Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens



I'm nearly finished reading the entire Dickens canon.  For some reason, I'd kept putting off The Old Curiosity Shop, his fourth novel.  Something about the story just didn't interest me (though I did manage to get through Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, and Dombey and Son).  The story of angelic Little Nell just didn't appeal.  

However, a couple of months ago, I signed up for the fourth round of the Classics Spin, and somehow I was convinced I'd end up with Dickens.  I actually was assigned Zola (woo hoo!) but since my library had just purchased an audiobook of The Old Curiosity Shop I decided to give it a try, and I'm so glad I did; it's a classic early Dickens, with some of his best characters.  I do agree that my initial assessment of Nell was pretty spot-on, but it's worth putting up her just because the rest of it is really good.  

So, basically, it's the story of Little Nell, a pure and beautiful golden-haired child, who's about twelve or thirteen, and her grandfather, who owns The Old Curiosity Shop.  Grandfather (whose name is never actually revealed) is not so good with money and is massively indebted to the horrible, evil Daniel Quilp, one of Dickens' most vile creations.  Nell also has an older brother, Frank Trent, who is convinced the old man has pots of money stashed away.  Frank decides to get his hands on the money by persuading his friend Dick Swiveled to marry Nell in a few years, so they can both profit.  However, Grandfather has a deep dark secret, and after Quilp comes to collect, he and Nell escape in the middle of the night.  The pair make their way around the countryside just a few steps ahead of the nasty Quilp, who wants his revenge on Grandfather and to get his nasty hands on Nell as well.  

Meanwhile, back in London, Nell's best friend and worshipper, the good-hearted Christopher Nubbins, also known as Kit, is now unemployed.  He was Grandfather's helper and errand boy, but Gramps and Nell have done a runner and Quilp's taken possession of the shop.  He finds work with the good-hearted Mr. and Mrs. Garland, and later, he and Mr. Garland get involved in the search for Nell by a mysterious stranger.  

Despite my intense dislike of the sickly-sweet Nell, I really did like this book.  Nearly all the other characters are far more interesting and well-developed -- Quilp is deliciously evil, his wife is a sniveling, abused whiner.  There's Quilp's lawyer and minion, the obsequious Sampson Brass, and his sister, the tough-as-nails Sally.  My favorite character was Dick Swiveller, a ne'er-do-well buddy of Nell's horrible gold-digging brother, Frank Trent.  Originally Dick comes on the scene as Frank's sidekick, but he becomes a key figure in the story after Quilp gets him a job as law clerk to Sampson and Sally, the better to manipulate everyone.  Dick's relationship with Sally's downtrodden servant was my favorite part of the book.

But that Nell!!!  Ugh!   Once again, Dickens has created a perfect, angelic wet blanket of an ingenue.  She is so dull as to be completely devoid of personality, other than her Good Qualities.  The story seems to come to a screeching halt when she's in the picture.   She is just so boring, I was constantly tempted to fast-forward through the audiobook and skip her portions.  I couldn't wait to find out what was happening to everyone else.

I listened mostly to the Naxos audiobook version, which is brilliantly narrated by Anton Lesser.  This is by far one of the BEST audiobook narrations I've ever heard -- Lesser created such wonderful, distinct voices for all the characters.  He made the funny parts funnier and the creepy parts scarier.  I was tempted to read the book when I wasn't in the car, but I didn't want to miss any of his performance, so I ended up taking longer to finish the book than I anticipated.  It was absolutely worth it though, and I would listen to just about anything he read.

So -- now I only have two more of Dickens' works until I've finished the whole list -- The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- his first and last works.  Which one should I read first?  And should I bother with the nonfiction as well?  I still have Sketches by Boz and Pictures of Italy on my shelves.

24 comments:

  1. I'm going through the Dickens canon too but I have many more books to read to get close to finishing. Congratulations for almost getting to the end!

    I've read half of The Pickwick Papers and all of Edwin Drood. I remember not being partial to Drood but it was years ago that I read it. The Pickwick Papers were very good, if you don't expect a story and accept it as amusing little incidents in which the characters are involved.

    I'm reading David Copperfield now and then next up is Bleak House.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bleak House is by far and away my favorite -- it's brilliant. Also a GREAT miniseries adaptation by the BBC in 2005. I highly recommend it.

      Delete
  2. Sickly-sweet is the most suitable word for Nell! For me the book also really dragged through the descriptions of her hardships, and the only one who livened the novel up for me was Kit. The "villains" were even funny sometimes, but overall I don't think it's the best of Dickens, although I haven't read as much of him as you. Good work, BTW! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I loved Kit too. Quilp was a real creeper, but Samson and Sally Brass were pretty funny. There were some good bits, though.

      Delete
  3. Mrs Quilp a "shrew"? Her mother maybe.... but I don't recall Mrs Quilp being particularly bad tempered.

    Also, "Sketches by Boz" is good. I think it's far too unknown. Fancy a tour of 1830s London? There are some good stories as well - and some sketches of young gentlemen and young couples... well, let's say, some things never change, even if the surface does...

