The Old Curiosity Shop

A while ago I wrote an article for another blog I contribute to about an event held at UCL (University College London) to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. You can read the article here. At the end I made a very personal confession which is that although I’ve tried several times I’ve never actually read one of Dickens’ books all the way through. So considering that this year is his bicentennial and since the event got me all fired up and looking at the great novelist in a new light I promised that by the end of this year I would have read one of his books all the way through.

This post is in recognition of the fact that I’ve made good on my promise. I did a bit of research to find out what people thought the best book for a beginner like me was and one of the names that came up again and again was The Old Curiosity Shop. Now I had no idea what the story of OCS was although the name little Nell rang a bell but since it seemed popular I decided to give it a go.

I duly ordered a copy from Amazon and was shocked to find out that it was quite a hefty tome when it arrived. This revelation did not fill me with glee and I put off starting it for a good month or so.

Eventually the point arrived where I didn’t feel I could delay any more (partially because I’d run out of other books but partially because I was feeling guilty about my rash promise) and so I picked up the weighty chronicle and headed off to the tube.

By the time I reached my final destination my whole opinion of Dickens had changed. In the past I’ve found his novels to start slowly and drag on through endless descriptions of weather (Bleak House anyone?) but this was completely different. The story is actually funny and had me interested and relating to the characters from the get-go. This is the point where I tend to struggle with some of the classic writers (see my earlier post on Jane Austen) but I didn’t have any such problem with OCS. I expected to find Nell whiny and annoying but she was nothing of the sort, while she wasn’t exactly my favourite character she did endear herself to me throughout the story and I didn’t feel my heart sink when the tale returned to her after concentrating on someone else.

The most unexpected aspect was the sarcasm Dickens writes with: his descriptions of the behaviour of the Garlands’ pony were hilarious and made him my firm favourite (closely followed by Dick Swiveller, not just because of that name). It is a mark of real skill that there is barely a bad thing written about a single one of the characters (including the foul Quilp) instead and insults or detractions are wrapped up and twisted about in flowery language and double negatives. Although this is a trait that would usually grate on me before long I enjoyed the skill of the wordplay so much that I barely noticed until I got towards the end of the book.

The story itself is multi-layered with a large number of characters both minor and major, perilous happenings and a twist at the end which I only just saw coming. It really does have something for everyone and I was stunned by just how much I enjoyed it.

So I would like to end by thanking UCL wholeheartedly for persuading me to give Dickens another chance and I now look forward to embracing more of his work, especially those on that list I’ve strayed from for so long!

One cautionary note for anyone who doesn’t know the story and is going to give OCS a try, if you read the Wordsworth Classics edition, be very wary of the notes: a couple of them late on in the book give the end away and no one likes spoilers!

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