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)
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.
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.
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!