    LRK

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK, maybe Mrs. Quilp would be best described as whiny. It could be the way the narrator read it on the audio version. I'll have to check out Sketches. Thanks!

      Delete
  4. I had not heard of this Dickens book -- sounds interesting though! You're high praise of the audiobook makes me want to check if my library has a copy :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find that books I'm scared of become less intimidating if I try the audio -- I listened to Barnaby Rudge last year, which NOBODY ever reads, and I really liked it. A good narrator can make or break a book. Anton Lesser was really good. In general I've found Naxos audiobooks to be excellent and many libraries have them.

      Delete
  5. I didn't like Nell either. What a nothing of a character. Dickens could have done better!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Almost ALL of Dicken's young ingenues are completely devoid of personality -- I also disliked Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities. Can't understand why everyone loved her so much.

      Delete
    2. I wonder if Dickens was that condescending and dismissive towards the real women in his life...he certainly didn't get on great with his wife.

      Delete
    3. I read Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens last year, which was really enlightening. I think he had some real issues with women -- he never forgave his mother for his terrible childhood, and he was pretty awful towards his wife -- he left her, badmouthed her to the press, and made his children choose one between them. Catherine Dickens didn't see some of her children for years until after his death. It was really sad.

      Delete
    4. I might have to read that biography; I know I've always felt bad for Catherine Dickens. Thanks.

      Delete
  6. You go girl! Woot! Start with Pickwick Papers since that's his first. I have no reason for saying that other than he wrote it first. :) I'm still trying to get through David Copperfield, my first Dickens besides A Christmas Carol.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Copperfield is good -- I loved Aunt Betsy Trotwood. The middle was a little slow for my taste -- I thought Dora was pretty bland, definitely shades of Nell. My favorites are Bleak House and Oliver Twist, though Little Dorrit and Great Expectations are also good.

      Delete
  7. I really admire you for reading through Dickens (even the ones you weren't particularly looking forward to). I've still only read Great Expectations, but I'd love to read Bleak House as I loved the BBC adaptation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've found something I liked in nearly every Dickens, except Hard Times, which I hated. It's the shortest one but there wasn't a single thing that I liked about it. Bleah. I haven't seen all of the newest BBC adaptation of Great Expectations -- I started watching it and was annoyed because the guy who played Pip was so good-looking, like a male model. He was prettier than Estella! There's a new version coming out with Ralph Fiennes as Magwich, so I might try that one.

      Delete
  8. I love Dickens, but I haven't read this one because Little Nell makes me want to puke. I might try the audiobook, though. I've recently been listening to audiobooks instead of music to tune out cubicle farm noise and it makes the work day brighter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nell is really puke-worthy, she's disgustingly perfect and sweet -- and her grandfather does some really crappy things too. I wanted to smack both of them upside the head. However, if you skim all of the parts with her in them, the rest of it is really good, definitely worth reading. The audio version I listened to was really good.

      Delete
  9. I do admire your Dickens marathon. Only read two I'm afraid. Hard Times put me off Dickens for a long while but I'm going to try some of your recommendations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hard Times is just AWFUL. I would not blame anyone for being put off after reading that. I think it's his shortest novel because he left all the good stuff out. Seriously. Bleak House is wonderful, also Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If you aren't too scared, I recommend watching one of the recent BBC adaptations -- Bleak House and Little Dorrit were both excellent. That's how I got hooked on Dickens.

      Delete
  10. I just finished the audio of The Pickwick Papers as read by Patrick Tull, and felt the same way about this narration as you did about the one you listened to. Tull was marvelous and his voices were perfect and really enhanced the experience. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading this book, so I knew I would like it.

    I really didn't like Curiosity Shop when I read it forever ago, but I might give the audio you listened to a try. Dickens really had a tough time with heroines, didn't he?

    Great review--I really enjoyed reading it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! This book was a nice surprise, despite Nell, she was so drippy. I think the only one of his heroines I really like is Esther in Bleak House, though Ada is kind of like Nell 2.0.

      My library has the Naxos audio of Pickwick read by David Timson -- and wouldn't you know both copies are checked out right now!! For some reason my library has FOUR audiobook copies of Barnaby Rudge, but only two of Pickwick. Can't explain it. I'll have to listen to PP in April after I've finished the Triple Dog Dare.

      Delete
  11. I read The Old Curiosity Shop in January, and I must agree that Nell was too sweet for my liking. In fact, I didn't feel like any of the characters were really multi-dimensional except the grandfather (he loves Nell but has a gambling addiction) or Mr. Swiveller (he lacks conviction and is irresponsible). I also felt that the book was longer than it should have been especially since there wasn't really a plot. Still, it was mostly an enjoyable read. Dickens has a great sense of humor, and Quilp is insane. My favorite Dickens work so far is Hard Times, but I do plan to reread A Tale of Two Cities. The last time I read the latter was in eighth grade.

    ReplyDelete