The Old Curiosity Shop is neither the most famous nor by any definition the
greatest of Charles Dickens’ novels. But it does however contain one of
Dickens’ very most famous scenes – a scene famous only slightly more in itself
than for the famously bitchy quip it elicited from Oscar Wilde: “One must
have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Wilde has a point, or maybe half a point. Nell’s death is heavily
foreshadowed through the book, then mercilessly extended over a long scene for
purposes that seem as much commercial as artistic. Dickens wrote The Old
Curiosity Shop early in his career. He was not yet 30 when the final
installments appeared in the magazine he owned, Mr. Humphrey’s Clock. The
book is his
third full-length novel (counting The Pickwick Papers as an
anthology of stories rather than a novel), and it followed immediately upon the
very worst novel of his career, Nicholas Nickleby. The Old
Curiosity Shop is a much better book than Nickleby, but it shares in
milder degree many of Nickleby’s faults: The plot is baggy, packed
with unnecessary sub-plots to eke out the length. Little Nell is more of a real
person than Nicholas or his sister Kate, but she is more a symbol of youth,
goodness, and purity than an actual human being with motives and feelings.
Wilde lived on the other side of a great literary divide: the divide in
which readers had begun to demand novels that functioned more as coherent works
of art than as episodic entertainment. The author who revises and revises in
quest of the “mot juste,” who slices away every excess word and
scene, who never makes explicit what can be conveyed implicitly – that ideal
had not yet migrated from poetry to prose in the 1840s. Like Wilde, we live on
the other side of that literary evolution. The bagginess and emotional
manipulativeness of the early Dickens can irk and vex us almost as much as they
Almost as much. For if Wilde shared with 21st century readers a
preference for the subtle and the spare, he labored under a burden that we 100
years later have quite escaped: the overwhelming inescapability of Dickens’
stories, characters, and cultural attitudes.
A young British writer starting his career anytime in the half century from
1875 to 1925 must have felt as if he or she were living inside Charles Buss’s
“Dickens’ Dream,” entrapped within the imaginary world Dickens
created for the mid-Victorians and bequeathed in all its sentimental power to
the very different generations immediately following.
Evelyn Waugh delivered probably the most memorable satire and protest
against Dickens in A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s protagonist, Tony Last
(“Last” – get it?), grows up in and inherits a country house
described by a fictitious contemporary tourist guide as follows:
Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last
lies the extensive
. This, park
formerly one of the notable houses of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864
in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest.
Last loves the house and the 19th century sensibility it embodies, and for
this offense Waugh invents one of his most memorably sadistic punishments: Last
travels to the Amazon jungle, where he is captured by an illiterate tribal
chief, manacled, and compelled to spend the rest of his life reading aloud the
complete works of Dickens – a hilarious and terrifying manifestation of horror
The best analogy to how people like Wilde and Waugh felt about Dickens and
his time is the way feminists and protesters who came of age in the 1960s and
1970s felt about “the fifties.” Just as that phrase conjured up for
them a wasteland of sexual repression and mindless conformity and suffocating
complacency and uglifying suburbia – without much regard to the actual events
or personalities of the period – so Dickens and the Victorians epitomized for
the first modernists everything they set themselves against.
In one other important way, Wilde and Waugh and we live across a great chasm
from Dickens. Beginning in the 1850s and 1860s, the mortality rate for young
children in the
prolonged and profound decline. In the early 1840s, almost 300 of every 1000
children born in the
before the age of four. By the 1890s, when Wilde flourished, that rate had
tumbled by nearly half, to about 150. By the 1930s, when Waugh wrote A
Handful of Dust, the rate had halved again, to about 75 per 1000.
This change represented a triumph of public health, rather than medicine
proper: cleaner water, purer food, more washing, and so on. But what it meant
was that the death of the young receded from British consciousness. The death
of Little Nell is supposed to have been inspired by the death of Charles Dickens’
beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, at age 17 in Dickens’ then home in
time, the death of the young was a harrowing but familiar experience. Of
Dickens’ own 10 children, one died before the age of 1, and another died aged
22. Dickens could expect many of his readers likewise to be touched by similar
losses – and to share his intense need to absorb and understand their loss.
Wilde’s readers and Waugh’s even more would be much less likely to feel this
need. For them, child mortality was rapidly becoming rare, and especially rare
among the more affluent social classes to which most of their readers belonged.
The death of a very young person from disease simultaneously became more
unusual – and also more shocking and horrifying. An experience that had been
painful but common became unusual and almost unbearable. To describe such an
event as Dickens did seemed to those who came after him exploitive almost
obscene – as if he were luxuriating in pain, delighting in suffering.
At this much greater distance, the anti-Dickensianism passions of the 1890s
or 1930s seems almost as quaint as Dickens himself, actually quainter. For all
the medical advances of the 20th century, death remains omnipresent and always
will. We’ve all had losses, and we all struggle not only with the immediate
grief but with the longer-term sadnesses and paradoxes of survivorship. Say
what you will about Dickens – but have those feelings ever been described
better than they were in this one passage from Chapter 17? Nell has entered a
quite country graveyard and is studying the humble headstones of the poor
people buried there:
She was looking at a humble stone which told of a
young man who had died at twenty-three years old, fifty-five years ago, when
she heard a faltering step approaching, and looking round saw a feeble woman
bent with the weight of years, who tottered to the foot of that same grave and
asked her to read the writing on the stone. The old woman thanked her when she
had done, saying that she had had the words by heart for many a long, long
year, but could not see them now.
‘Were you his mother?’ said the child.
‘I was his wife, my dear.’
She the wife of a young man of three-and-twenty!
Ah, true! It was fifty-five years ago.
‘You wonder to hear me say that,’ remarked the old woman, shaking her head.
‘You’re not the first. Older folk than you have wondered at the same thing
before now. Yes, I was his wife. Death doesn’t change us more than life, my
‘Do you come here often?’ asked the child.
‘I sit here very often in the summer time,’ she answered, ‘I used to come here
once to cry and mourn, but that was a weary while ago, bless God!’
‘I pluck the daisies as they grow, and take them home,’ said the old woman
after a short silence. ‘I like no flowers so well as these, and haven’t for
five-and-fifty years. It’s a long time, and I’m getting very old.’Then growing garrulous upon a theme which was new to one listener though it
were but a child, she told her how she had wept and moaned and prayed to die
herself, when this happened; and how when she first came to that place, a young
creature strong in love and grief, she had hoped that her heart was breaking as
it seemed to be. But that time passed by, and although she continued to be sad
when she came there, still she could bear to come, and so went on until it was
pain no longer, but a solemn pleasure, and a duty she had learned to like. And
now that five-and-fifty years were gone, she spoke of the dead man as if he had
been her son or grandson, with a kind of pity for his youth, growing out of her
own old age, and an exalting of his strength and manly beauty as compared with
her own weakness and decay; and yet she spoke about him as her husband too, and
thinking of herself in connexion with him, as she used to be and not as she was
now, talked of their meeting in another world, as if he were dead but
yesterday, and she, separated from her former self, were thinking of the happiness
of that comely girl who seemed to have died with him.
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