Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

I did it!  I have accomplished one of my goals for 2012, in honor of  the 200th year of the birth of Charles Dickens.  Each year I read or reread a classic or two, breaking away from all modern literature, non-fiction or fiction;  this has been something I have done the last several years in retirement.  It  helps me justify the shelves of books including many classics that adorn our study.  In the long ago past when there were not so many books published daily, and ever so  long, long, long before anyone ever imagined an e-reader, educated people read the classics.  If people owned any books, they were the true classics Homer, Aeneid, Mythology, Socrates and then Shakespeare, Chaucer, finally journeying to Charles Dickens and the colonies with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the like.  But today with computers books spew out daily, back then it was an accomplishment to produce a written work.  My education beginning in junior high school and really elementary school then on to high school and college included wide readings of the classics.  We all read them and generally we grumbled, they did not appeal to us; it took time but then  we learned to appreciate literature, something that endures, compared to what is written today little of which will last.   

For 2012 I wanted to read at least one work by Charles Dickens because June 8 is the 200th year since his birth.  Most people know about his Christmas Story, Scrooge and Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchitt.  It amuses me how popular television and the movies have made this classic.  We read it starting in elementary school, so we grew up with the story.

I have several Dickens on my shelves but I did not recall reading The Old Curiosity Shop, and as I first browsed the pages spotting characters I believe I may have read  selections, but never the entire book.  A quick scan of the book is a technique we used in school in reading classics, it was to  quickly familiarize ourselves with characters or places or other names prior to delving into the reading.  I still use that  tactic today  to read classics or  very large  books. 

The Old Curiosity Shop is an adult story, novel, about Little Nell, the orphan, being raised by her grandfather, the elderly proprietor of the Old Curiosity Shop.  But grandfather has a gambling  addiction through which he intends to make their fortune but by  which puts Nell in charge of making their way through  indescribably trials.  Her evil conniving brother, Frederick Trent, wants to take the fortune he believes the Grandfather has hidden  but Frederick  is second to Daniel Quilp the sinister, grotesque  dwarf who too has plans for pretty little Nell.  Quilp is one of Dickens' most memorable villains.  The dwarf is a symbol of lies and distortions and pitting one person against another.  Kit Nubbles is an errand boy who tries to help and who is devoted to providing for his widowed good natured mother, Mrs. Nubbles.  On their flight  Nell and Grandfather encounter a traveling puppet show, a troupe of dancing dogs, more gamblers and scoundrels, and the jovial, stout, beribboned Mrs. Jarley, proprietress of Jarley's Waxworks who does befriend them.  There are  several more characters in the book. 

 George Orwell once wrote, "When Dickens has once described something, you see it for the rest of your life."  Absolutely true.  Dickens touches us with his descriptive characters and situations including the ugly side of the Industrial Revolution, poverty where people survive on stone soup or no food at all, wretched villains who seem unstoppable.  I will not attempt to tell all of  this story but  the final sentence is glorious, "Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told!" But Dickens' tales do not pass away,  they endure.

Charles Dickens and his characters

Dickens was only 29 when he began to write The Old Curiosity Shop but he had already triumphed with three big novels,  "The Pickwick Papers", "Oliver Twist" (one of my favorites, and "Nicholas Nickleby."  My edition of Curiosity is 517 pages published in 1988 but using illustrations (sketches) from the 1897 edition.  The book is too thick and cumbersome to scan any of those, but I can share this lithograph from another work in the World's Best Reading Series where it seems to me Dickens is portrayed like Gulliver with minions of characters surrounding him. 

Two of my favorite  quotes from this book:
pg 74,  about waiting...."None are so anxious as those who watch and wait: at these times, mournful fancies came flocking on her mind, in crowds."

pg. 115,  about leaving..." Why is it that we can better bear to part in spirit than in body, and while we have the fortitude to act farewell have not the nerve to say it?     On the eve of long voyages or an absence of many years, friends who are tenderly attached will separate with the usual look, the usual pressure of the hand, planning one final interview for the morrow, while each well knows that it is but a poor feint to save the pain of uttering that one word, and that  the meeting will never be.  Should possibilities be worse to bear than certainties?  We do not shun our dying friends; the not having distinctly taken leave of one among them, whom we left in all kindness and affection, will often embitter the whole remainder of a life."

Oh it is a 5 ***** Classic