Week 6 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop.
Can you believe I have been working in this project for 50 weeks!? I wish I was a faster reader but, at the same time, I am glad to be taking my time with this one.
This week, I want to focus on the term “fancy,” which Dickens’s uses a lot and for good reason, because it has been a very strong force between chapters 31st and 34th between Nell and Dick Swiveller.
Samuel Johnson defines “fancy” as “[i]magination; the power by which the mind forms to itself images and representations of things, persons, or scenes of being,” but I think Dickens makes a distinction between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’. I think that, for Dickens, ‘fancy’ was more of an aptitude, a capacity of becoming imaginative while ‘imagination’ was almost like an illusion (or, I guess, creating one). While a ‘fancy’ could be creating a romantic view of life, ‘imagination’ could be something destructive and even oppressive.
He highlights this in Chapter 31st when Nell and her grandfather are stranded by the rain in a very sketchy inn and her grandfather is, once again, lured by gambling. He spends everything they have, or so he thinks.
When Nell is using the last of her money in order to give them room and board for the night, she thinks “It must have been her fancy” (233) when she feels someone is watching her hide the change in her clothes.
Later that night, she is visited by a strange figure that comes in the room and steals her money. Nell, innocent as she is, doesn’t worry to much about herself but for her grandfather so she follows the figure across the narrow passages of the inn, only to realize it was her grandfather all along!
It was but imagination, yet imagination had all the terrors of reality; nay, it was worse, for the reality could have come and gone, and there an end, but imagination it was always coming, and never went away. (Dickens 236)
I love this quote, it’s so powerful and, I believe, explains the difference between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’. While ‘fancy’ can be scary, it can also be romanticized. On the other hand, imagination has “all the terrors of reality” for it is based on it. Nell cannot rest for she keeps imagining her grandfather coming back into the room for more money, or going completely crazy and doing something rash. In this case, ‘fancy’ is nothing but a harmless glimpse, a maybe, but ‘imagination’ is something that can come true because it is based on something that happened and Dickens writes it as an incredibly scary experience that “never went away.”
Of course, it is this anxiety-induced imagination what ends up wearing Nell out, and it is a very mature thought for a child, but she is being forced into this behavior by her grandfather’s behavior and her need to keep them both alive.
In contrast, Dick Swiveller lives in fancy. He fancies himself the protagonist of a story where he will inherit his aunt’s money or marry Nell and get her fortune (as per Quilp’s and Fred’s encouragement) or maybe a character from one of the songs he perpetually quotes. He is always fancying something, and it’s why he is always happy.
He is now contracted as the clerk in the Brass household and, upon being introduced to Miss Brass, he immediately fancies her as a fairy tale character. She is described as androgynous, as very feminine in her masculinity (she has very dainty and pretty lashes, but they happened to be placed where a mustache should be) in one of the most hilarious and vibrant descriptions I’ve read from Dickens. She is full of contradictions, but, overall, we get the sense in that she looks and acts like her own brother wearing a dress, which deeply confuses Dick.
“‘This is the most remarkable and supernatural sort of house!'” Dick thinks about the Brass household (264).
“She-dragons in the business, conducting themselves like professional gentlemen” he says about Miss Brass. He calls her a “she-dragon” throughout the novel and it is really very fanciful and playful, while mildly offensive; “plain cooks of three feet high appearing mysteriously from under ground” he references the appearance of the little servant girl he will baptize as The Marchioness; “strangers walking in and going to bed without leave or license in the middle of the day!” he finishes, referencing the mysterious lodger who just comes into the room and goes to sleep and apparently sleeps for more than a day, like a Sleeping Beauty (Dickens 264).
All of these situations, Dick fancies whats around him in a very childish and playful way and he is a complete contrast to Nell in the light and merriment of what he creates. Of course, he is never anxious about his station for, as he mentioned himself earlier in the novel, he choses to be merry.
I’m not sure if I’m making a very convincing case for the difference between ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’, but I am sure there is a difference. In Dick’s world, everything is fancy because his reality is hazed. He sees reality through this haze of fancy and playfulness, while Nell imagines constant danger for she is in constant danger, her imagination just shows her the ways.
They are both very powerful characters in this novel and they chose to see the world very differently. In the end, I think Dick Swiveller holds Dickens’s choice in how to view the world or how we should: we should let our fancy carry us part of the way and the world will look to be a far better place.
May we meet again!