel and, in my opinion, definitely worth reading.

In the Preface to the First Cheap Edition of The Old Curiosity Shop published in 1848, Dickens writes:

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 [in the curiosity shop]

And this is truly the best summary of the story. However, as it often happens in Dickens’s novels, some of the minor characters take the story and run away with it and, in this case, make a fantastic side story happening alongside Nell’s. You just have to read it to believe me.

I first read this novel in April of 2013, when I had just begun my affair with Dickens, so it was due for a reread.

It has some of my favorite elements of Dickensian fiction: the presence of the supernatural, the grotesque, the fairy-tale-esque in its “Realism.”

To me, Dickens is the only author who can have imps, ghosts, ghouls, and just any kind of supernatural element in a very realistic setting without us having to call it Fantasy. It is simply real in the realm of the novel and quite possible in our own realm. I argue that, in Dickens’s fiction, this presence of the supernatural actually enriches the realistic elements of his fiction (like his social criticism and political satire, for example) and he can be more critical about his culture and his world when he is writing supernatural stuff. But, by all means, disagree with me, just read the novel.

Actually, I am planning to become more active in the months and years to come. I am really excited about this project and I just want to be more involved. This is why I decided to open an Instagram account, which you are welcome to follow, and to encourage you to read along with me.

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In lieu of this last point, I decided to share my reading schedule with you, dear reader.

If you have always wanted to read this novel or you haven’t read it yet, please join me and share your thoughts with me!

I am going to try to commit to this reading schedule so I don’t suffer like I did with Nickleby which took me longer than expected and to post every Saturday (Master Humphrey’s Clock was out on Saturdays) with some discussion points.

So, dear reader, have you read The Old Curiosity Shop? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments.

And, as always, thank you for reading and may we meet again!

A.

Week 43: One more thing about Nickleby

Hello everyone!

This week I decided to take a break from reading Dickens to read a little bit more about Nicholas Nickleby and to prepare for my next adventure (but more on that later). When I am reading something like Dickens, what some would call “the Classics,” I like to read more about the text in general and I definitely will read an Introduction (if my edition has one) because I like to get a sense of the time period and of the author’s concerns when writing the novel.

This is one of the reasons I am reading Norrie Epstein’s The Friendly Dickens as I read the novels. She dedicates a short section to each novel so I like to read them after I am finished so as not to get any spoilers (although most major plot points of Dickens’s novels are known!) or to focus my reading. These are also the reasons why I read the Introduction to the text after reading the novel.

In his Introduction to the 2008 Penguin Edition of Nicholas Nickleby, which is the one I read, Mark Ford discusses Dickens’s criticism of “Yorkshire Schools,” compares the novel to 18th-century picaresque novels (which was really interesting), and addressed the issue of class. This last sort of theme or topic stood out to me as I was reading Nickleby (and, I could argue, it’s predominant of any Dickens work), but I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I had done in his previous novels.

Epstein also talks about this issue in her discussion of the novel and having both points of view really made me think back to what I read and was struck at how I just couldn’t see how relevant class difference was so important in the text. Like I said, maybe I’ve come to expect it so much of a Dickens novel that I just wasn’t paying so much attention!

For starters, Nicholas’s journey is solely based on his desire to return to his original social status, which he does achieve by the end of the novel when he is even able to purchase his childhood home. In the general sense, Nicholas is no different than say Pip from Great Expectations, but it does show you how much Dickens improved as an author that Pip’s journey is far more powerful because you cannot really see how it is going to end while I don’t think you are truly worried about Nicholas.

Furthermore, we have Mrs. Nickleby who is always looking back to what she owned and to her friends (she is just so silly sometimes I forget to take her seriously!) and, of course, poor Smike! His sickness is not really showing of poor conditions in London since he is not living as uncomfortably as another of Dickens’s children (like say Jo in Bleak House or Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, for example) but it is actually the fact that he is not of a noble social status enough to being able to marry Kate Nickleby what kills him!

Once you begin analyzing, you can find many examples of class difference and the desire for upward mobility, which was a concern of many Dickensian characters. There are the Kenwigses and the Wittiterlys, of course, but also the Squeers. When you look closely at the way Fanny Squeers treats the Browdies, you can see how she believes herself to be of higher status than them, of anyone really.

What I found interesting was that Ralph Nickleby was uninterested in class. I mean, he dealt with people of high society, such as Lord Verisoph and Sir Mulberry Hawk, but he didn’t quite want to belong to it, he was just content with having money. It’s probably what makes his character so devious.

One final note on Nicholas Nickleby and I’ll move on:

I loved reading about how Dickens actually made a difference with his novel. He actually did travel with his illustrator to Yorkshire and made his research about Yorkshire schools (he was a reporter before becoming a novelist so I am sure that curiosity for finding the truth never went away) and he uncovered a lot of horrible things. After the publication of Nickleby, the number of Yorkshire schools dropped! People actually read his novels and cared. I find that to be so amazing and I do not know if there is something that happens like this today.

Thank you for coming with me on my journey through Nicholas Nickleby! I really hope you stick around for my next adventure in Dickens’s world.

May we meet again!

A.

Week 42: In which I try to review Nicholas Nickleby but I’m just sharing what I loved about it

And on day 109 I finished Nicholas Nickleby!

It still feels strange that I won’t be spending my afternoons with the Nickleby family. So far, this is the Dickens novel that has taken me the longest to read and while I have mixed feelings about it, I still quite enjoyed it.

Please be advised that I’m discussing major plot points of the novels so if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading! ❤️

Dickens’s writing truly makes anything better for me. His writing is just so beautiful and evocative. He is funny and hopeful and heavy handed with his political and social criticism when he needs to be and it never interrupts with the flow of the story. I truly love that about his writing. He is also the only writer I know who can write fairies and ogres into a very realistic story.

