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Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop was published as a serial novel between 1840 and 1841, appearing weekly in his own literary magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. The magazine had not been doing well, and Dickens began writing the novel in an effort to save the publication. Dickens originally intended the narrator of The Old Curiosity Shop to be the same Master Humphrey who narrated the magazine’s other stories; the protagonist, Little Nell Trent, previously appeared in one of these. A work of historical fiction, The Old Curiosity Shop also belongs to the Victorian era genre of sentimental literature. The edition used for this study guide is the Reader’s Digest “World’s Best Reading” published in 1988, containing the complete original text from 1841 and featuring illustrations by Hablot K. Browne, George Cattermole, and others. There is also an open-access edition available through Project Gutenberg.
Dickens’s literary contemporaries had varying responses to the novel’s conclusion; the most famous was Oscar Wilde’s quip that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughter” (Leverson, Ada, and Wilde, Oscar. Letters to the Sphinx. Michael Walmer, 2015). On the other hand, Daniel O’Connell was said to have thrown his copy of The Old Curiosity Shop out of the window of a moving train after reading Nell’s death scene (O’Toole, Fintan. “Britain is celebrating the great writer's bicentenary, but where in the Dickens are the Irish?” The Irish Times, 2012). Furthermore, critics expressed vastly different opinions of Nell herself, with one detractor arguing that “a child whom nothing can ever irritate, whom nothing can even baffle, whom nothing can ever mis-guide, whom nothing can ever delude, and whom nothing can ever dismay, is a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads” (Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “The Greatness of Charles Dickens.” Charles Dickens. Hodder & Stoughton, 1914. pp. 181-86). All criticisms aside, the novel achieved immense popularity with the common reader; the final chapters of the serial publication were the most highly anticipated literary releases of that year, and readers stormed the docks when the final issues arrived in eagerness to learn Nell’s fate.
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Nell and her grandfather live together in a set of rooms attached to the titular Curiosity Shop, a strange little storefront full of odd antiques. Besides running errands for her grandfather, Nell also teaches Kit, their servant, how to write. Kit is obviously fond of Nell, and he displays a devotion to her beyond the professional demands of his position. He often delays going home until he is sure she is safe in bed for the night. One evening, a stranger helps Nell find her way home. That same night, her grandfather leaves for the evening and does not return until hours later.
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The stranger returns to the Curiosity Shop a week later and chances upon a meeting between Frederick (Nell’s brother), Mr. Daniel Quilp, Mr. Dick Swiveller, and Nell’s grandfather. There is a heated discussion of the family’s finances and Nell’s eligibility for marriage. Privately, the grandfather tells the stranger he plans to leave Nell a substantial fortune when he dies, securing her a future free from the poverty to which her parents fell victim.
Frederick and Dick plan to arrange a marriage between Nell and Dick, ensuring Fred will be able to get his hands on Nell’s inheritance. Quilp learns that the grandfather has a gambling problem and has actually squandered Nell’s entire inheritance on the games. Her grandfather is now deep in debt to Quilp, and when Quilp confronts him about his secret, the grandfather mistakenly assumes Kit revealed the truth. This betrayal triggers an intense mental breakdown, and the grandfather falls ill. In the meantime, Quilp seizes the shop and liquidates the entire inventory in order to get his money back. Nell and her grandfather flee the city in secret.
Kit begins working for a new family, the Garlands. Fred and Dick approach Quilp with their plan to find Nell and marry her off, as they are still ignorant to the reality that her fortune does not exist. Quilp agrees to help them knowing full well there is no wealth to be had because he is eager to see the men suffer. Quilp enlists Sampson and Sally Brass, a brother and sister pair of law practitioners who recently rented out their spare rooms to a mysterious single gentleman. Quilp further sets up Dick with a job as the Brasses’ clerk, and he befriends their much-abused house servant, whom he nicknames the Marchioness.
While traversing the countryside, Nell and her grandfather encounter all manner of people, including a traveling Punch and Judy show, an animal trainer whose dogs can dance and play a crank organ, a poor schoolmaster, and a well-off woman who runs a waxwork show. Nell is briefly employed at the waxwork, but they have to leave abruptly when Nell learns that her grandfather has resumed his gambling habits and once again fallen into debt. They travel by foot to a manufacturing town, where the last of Nell’s wages run out and they must beg for food and alms. Nell’s health deteriorates; she faints in the street from exhaustion and shock when she realizes the stranger she just begged from is actually the same schoolmaster who helped them before.
Quilp and the Brasses scheme to frame Kit for theft. Once free of Fred’s influence, Dick turns out to be a surprisingly magnanimous character, and he works with the Marchioness—who routinely eavesdropped on the Brasses—to clear Kit’s name. The single gentleman lodging at the Brasses is revealed to be Nell’s grandfather’s brother; he took the rooms to facilitate his search for his family. He is also the same stranger who helped Nell find her way home in the first chapters. Using what he has learned from tracking Nell’s travels and talking with everyone who helped her along the way, the single gentleman assembles a rescue party (including a recently freed Kit) to bring them home to London.
Nell and her grandfather join the schoolmaster in the village where he now works, and they take up residence in a pair of old parsonage houses on the grounds of a ruined church. Nell spends her time sprucing up the houses and tending to the plants in the graveyard. She befriends the schoolmaster’s new students, and the entire village quickly becomes very fond of her. By this point, her grandfather’s mental state has significantly deteriorated, and he seems aware of very little that happens around him. Nell’s health improved only slightly after her fainting episode, and she seems to be on the decline yet again.
By the time Kit and the rescue party arrive, Nell has passed away. Her grandfather is now so distraught that he has lost all connection to reality. He is unaware that Nell has even died, and he cannot acknowledge her death even after her burial. He sits sentinel at her gravestone, waiting for her to come back, until his health fades and he, too, passes away. They are buried side by side. In London, Quilp falls into the Thames River and drowns. The Brasses are arrested and, upon release, eventually become beggars themselves. Fred Trent goes abroad and lives recklessly, dying in France. Dick and the Marchioness marry, and he pays for her education and renames her Sophronia Sphynx. Kit returns home and marries Barbara, the Garlands’ other servant, and they start a family together. As his children grow up, Kit tells them the story of Little Nell and regularly shows them the site of the Old Curiosity Shop until the streets and storefronts change so much that he is no longer sure where exactly the place was.
By Charles Dickens