Published in 1841, famous novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens, was greeted with the same hysteria as the recent novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, more than 160 years later. Historians say this is the only modern comparison they can find to the readers’ reaction back in the 19th century.
The excitement was witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic, after the novel was first serialised in Dickens’ weekly periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock. Readers were desperate to read the next instalment to find out if the heroine survived – and in America, they were waiting on the docks for the shipment to find out!
The plot and some of the characters were said to be based on the author’s own impoverished upbringing and people he had met in his younger years.
Charles’ parents, who lived in Portsmouth, were an outgoing, sociable couple, who enjoyed entertaining, functions and dinner parties, but sadly they didn’t have the means to fund their lifestyle. His father, John Dickens, who was a clerk in the Navy payroll office, had amassed numerous debts and spent time in a debtors’ prison.
The family moved to London and Charles’ mother, Elizabeth, opened a girls’ school, but that wasn’t a success and they remained poor. Charles was one of eight children and had to leave school at 12 because the family had no money.
While his father was in prison, Charles worked in a factory to support the family, as he was the second oldest child. Despite not having a formal education, he grew up to be a talented writer and his early experiences of poverty shaped many of his novels’ plots and characters.
Writing in his spare time, the author became a political journalist reporting on Parliamentary debate, while renting rooms at Furnival’s Inn, London.
He was only 29 when he wrote The Old Curiosity Shop, but was already a respected writer, having written his first story, A Dinner at Poplar Walk, for publication in Monthly Magazine in 1833.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Dickens wrote The Old Curiosity Shop in 1840, with the plot revolving around Nell Trent (better known as Little Nell) who lives in London with her grandfather. He runs an antiques shop, hence the novel’s title. Nell is a beautiful and virtuous orphan, who is only 13, but has few friends and leads a lonely existence.
Her grandfather is not well off and Nell worries that when he’s gone, she will die in poverty. In a misguided attempt to make money for her future, he begins gambling and ends up heavily in debt to vicious money-lender Daniel Quilp. He loses the shop due to being unable to pay his debts and he and Nell end up homeless on the streets of London.
While wandering all over Victorian London, begging, they live a harsh life, but eventually they are helped by an old man who takes pity on them and finds them somewhere to live in a quiet town on the outskirts.
When their life seems to be turning around, it has all been too much for Nell, who dies. This was the first time one of Dickens’ heroines had died at the end of the book and it sparked outrage!
While the book was being serialised (before it was made into a novel), fans had been clamouring for the next edition. The magazines were shipped out to America and it was reported that the cliff hanger endings of each episode led to fans gathering at the docks to eagerly snap up the next edition.
By the time the final instalment was due to arrive, their mood had reached fever pitch. It was reported that fans waited on the docks at New York harbour, shouting to the crew of incoming British ships, “Is little Nell dead?”
The decision to kill Nell was hugely unpopular among readers. This was the first time the author had killed his leading lady and it was contrary to public taste. Readers liked a happy ending.
In fact, the unexpected death caused such a sensation that there was a public demonstration against Dickens and an outpouring of anger! However, the character was said to be based on a real person and her demise had been inevitable, due to the author’s state of mind when writing The Old Curiosity Shop.
Although the author had managed to stave off the threat of homelessness by finding work when his father was in debtors’ prison, he knew what it was like to have nothing.
The character of Nell was said to be based on his wife’s sister, who had died at an early age. Dickens had married Catherine Thomson Hogarth, daughter of the Evening Chronicle’s editor, George Hogarth, in April 1836. They took up residence at 48 Doughty Street, London.
They also provided a home for Dickens’ younger brother Frederick and Catherine’s little sister Mary, who was 16 at the time. Dickens had known Mary since she was 14 and was very attached to her. However, she became unwell at the age of 17 and died very suddenly, in his arms. She was believed to have suffered heart failure or a stroke.
The shock of her death severely affected Dickens. He even stopped working for a period and he and Catherine temporarily moved to a farm on Hampstead Heath to recuperate. At the time, Dickens had been writing Oliver Twist and had based the character of Rose Maylie, Oliver’s maternal aunt, on Mary.
He had planned on killing Maylie in the story, but couldn’t bring himself to do so now Mary had died in real life, so he changed the plot. It was also said that he based several of his delicate, young, female characters on Mary, including Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son.
He was so distraught over Mary’s death that he missed the deadlines for two of his books that were being published in instalments – Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. So the outrage caused by Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop paled into insignificance, as Dickens was suffering extreme grief at the time.
While the fans were angry about the book’s ending, the critics had different views. It was described as “melodramatic” and “maudlin” by some.
It was reported that the Irish political leader, Daniel O’Connell, was so anguished when he read the ending that he threw the book in disgust out of the train window on which he was travelling.
The poet Algernon Swinburne was less than impressed that Nell appeared to have died after her arduous journey through the streets of London, after showing signs of “melancholy”. He wrote that she was an “inhuman monster”, as her actions of sitting in a graveyard towards the end of the book, followed by her death when she appeared to have simply given up, also led to the death of her devoted grandfather.
Writer Oscar Wilde had a different view and found the ending unbelievable, saying anyone who had read of the unexpected death of Little Nell would have dissolved into “tears of laughter”.
Despite the criticisms, however, the book remains a classic today and Dickens will forever be one of the greatest authors in history.
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