Dickens and society in The Old Curiosity Shop
According to Hippolyte Taine, one of the leading literature critics of the nineteenth century, ” the novels of Dickens can all be reduced to one phrase, to wit: Be good, and love.” In Taine’s view, Dickens work suffered not only because of this lack of variety but also through theauthor’s simplistic philosophical outlook and his excessive imagination. Taine’s view prevailed long after it was published in 1856. Not until F R Leavis published The Great Tradition in 1948 was there an acknowledgement that Dickens skills as a writer put him on a par with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James.
Reding The Old Curiosity Shop it’s easy to see how Taine came to his conclusions about Dickens. This is after all the novel whose central character so entranced its first readers with her infallibly good and angelic nature that they cried on hearing of her ultimate fate.
The character in question is the orphan Nell Trent (known as Little Nell) who lives with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop in London. It’s a lonely life for the poor girl who has no friends except for Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop whom she is teaching to read. Her grandfather loves Nell so dearly he cannot bear the idea that she will die in poverty as did her parents. He begins gambling but becomes heavily in debt to Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely formed dwarf. Quilp seizes the shop and evicts the pair. Nell, in fear of her grandfather’s disturbed mind determines to get him away from Quilp even if it means they become beggars. Their journey takes them across many miles to the industrial heart of England. But their pursuers are not far behind them.
Multiple trials and tests confront the pair on their travels but Nell radiates goodness throughout. She has a maturity well beyond her thirteen years, protecting her grandfather from his gambling habits and walking many miles every day though her feet are bleeding and her belly is empty. Every person she meets along the way becomes enamoured of this beautiful young child from Mrs. Jarley, proprietor of a travelling waxworks show, who takes in Nell and her grandfather out of kindness to Mr. Marton, a poor schoolmaster. Dickens shows how Nell’s goodness radiates from her, changing the lives of those around her. To be sure readers understand the point Dickens ends with a scene in which Nell is held up by Kit as a model of how all children should behave.
The little group would often gather …. And beg him to tell again the story of good Mis Nell.. and when they cried to hear it, he would teach them how she had gone to Heaven, as all good people did; and how, if they were good, like her, they might hope to be there too, one day, and to see and know her as he had done… In my edition of the book the final page even includes a little sketch of a girl born away from earth in the arms of four angels.
Goodness isn’t confined to Nell however. Christopher ‘Kit’ Nubbles, Nell’s devoted friend and servant, is used as an example of the virtues of loyalty and integrity. He watches out for Nell when she is left in the shop alone at night (although she doesn’t know he’s there) and will ‘never come home to his bed until he thinks she’s safe in hers’. He is a devoted son and employee too, and the respect he gathers from many characters rescue him from prison and transportation so that he can eventually become a devoted father and husband. And then we get Richard ‘Dick’ Swiveller, a young man who owes money to just about everyone and goes through life as if it’s a huge joke. But in the end, he learns the error of his ways and is eventually a force for good himself, helping to rescue Kit from prison and rescuing a young servant from a life of drudgery.
Multiple examples in this novel support Taine’s assertion that sentimentality and simple morality characterised much of Dickens’ work. But there is another side to Dickens which Taine failed to acknowledge. Many of Dickens’ novels reflect and highlight his concerns with the condition of England and particularly the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on the lives of ordinary people. In Great Expectations for example we see how commercial trade makes upward social mobility a realistic prospect, this challenging the established class structure based on inherited wealth. In Dombey and Son, commercial interests and love of money take precedence over love for a wife and a daughter and we see some of Dickens harshest comments on the desperate conditions created for the poor who live in cities churning out the products upon which the new merchant class rely. Those same conditions are reflected too in The Old Curiosity Shop, not to the same extent as in Dombey and Son certainly but they are definitely present.
To take one example, as Nell and her grandfather escape from the city, they encounter some of the poorest districts that lie on the fringes of London.
A straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms and windows patched with rags and paper told of the populous poverty that sheltered there.. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest ..
Damp rotten houses… Lodgings where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take, children scantily fed and clothed spread over every street and sprawling in the dust…
As they approach the more industrialised part of the country (the area around Birmingham) they witness the destruction of nature caused by industry.
A long suburb of red-brick houses – some with patched of garden, where coal dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves and coarse rank flowers and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace…
The factories and furnaces responsible for this desolation appear to take on a human form, “writhing like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains … as though in torment unendurable and making the ground tremble with their agonies. …in their wildness and untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again… never ceasing in their black vomit.”
Proximity to these engines, Dickens observes, makes the people themselves yet more wild and lawless, running with firebrands and swords through streets ringing with the sound of hungry children’s cries and the rumble of coffin-bearing carts.
It’s true, as George Orwell complained, that Dickens doesn’t offer any solutions for these ills but they do show a different side to the author from the one Taine presented. An author who was keenly aware of the world around him and sought to reflect that while still pleasing his readers with tales of love and goodness.