This month I’ve decided to jump into the fray and take part in the Dueling Authors: Austen vs. Dickens Tour (http://classics.rebeccareid.com/). With no disrespect intended to Jane Austen, I had to cast my vote with Charles Dickens. He had such passion. He wrote to change the world. His writing makes me laugh and cry, often on the same page.
For this particular contest, I was assigned to write in support of THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP, which is a tricky novel to write about because it’s very sentimental. Little Nell, the main character, is a female version of Tiny Tim. She suffers, suffers, then dies. Oscar Wilde famously said one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.
Bah! Humbug! say I.
For me, the power of this novel is that Dickens’ passions shine through so ferociously. I feel closer to him with The Old Curiosity Shop than any other of his writing. He wrote this novel fast. The pages came out in monthly and sometimes weekly installments over the course of 1840 and early 1841. He didn’t have time to separate himself from the writing. There’s an unfiltered, raw, vitality to these pages that speaks to the joy Dickens must have felt writing them. You sense his mind at work. You also must be touched by the passions that animated him.
“I am breaking my heart over this story,” he said to a friend during his writing of The Old Curiosity Shop. The novel forced him to explore feelings of grief that were already raw. Only a few years earlier, just as he was becoming famous, Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died suddenly at the age of 17. Mary influenced the way he wrote about women; there’s a reason so many of his women are gentle and pure. His feelings of loss helped him write about grief more beautifully than any other writer. Anyone who has mourned will recognize what Dickens is writing about when he describes the “weary void” that comes with grief, “the sense of desolation that will come upon the strongest minds, when something familiar and beloved is missed at every turn—the connection between inanimate and senseless things, and the object of recollection when every household god becomes a monument and every room a grave.”
But perhaps you are not looking to be depressed.
That’s all right, because THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP is also a very funny book, with much more laughter in it than tears. For one thing, there’s an evil dwarf who pursues Little Nell and wants to make her his wife. Daniel Quilp is one of Dickens’ most vivid characters. Some of my favorite exchanges are between Quilp and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jiniwin, who lives with him “and waged perpetual war with Daniel; of whom, notwithstanding, she stood in no slight dread.”
The novel’s plot is fairly simple. Nell and her grandfather, a gambler, are evicted from their home and forced to leave London and seek shelter. They are pursued by Quilp, who enlists a host of vivid characters, among them a villainous attorney, Sampson Brass, and his masculine sister Sally. On the road, Little Nell and her grandfather have a series of adventures, many of them moving testimonies to what life was like in England in the 1820s. (The novel is set some years before Dickens wrote it.) One of the most poignant scenes comes when Nell and her grandfather find shelter with a man who lives and works at a furnace, and spends all his time watching the fire. “It’s like a book to me,” he said, “the only book I ever learned to read; and many an old story it tells me. It’s music, for I should know its roar among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don’t know how many strange faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals. It’s my memory, that fire, and shows me all my life.”
Similar words could be used for Dickens. He shows us all the passions that make up all our lives.