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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