The Old Curiosity Shop
is a novel by
. The plot follows
the life of Nell Trent and her grandfather, both residents of The
Old Curiosity Shop in London.
The Old Curiosity Shop
was one of two novels (the other
being Barnaby Rudge
Dickens published along with short stories in his weekly serial
, which lasted from 1840
. The Old Curiosity Shop
printed as a separate book in 1841.
The Old Curiosity Shop
tells the story of Nell Trent, a
beautiful and virtuous young girl of 'not quite fourteen.' An
orphan, she lives with her maternal grandfather (whose name is
never revealed) in his shop of odds and ends. Her grandfather loves
her dearly, and Nell does not complain, but she lives a lonely
existence with almost no friends her own age. Her only friend is
Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop, and whom she is teaching
to write. Secretly obsessed with ensuring that Nell does not die in
poverty as her parents did, her grandfather attempts to make Nell a
good inheritance through gambling
He keeps his nocturnal games a secret, but borrows heavily from the
evil Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely deformed, hunchbacked
dwarf moneylender. In the end, he gambles away what little money
they have, and Quilp seizes the opportunity to
take possession of the shop and evict Nell and her grandfather.
grandfather suffers a breakdown
that leaves him bereft of his wits, and Nell takes him away to the
Midlands of England,
to live as beggars.
Convinced that the old man has stored up a fortune for Nell, her
wastrel brother Frederick convinces the good-natured but easily-led
Dick Swiveller to help him track Nell down so that Swiveller can
marry her and the two can share Nell's supposed inheritance. To
this end, they join forces with Quilp, who knows full well that
there is no fortune, but sadistically chooses to 'help' in order to
enjoy the misery it will inflict on all concerned. Quilp begins to
try to track Nell down, but the fugitives are not easily
discovered. To keep Dick Swiveller under his eye, Quilp arranges
for him to be taken as a clerk by Quilp's lawyer, Mr. Brass. At the
Brass firm, Dick befriends the mistreated servant maid and
nicknames her 'the Marchioness'. Nell, having fallen in with a number of
characters, some villainous and some kind, succeeds in leading her
grandfather to safe haven in a far off village (identified by
Dickens as Tong,
Shropshire), but this
has come at a considerable cost to Nell's health.
Meanwhile, Kit, having lost his job at the curiosity shop, has
found new employment with the kind Mr and Mrs Garland. Here he is
contacted by a mysterious 'single gentleman' who is looking for
news of Nell and her grandfather. The 'single gentleman' and Kit's
mother go after them unsuccessfully, and encounter Quilp, who is
also hunting for the runaways. Quilp forms a grudge against Kit and
has him framed as a thief. Kit is sentenced to transportation
. However, Dick Swiveller
proves Kit's innocence with the help of his friend the Marchioness.
Quilp is hunted down and dies trying to escape his pursuers. At the
same time, a coincidence leads Mr Garland to knowledge of Nell's
whereabouts, and he, Kit, and the single gentleman (who turns out
to be the younger brother of Nell's grandfather) go to find her.
Sadly, by the time they arrive, Nell has died as a result of her
arduous journey. Her grandfather, already mentally infirm, refuses
to admit she is dead and sits every day by her grave waiting for
her to come back, until a few months later, he dies himself.
The events of the book seem to take place around 1825
. In Chapter 29, Miss Monflathers refers to the
death of Lord
, who died on April 19, 1824. When the inquest rules
(incorrectly) that Quilp committed suicide, his corpse is ordered
to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart, a
practice banned in 1826. And Nell's grandfather, after his
breakdown, fears that he shall be sent to a madhouse, and there
chained to a wall and whipped; these practices went out of use
after about 1830. In Chapter 13, the lawyer Mr. Brass is described
as "one of Her
Majesty's attornies" , putting him
in the reign of Queen Victoria
began in 1837, but given all the other evidence, and the fact that
Kit, at his trial, is charged with acting "against the peace of our
Sovereign Lord the King" (referring to George IV
), this must be a
slip of the pen.
was a weekly serial that contained both short
stories and two novels (The Old Curiosity Shop
). Some of the short stories act as frame stories
to the novels.
Originally the conceit of the story was that Master Humphrey was
reading it aloud to a group of his friends, gathered at his house
around the grandfather clock in which he eccentrically kept his
manuscripts. Consequently, when the novel begins, it is told in the
first person, with Master Humphrey the narrator. However, Dickens
soon changed his mind about how best to tell the story, and
abandoned the first-person narrator after chapter three. Once the
novel was ended, Master Humphrey's Clock
concluding scene, where Master Humphrey's friends (after he has
finished reading the novel to them) complain that the 'single
gentleman' is never given a name; Master Humphrey tells them that
the novel was a true story, that the 'single gentleman' was in fact
Master Humphrey himself, and that the events of the first three
chapters were fictitious, intended only to introduce the
characters. This was Dickens' after-the-fact explanation of why the
narrator disappeared and why (if he was their near relation) he
gave no sign in the first three chapters of knowing who they were.
