The Old Curiosity Shop – 3rd Progress Report

Yes, I’m still reading. Progress has been a little slower. Partly because I’ve been busy, and distracted by other things. And partly because I know I’ve reached the stage of the book where things are well set up and yet nothing is going to be resolved any time soon.

Which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying the journey. I am, very much. In a Victorian soap opera with modern resonances sort of way.

I finished last time with Nell and her grandfather running away again. And again Nell didn’t want to go, but was pulled along by her love for her grandfather.

They are taken in this time by Mrs Jarley, the proprietor of a travelling waxworks show. Nell is employed and her grandfather accepted for her sake. This gives Dickens the opening for some wonderfully staged scenes and vivid descriptions as Nell finds out what her job entails:

‘That,’ said Mrs Jarley in her exhibition tone, as Nell touched a figure at the beginning of the platform, ‘is an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger; also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work.’

All this, Nell repeated twice or thrice: pointing to the finger and the needle at the right times: and then passed on to the next.

‘That, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mrs Jarley, ‘is jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let ’em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offence. Let this be a warning to all young ladies to be particular in the character of the gentlemen of their choice. Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.'”

The pair have fallen on their feet. Nell appreciates it but does her grandfather? He does not. The man is a compulsive gambler, quite sure that he is just one step away from the win that will justify everything, that will raise him and Nell to what he sees as their rightful status in life. He even steals his granddaughter’s last reserves of money as she lies asleep. She realises what is happening, and she perceives a monster that takes over her grandfather  at night.

“The feeling which beset the child was one of dim uncertain horror. She had no fear of the dear old grandfather, in whose love for her this disease of the brain had been engendered; but the man she had seen that night, wrapt in the game of chance, lurking in her room, and counting the money by the glimmering light, seemed like another creature in his shape, a monstrous distortion of his image, a something to recoil from, and be the more afraid of, because it bore a likeness to him, and kept close about her, as he did. She could scarcely connect her own affectionate companion, save by his loss, with this old man, so like yet so unlike him. She had wept to see him dull and quiet. How much greater cause she had for weeping now!”

Nell does nothing. Well what can she do? What would you do? Her goodness isn’t bothering me any more. She’s just a girl in a horrible position doing the best she can. Her grandfather, on the other hand, I could cheerfully throttle!

Back in London Mr Quilp is still plotting. He installs Dick Sniveller as a clerk with his solicitor Sampson Brass, the better to keep an eye on both of them.

And so we enter Mr Sampson’s less than salubrious offices. He works alongside his sister Sally, a formidable woman, clearly much sharper than her brother and frustrated by the fact that she must be second in command and take charge of domestic affairs. Sally Brass is a wonderful creation.

“Her usual dress was a green gown, in colour not unlike the curtain of the office window, made tight to the figure, and terminating at the throat, where it was fastened behind by a peculiarly large and massive button. Feeling, no doubt, that simplicity and plainness are the soul of elegance, Miss Brass wore no collar or kerchief except upon her head, which was invariably ornamented with a brown gauze scarf, like the wing of the fabled vampire, and which, twisted into any form that happened to suggest itself, formed an easy and graceful head-dress.

Such was Miss Brass in person. In mind, she was of a strong and vigorous turn, having from her earliest youth devoted herself with uncommon ardour to the study of law; not wasting her speculations upon its eagle flights, which are rare, but tracing it attentively through all the slippery and eel-like crawlings in which it commonly pursues its way. Nor had she, like many persons of great intellect, confined herself to theory, or stopped short where practical usefulness begins; inasmuch as she could ingross, fair-copy, fill up printed forms with perfect accuracy, and, in short, transact any ordinary duty of the office down to pouncing a skin of parchment or mending a pen.

It is difficult to understand how, possessed of these combined attractions, she should remain Miss Brass; but whether she had steeled her heart against mankind, or whether those who might have wooed and won her, were deterred by fears that, being learned in the law, she might have too near her fingers’ ends those particular statutes which regulate what are familiarly termed actions for breach, certain it is that she was still in a state of celibacy, and still in daily occupation of her old stool opposite to that of her brother Sampson. And equally certain it is, by the way, that between these two stools a great many people had come to the ground.”

Now Miss Brass isn’t going to be subservient to her brothers clerk. And Mr Swiveller isn’t going to be subservient to a woman. Let battle commence – it’s going to be a wonderful entertainment!

Mr Swiveller is quite possibly my favourite character – bright, articulate and a main with an eye to the main chance, there is clearly a good heart under the roguish veneer.

‘So I’m Brass’s clerk, am I?’ said Dick. ‘Brass’s clerk, eh? And the clerk of Brass’s sister–clerk to a female Dragon. Very good, very good! What shall I be next? Shall I be a convict in a felt hat and a grey suit, trotting about a dockyard with my number neatly embroidered on my uniform, and the order of the garter on my leg, restrained from chafing my ankle by a twisted belcher handkerchief? Shall I be that? Will that do, or is it too genteel? Whatever you please, have it your own way, of course.”

He makes an impressive start. left to mind the office he secures a tenant at a very good rent. A very good tenant, who will only deal with him. Now what is the significance of that I wonder … He observes domestic details …. And he observes a Punch and Judy show setting up outside. The very same Punch and Judy show that sheltered Nell and her grandfather not so long ago. Well Dickens does like his coincidences. Will that lead  the villainous Mr Quilp to Nell and her grandfather?

Well that seems like a good cliffhanger, and that’s where I stopped reading last night. The plot is thickening, the mix of characters and scenes is lovely, and I’m still enjoying the journey and wondering what will happen next.

6 responses

    • It feels like the right way fro this books. It’s one to travel though at a stately pace and admire the view along the way.

  1. You’re making me miss my three unread Wilkie Collins books, languishing on my bookcase.

    I’ve only seen the BBC version of this story on television, the book can only be better. Enjoy your time reading!

    • I can’t imagine this one without the lovely prose. The book may inspire me to watch a dramatisation but I don’t know it would have worked the other day. And though I’m enjoying Dickens, Wilkie Collins would still win in a straight fight!

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