Many people have told me that they don’t enjoy how he describes everything in detail, but that’s probably one of my favorite aspects of his writing. His descriptions are part of his world-building techniques, and they are truly spot-on. He is writing his characters in a London he knows, but also in a London of his invention, and that is something I find fascinating.

That being said, Nickleby’s London functions like a theatre and, while I found this to be very creative, it was a bit annoying at times.

This is Dickens’s most theatrical novel (of the ones that I’ve read) by far. It doesn’t just have its main character join a theatre group and introduces a set of actors (bad actors at that) who perform everything they do, on and off stage, but it also has its own characters be very performative: the Kengwigses, the Wititterlys, the Lillyvicks, and, my personal favorite, Mrs. Nickleby. These are all incredibly performative characters who almost know they have an audience watching them. They not only perform for each other, but also for the Reader. It is quite a fascinating technique, but it can get tiring.

It really was like you could see Dickens manipulating things in the background. Reading Nickleby was the only time I felt Dickens’s authorial power so strongly. In other words, it was really hard not to pay attention to the guy behind the curtain, and that can ruin the magic of the performance a little bit.

You could also tell when he backed himself into corners and how he cleverly writes himself out of them. Towards the middle of the novel, you can tell he is making time and that can be quite tiring when reading as some installments are just the equivalent of watching people walk long distances on screen, just a tad boring.

The ending felt incredibly rushed too and I felt like it lost some of the vibrance from earlier installments. Here are some spoilers so you may want to stop reading if you haven’t read this novel before:

  • The Cheeryble brothers are way too nice, it’s unreal. I often find that Dickens’s villains have more personality  than the good ones and Arthur Gride is just a great example (he is mean, yes, but he can also be pitied. He wants to marry Madeline because he wants to recover what he lost, youth and beauty), but the Cheerybles have almost nothing going for them. They are just good. Boring. Dickens can do better (see Magwitch in Great Expectations).
  • Almost all the happy moments happen off-screen. The resolution is just told to us, the readers, but we don’t see it happen.
  • Did he plan for Smike to be Ralph’s son all along? I don’t think so. That was probably just an add on for surprise and it felt like it.
  • Some of the evil guys just went “poof!” – see Sir Mulberry Hawk. He was the scariest of the lot and he just disappeared from the story. Boring.
  • The poor kids from the Yorkshire school. I thought Nicholas would do something for them, but really, he just forgot about them.
  • Kate was such a powerful character in the middle of the novel and then she becomes a blank, an extension of Nicholas. And Madeline doesn’t even speak. She just does what everyone tells her to do. She was really just added in so Nicholas didn’t end up alone.

Alright, it seems like I’ve vented a lot.

It really is a good Dickens novel, it just wasn’t my favorite. I think it was missing some of the things that make reading Dickens so enjoyable, especially towards the end. It’s good to know, however, that he does get better at weaving the stories from his characters in latter books and much better at hiding behind the curtain and letting his characters do their thing.

Have you read Nicholas Nickleby? Do you agree with me or disagree? What did you think?

By all means, share your experience with me!

Thank you for reading and may we meet again!

A.

Week 41: In which everything connects

Day 105 of reading Nicholas Nickleby and very quickly approaching the end, at last!

 

I am finally hooked to the story and I think it happened when it became more Dickensian, which to me has a lot to do with one of my favorite tropes in Dickens’s novels: the many coincidental encounters the London of his novel.

Tim Linkinwater says it better than anyone ever could:

‘Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles, and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

And you really cannot read a Dickens novel without accepting that highly coincidental encounters will happen!

I had a colleague while I was doing my Masters in Literature who hated this and called it lazy, but, honestly, I think it’s probably harder to make so many coincidences happen and then having them all tie up together in the end, but this is just a matter of opinion.

Now, I do not know if the London of Dickens’s time was such a place and it truly sounds magical how you can meet the right person at the right time (or, at least, just in the nick of time to save them from a terrible plot you just overheard about quite recently). I live in Mexico City, which is a huge place, and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to find my loved ones without proper use of technology. Sometimes I can’t even find the place I am going to using Google Maps!

Oh well! Dickens’s London seems like a magical place for me and I love how people keep finding each other, which is why this latter part of the novel has been a joy to read.

Finally, we seem to have a full cast of characters (with the very late introduction of Arthur Gride and his witch-y housekeeper whom I love!) and they are all moving across the board to wherever they need to go in order to come to a resolution.

I’ve already mentioned about the villains gathering and shaping up their evil plans, but it seems like Dickens took a step back from having a “final showdown” just yet, all of which led to the introduction of Arthur Gride so I don’t have a problem with it yet.

I still have 100 pages to go and I am excited to see how it will all come together! The plan is to finish before the end of the month so, fingers crossed!

Thank you for reading and may we meet again!

A.

PS: A fun anecdote about this, which makes sense if you are also a Stephen King fan.

I am also reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, currently on Volume V – Wolves of the Calla where he mentions the quote cited above! While the main characters, Roland of Gilead and Eddie, Susannah, and Jake from New York, ponder about coincidentally meeting the right people at the right time while in New York, the coincidental meetings in Dickens’s novels are mentioned.

Susannah says. “I had a teacher in college who hated the way that always happened. He said Dickens’s stories were full of easy coincidences”

To which the main protagonist, our gunslinger, replies: “A teacher who didn’t know about ka or didn’t believe in it”

In this world, ka is a word for fate or destiny and they strongly believe that it rules all their actions. Anyways, Dickens would’ve approved.