It is a clumsy device, and at least one editor thinks 'it need not
be taken seriously.'
Dickens' original artistic intent was to keep the short stories and
the novels together, and the short stories and the novels were
published in 1840 in three bound volumes under the title Master
, which retains the original full and correct
ordering of texts. However, Dickens himself cancelled Master
before 1848, and describes in a preface to
The Old Curiosity Shop
that he wishes the story to not be
tied down to the miscellany it began within. Most later anthologies
published the short stories and the novels separately.
Characters in The Old Curiosity Shop
- Nell Trent, the novel's main character.
Portrayed as infallibly good and angelic, she leads her grandfather
on their journey to save them from misery. She gradually becomes
weaker throughout the journey, and although she finds a home with
the help of the schoolmaster, she does not recover and dies before
her friends in London find her.
- Nell's grandfather, Nell's guardian. After
losing both his wife and daughter, he sees Nell as the embodiment
of their good spirits. His grandson Fred is seen as the successor
to his son-in-law, who he felt unworthy of his daughter. As such,
he shows him no affection. As his money runs out, he turns to loans
from Quilp and a gambling addiction so Nell can continue in the
life he feels she deserves. After believing Kit has revealed his
secret addiction he falls ill, and is mentally unstable afterwards.
Nell then protects him as he had done for her. He refuses to
acknowledge Nell's death and does not recognize his brother whom he
had protected in their childhood. He dies soon after Nell, and is
buried beside her.
- Christopher 'Kit' Nubbles, Nell's friend and
servant. He watches out for Nell when she is left in the shop alone
at night, and offers her a place in his house when Quilp takes
over. He is later given a position at the Garland's house, and
becomes an important member of their household. His dedication to
his family earns him the respect of many characters, and the
resentment of Quilp. He is framed for robbery, but is later
released and joins the party travelling to recover Nell.
- Daniel Quilp, is the novel's primary villain;
he mistreats his wife and manipulates others to his own ends. He
lends money to Nell's grandfather, and takes possession of the
curiosity shop during the old man's illness (which he had caused by
revealing his knowledge of Trent's bad gambling habit).
- Richard 'Dick' Swiveller, in turn is Frederick
Trent's manipulated friend, Sampson Brass's clerk and the
Marchioness's guardian. He delights in quoting and adapting
literature to describe his situations. Following Fred's departure
from the story, he becomes more independent and eventually is seen
as a strong force for good, securing Kit's release from prison and
the Marchioness's future. He comes into money from the death of a
great-aunt, and later marries the Marchioness.
- The single gentleman, the estranged younger brother of Nell's
grandfather. He leads the search for the travellers after taking
lodging in Sampson Brass' rooms and befriending Dick, Kit and the
- Mr. Sampson Brass, an attorney (what would now
be called a solicitor) of the Court of the
King's Bench. A grovelling, obsequious man, he is an employee of
Mr. Quilp, and at his urging he frames Kit for robbery.
- Miss Sarah ('Sally') Brass, Mr. Brass's sister
and clerk; she is the real authority in the Brass firm. She is
occasionally referred to as a "dragon".
- Mrs. Jarley, proprietor of a travelling
waxworks show, who takes in Nell and her grandfather out of
- Frederick Trent, Nell's worthless older
brother, who is convinced that his grandfather is secretly wealthy
(when in actuality he was the primary cause of the old man's
poverty, according to the single gentleman). Initially a major
character in the novel and highly influential over Richard
Swiveller, he is dropped from the narrative after chapter 23.
mentioned as travelling Great Britain and the wider world following
his disappearance from the story, before being found injured and
drowned in the River
Seine after the story's conclusion. The character
was named after the novelist's younger brother, Frederick Dickens.
- Mr. Garland, a kind-hearted man, father of
Abel Garland and employer of Kit.
- The 'small servant', Miss Brass's maidservant. Dick Swiveller
befriends her and, finding that she does not know her age or name
or parents, nicknames her 'The Marchioness' and later gives her the
name Sophronia Sphynx. In the original manuscript it is made
explicit that the Marchioness is in fact the illegitimate daughter
of Miss Brass, possibly by Quilp, but only a suggestion of this
survived in the published edition.
