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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the most difficult Dickens for the modern reader, 31 Dec 2011
This review is from: The Old Curiosity Shop: A Tale (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I think this Dickens novel is the one that's probably hardest for a modern day reader to appreciate. The Victorians adored the character of Little Nell and American readers were so eager to find out the ending that they 'were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last instalment in the United Kingdom), "Is Little Nell alive?"' But it was difficult for me to appreciate the kind of sentimentality and pathos that distinguishes the character of Little Nell and I preferred the wonderfully grotesque character of Daniel Quilp who terrorises his wife, eats boiled eggs 'shell and all' and is the most lascivious of Dickens' villains (although this is 1840 so you only gets hints of this aspect).

"he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits"

Given Dickens' comments (as reported by Claire Tomalin in her biography, Charles Dickens: A Life) that his bad characters portrayed the characteristics he found within himself, this portrayal of Quilp raised some interesting psychological questions in my mind about Dickens himself.

The introduction to my edition indicates that there are a lot of references to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (Penguin Classics) in the story which, again, a 19th century reader would have been very familiar with and I am not really familiar with at all. One character also frequently includes lines from popular songs in his dialogue and I can appreciate how this would have been very comic to a reader at the time but by the time I've had to look up the relevant footnote in the back of the book the joke has lost a little something in the translation as it were.

What I found most interesting about my reread of this book was the insight it gave into Dickens' feelings at the time of writing. A few years before Dickens started writing this novel, his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who had lived with him and his wife Catherine since their marriage, died suddenly at the age of 17. Dickens was absolutely distraught by her death and had to take a break from his publishing schedule for both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist - this was the only time in his life when Dickens failed to get an instalment out on time. His grief for Mary's death seems far greater than we would consider reasonable given their relationship (and really there doesn't seem to be anything to suggest their relationship went beyond brother and sister in law); he wanted to be buried next to Mary and the published announcement called her 'the chief solace of his labours'. History is silent as to his wife's opinion of all this - from reading Tomalin's biography I almost get the impression that Catherine wasn't allowed to have opinions. Anyway, there's a bit of debate about this but it seems that when Dickens was writing The Old Curiosity Shop he may have had Mary in mind when he created the character of Little Nell and the idealisation of Little Nell as 'so young, so beautiful, so good' may well be linked to Dickens' idealisation of Mary Hogarth.
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