‘One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.’
Oscar Wilde said that, and he was right. I have just finished ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and it is now my least favourite Dickens’ novel. Nell’s death scene is incredibly sentimental and OTT, and the plot uses devices that I find uncomfortable, such as misunderstandings, and false imprisonment, as Nell’s young friend Kit is framed for a crime and narrowly escapes transportation to Australia. And while this may happen in other Dickens’ novels I can forgive them, as they have a happy ending.
The only thing that stopped me from losing it altogether (and Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell threw his copy out of a train window after bursting into tears at the finale, so I wouldn’t be the only one) is the nasty money lender who contrives to ruins Nell and her grandfather’s life ends up dead. That’s it. No other ray of sunshine. In fact, it gets worse after Nell’s death as her grandfather’s mind is broken, and unable to comprehend she is dead, he sits by her grave, waiting for her to come back, like Greyfriars Bobby. (please note- Although I use that reference, it now seems Greyfriars Bobby, the dog famed for sitting by its owner’s grave until it died, was in fact, a stray dog that just lived in a churchyard, and the whole story is made up, probably for Edinburgh tourism purposes.)
The overriding theme is children being made to age before their time, and the horrible feeling of knowing those who are supposed to look after you are weaker than you. At the start of the novel Nell already carries the burden of her grandfather and his gambling, without really knowing it, but then her security is truly shattered by the loss of their home, and they are forced to flee and live as beggars. I also found this uncomfortable as it had echoes of my own childhood (not the begging part), and dealing with parents who have severe mental health problems. All in all, not a fun read. I see no reason why Nell couldn’t have lived, maybe married someone nice they met on their journey, and grandpa could have just died.
I have also watched the most recent film version I could find, starring Derek Jacobi, as I really like him and wouldn’t know half the things I do about the ex-Crusader crime-solving monks of the middle ages if it weren’t for the TV series ‘Cadfael’, and I preferred it to the book. Firstly, it’s shorter, so less suffering of both Nell and myself, and secondly, it ends with her death, and we don’t have to cope with anything that happens after that.
So, if you’ve not got any Gaskell or Hardy handy, or you like your tragic novels to contain characters with funny names (Dick Swiveller, I kid you not), The Old Curiosity Shop is for you.