The archetypal Victorian melodrama, as heartfelt and moving today as when it was first published, Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is edited with notes and an introduction by Norman Page in Penguin Classics.
Little Nell Trent lives in the quiet gloom of the old curiosity shop with her ailing grandfather, for whom she cares with selfless devotion. But when they are unable to pay their debts to the stunted, lecherous and demonic money-lender Daniel Quilp, the shop is seized and they are forced to flee, thrown into a shadowy world in which there seems to be no safe haven. Dickens’s portrayal of the innocent, tragic Nell made The Old Curiosity Shop an instant bestseller that captured the hearts of the nation, even as it was criticised for its sentimentality by figures such as Oscar Wilde. Yet alongside the story’s pathos are some of Dickens’s greatest comic and grotesque creations: the ne’er-do-well Dick Swiveller, the mannish lawyer Sally Brass, the half-starved ‘Marchioness’ and the lustful, loathsome Quilp himself.
Curiosity Shop weaves between the travels of Little Nell and her grandfather and the doings of characters like Kit Nubbles and Dick Swiveler in London. I find that the novel reads more like a literary experiment. I love thinking of it as a “modern” fairytale for the age in which it was written. Certainly, angelic, innocent, ethereal Nell has many strange experiences on her journey through the novel, meeting both the benevolent, the malevolent, the grotesque, and the unusual.