Brief Thoughts About The Old Curiosity Shop
- Dickens uses many words, but English vocab needs to survive, damnit, and I applaud his efforts.
- So apparently they used to throw dead kittens at criminals. Thank you for that bit of disgusting historical knowledge, sir.
- I love Richard Swiveller.
I feel like people are not so much making this a battle between Dickens and Austen as reviewing the book they read. Maybe that’s how we’re supposed to do it? But screw that – it’s Dickens vs. Austen cage match time. I have Things to Say about both authors, and I do not pussyfoot around when it comes to picking sides. HEED THIS, ALL YE.
Has lots of characters of disparate Has a decent number of characters,
social statuses most of which have the same status.
Has pretty much flat, sucky heroines. Has generally kickass heroines.
Uses an omniscient narrator. Uses a limited omniscient narrator who usually spends most of its time with the heroine and making witty societal observations.
Covers a vast area of London and Usually covers a place like Shropshire.
sometimes England. And by ‘covers’ I mean ‘shows a house in this place.'
I could go on, but I’m not going to, because I don’t want to have to think of more things. Basically, when debating the question who was the better 19th century British author, I think it has to come down to Dickens. Yeah, Austen is awesome, but what has the majority of her fans retained from her books? A love story. Austen fans irritate me to no end at times when I am reminded that some of them choose to make her books entirely about pretty dresses and whether or not two people get together. Since Austen was reactionary to the Romantic era and most of her books, if you come down to it, are about financial matters, this is just — ARGH.
I’m not saying one can’t enjoy the fact that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy get together; and the BBC miniseries of P&P is certainly not meant to be watched with any other point in mind, but if that’s all you’re getting from her books, then you’re missing most of it.
Anyway, but since this IS what a large number of people get, let’s set that as the norm and turn to Dickens. Do people celebrate Dickens for his romance? No. He gives a panoramic view of Victorian London, and it is awesome. He covers various types of people, their jobs, their customs; you gain an immensely better understanding of mid-19th century England from his books.
Now, is this a fair comparison? Well, no. Because Dickens was trying to create this kind of complete world, and Austen wisely stuck to what she understood, which was Regency drawing rooms. They shouldn’t even be compared, but if said comparison is forced, then Dickens wins.
Onto the book! I will try to be brief, as I dislike super-long blog entries. The center of the book is Little Nell journeying through England with her grandfather as they try to escape the reach of the tiny evil man named Mr Quilp. Early in the book, Nell mentions Pilgrim’s Progress. It becomes something of a model for her own journey with her grandfather (unintentionally, of course – she doesn’t say ‘Halloo! Let’s go on a journey similar to that of Christian and his other allegorical mates!’). For those unaware, PP is an allegorical tale of a Christian struggling through life and reaching heaven (oh. I’m assuming on that last part as I haven’t read it). The people they meet on this journey are kickass Dickensian characters, all of whom are fun to read about. Little Nell and her grandfather, however, are fricking boring. Why? Because he’s way old and she’s a living saint, and that might be the most boring combination ever.
Fortunately! As is always the case with Dickens, there are multiple threads, and whenever we switch to someone's other than Nell's it tends to get awesome. Dickens does so, so well with his side characters. He and J.K. Rowling are compared frequently, and I think that’s a good comparison. Sometimes, you get these characters who seem completely minor and comical at the beginning, but over time they become hugely important. Rowling does this (Luna Lovegood), and in this book, I ended up loving Richard Swiveller, who starts out as drunk and annoying. He’s just an awesome guy.
Ah! Not enough space! This book is stupidly long, so it’s difficult to sum up all one’s thoughts. Quilp is the sort of early Dickens bad guy who seems to be all bad. Later they’d get a little less black and white (not all the time), but early on it was kind of Good Guys/Bad Guys, with the exception of my beloved Swiveller. Anyway, Quilp is kind of Satan incarnate, but the thing is, he’s a dwarf, and people are always — ALWAYS hideously nasty to him. Things like “A man of your appearance couldn’t be [a choice spirit]. If you’re any spirit at all, sir, you’re an evil spirit.”
Now, let’s imagine Quilp hears this kind of thing, and sees people staring at him in horror, his entire life. He can either become overly humble and accept everyone’s opinion of him; struggle to do as many good things as possible and hope people overlook their natural aversion to him; or he can embrace it and use what he knows frightens people to what he sees as his advantage. He does some truly awful things in the book, and he’s not excused from them, but I think his character needs a bit more sympathy.
In the interests of wrapping this up, I’ll cut myself off. Should this be read? If you really like Dickens, yes. Otherwise read something like Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend. I will say, in defense of this very…very long and sometimes infuriating book, that there’s almost always an emotional pay-off in Dickens. You invest the time and the eyestrain, and something’ll happen to characters you come to love that will fill you with incredible joy. Maybe the joy won’t last, and something bad will befall them, but like in life, it’s not all good or bad. A reviewer of something else Dickens wrote said there are “rewards for the persevering.” I absolutely agree.