- Isaac List and Joe Jowl, professional
gamblers. They lure Nell's grandfather back into his gambling ways.
(One instance of Joe Jowl being called 'Mat' mistakenly remained in
the published novel.)
- Mr. Chuckster, the dogsbody of the notary Mr. Witherden, who employs
Mr. Abel Garland. He takes a strong dislike to Kit after Mr.
Garland overpays Kit for a job and Kit returns to work off the
difference; he shows his dislike at every opportunity, calling Kit
- Mr. Marton, a poor schoolmaster. He befriends
Nell and later meets her on the roads when she is ill; he takes her
to an inn and pays for the doctor, and then takes her and her
grandfather to live with him in the distant village where he has
been appointed parish clerk.
- Thomas Codlin, proprietor of a travelling
Punch and Judy show.
- Mr. Harris, called 'Short Trotters', the
puppeteer of the Punch and Judy show.
- Barbara, the maidservant of Mr. and Mrs.
Garland and future wife of Kit.
- The Bachelor, brother of Mr. Garland. Lives in
the village where Nell and her grandfather end their journey, and
unknowingly alerts his brother of their presence through a
Important real locations
Literary significance and criticism
Probably the most widely-repeated criticism of Dickens is Oscar Wilde
's remark that 'One would have to
have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without
dissolving into tears...of laughter.'
The Irish leader Daniel O'Connell
burst into tears (of sorrow) at the finale, and threw the book out
of the window of the train in which he was travelling.
surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens
fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read
the last instalment in Britain), "Is Little Nell alive?"
In 2007, many
newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume
The Old Curiosity Shop
was the only historical comparison
that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last
novel, Harry Potter and the
authoress Ingeborg Refling Hagen
, is allegedly
said to have buried a copy of the book in her youth, stating that
nobody deserved to read about Nell, because nobody would ever
understand her pain. She compared herself to Nell, because of her
own miserable situation at the time.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography
named 'The Old Curiosity Shop' can be found at 13-14 Portsmouth
Street, Westminster, London, WC2A 2ES, in amongst the London
School of Economics.
The building dates back to the sixteenth
century, but this name was added after the novel was released, as
it was thought to be the inspiration for Dickens' description of
the antique shop. At one time it functioned as a dairy on an estate
given by King Charles II
one of his many mistresses. It was made using the wood from old
ships and the building survived the bombs of Second World War
. There is also a shop
in Broadstairs called The Old Curiosity Shop, where Dickens rented
her Grandfather meet Codlin and Short in a Churchyard in Aylesbury. The Races where Nell and her Grandfather go
to with the show people are at Banbury.
village where they first meet the schoolmaster is Warmington,
Warwickshire. They meet Mrs. Jarley near the village of
Warwickshire. The town where they work at Jarley's
Waxworks is Warwick. The heavily industrialised town where Nell
spends the night by the furnace is Birmingham, after they have travelled on the Warwick and
Birmingham Canal. The town in which Nell faints and is rescued
by the school master is Wolverhampton in the Black Country. The village where they finally find peace
and rest and where Nell dies is Tong, Shropshire.
Adaptations for the cinema, TV, radio and theatre
There were several silent movie
adaptations of the novel. The first talkie
version was a 1934 British movie. It was serialised for television
by the BBC
in 1960. A musical version (released under the title
Mr. Quilp in Britain) was released in 1971, but was a flop, because the
age of the conventional British musical had passed.
was created by the BBC and later released on DVD.
There was no Frederick character and the story ends with the
grandfather grovelling on Nell's grave. An adaptation for BBC Radio 4
was first broadcast in 1998. The
production starred Tom Courtenay
Quilp. In 1995 Tom Courtenay
starred in a Disney
'made for television' adaptation as Quilp and the Grandfather, with
Sally Walsh as Nell. A television film adaptation
produced by ITV
and broadcast in the UK on 26
December 2007 and repeated on 14 December 2008.
- 1840 – 1841, UK, Chapman and Hall, Pub date (88 weekly parts)
April 1840 to November 1841, Serial as part of Master Humphrey's
- 1841, UK, Chapman and Hall (ISBN not used), Pub date ? ? 1841,
Hardback (first edition)
- 1904, NY, Thomas Y. Crowell (ISBN not used), Pub date ? ? 1904,
- 1995, USA, Everyman's Library ISBN 0-460-87600-7, Pub date ? ?
- 1997, UK, Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press) ISBN
0-19-812493-7, Pub date 13 November 1997, Hardback. This is
considered the definitive edition of the book.
- 2001, UK, Penguin Books Ltd ISBN 0-14-043742-8, Pub date 25
January 2001, Paperback (Penguin Classic)