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The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel by Charles Dickens. 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) which Dickens published in his weekly serial Master Humphrey's Clock, which lasted from 1840 to 1841. The Old Curiosity Shop was printed as a separate book in 1841.

Plot summary

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 at cards. He keeps his nocturnal games a secret, but borrows heavily from the evil Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely deformed 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. Her 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 a 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 he dies himself a few months later.

The events of the book seem to take place in about 1825. In chapter 29 Miss Monflathers refers to the death of Lord Byron, who died in 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' [sic], putting him in the reign of Queen Victoria, which 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', this must be a lapsus calami.

Framing Device

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 added a 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 himself cancelled Master Humphrey's Clock 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.

Characters in The Old Curiosity Shop

Major characters

  • 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, and her guardian from a young age. 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 recognise his brother who 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 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 the household. His dedication to his family earns him the respect of many characters, and the resentment of Quilp. He is framed for robbery, but later released and joins the party travelling to recover Nell.
  • Daniel Quilp, the novel's primary villain. Mistreats his wife and manipulates others to his own ends. Lent money to Nell's grandfather, and took possession of the curiosity shop during the old man's illness (which he had caused by revealing his knowledge of Trent's gambling habit).
  • Richard 'Dick' Swiveller, by turns Frederick Trent's manipulated friend, Sampson Brass's clerk and the Marchioness's guardian. 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. 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's rooms and befriending Dick, Kit and the Garlands.

Other characters

  • 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.
  • Mrs Jarley, proprietor of a travelling waxworks show, who takes in Nell and her grandfather out of kindness.
  • 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, but dropped from the narrative after chapter 23. Briefly 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.
  • 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 'Snobby'.
  • 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 letter.

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.' (In fact there is no such scene, since Nell's death takes place off stage.)

  • Some literary comments on the book:

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

A shop named 'The Old Curiosity Shop' is found at 13-14 Portsmouth Street, London 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. The small town of Shifnal in Shropshire was a favourite of Charles Dickens, and it is possible that he based the buildings in "The Old Curiosity Shop" on those in Shifnal. However this has never been confirmed by a credible source and should be taken as hearsay rather than historical evidence. The heavily industrialised city where Nell faints and is rescued by the school master is Birmingham. The city where Nell and her Grandfather work at Jarley's Waxworks is Coventry. The village where they finally find peace and rest and where Nell dies is Tong, Shropshire. Also, there is a shop in Broadstairs called The Old Curiosity Shop, and Charles Dickens had a house in Broadstairs.

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 its native Britain) was released in 1971, but was a flop, because the age of the conventional British musical had passed. An adaptation for BBC Radio 4 was first broadcast in 1998. The production starred Tom Courtenay as Quilp. In 1995 Tom Courtenay and Peter Ustinov starred in a Disney 'made for television' adaptation as Quilp and the Grandfather, with Sally Walsh as Nell. A television film adaptation was produced by ITV and broadcast in the UK on 26 December 2007.

Release details

Major editions

  • 1840 – 1841, UK, Chapman and Hall, Pub date (88 weekly parts) April 1840 to November 1841, Serial as part of Master Humphrey's Clock
  • 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, Leatherbound
  • 1995, USA, Everyman's Library ISBN 0-460-87600-7, Pub date ? ? 1995, Paperback
  • 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)

External links

  • Map of Nell and her grandfather's journey from London through the Midlands to journey's end in Tong, Shropshire.
  • Review, from 'The Lectern', March 2007.

Online editions


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