I recently finished listening to an excellent audiobook version of The Old Curiosity Shop by
Dahls Charles Dickens. This is my eleventh Dickens novel, so you know I’m a fan. I love the rhythmic beauty of Boz’s sentences, the far-fetched yet quintessentially human characters he invents. I know his flaws, and even love some of them. I keep coming back for more.
And I am sorry to report that I was disappointed in The Old Curiosity Shop. Despite its formidable reputation — the Americans running along the wharf, yelling to the incoming ships from Britain and asking for news of little Nell — I found it to be engaging, but not deeply affecting. Oh, it made me cry, but in an unusual turn of events, I resented my own tears. Usually I embrace Dickens’s melodrama, which is often over the top but also really earnest. Here, it rang hollow and manipulative. Why?
Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens’s fourth novel, which may explain some of its weaknesses, but it’s worth noting that while his first “novel”, Pickwick Papers, is the only Dickens I’ve ever left unfinished, I love his second and third, Oliver Twist and my dear Nicholas Nickleby. What early Dickens failing is forgivable in those and glaring in this?
Stereotypes. Dickens often relied on broad generalizations and character “types” in his work. His characters often have a theatrical quality, and sometimes are so defined by their role that their name never appears, like Curiosity Shop‘s “Single Gentleman”. This is an integral part of his style, and doubtless helped prompt the memories of readers whose experience of the novels was through the serial medium. In general, this theatricality is part of Dickens’s charm: he had a deft eye for the absurd which envisioned bizarre but vivid and palpably real characters like Wemmick and the Artful. But the same capacity for exaggeration and shorthand characterization could also harm his work.
In The Old Curiosity Shop, two of Dickens’s prejudices come to the forefront: the idea of the Villainous Cripple, and the Sacrificing Woman. The Villainous Cripple stereotype should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Bond movies (or apparently, Doctor Who.) It partakes of two main tropes: external appearance accurately expressing internal nature, something which I’m sure has a fancy name (hopefully with “fallacy” on the end); and another classic of disability (mis)representation, the Bitter Cripple. Thus, you sometimes see a villain with a disability or disfigurement that just adds to their drama, “frightfulness” or “wrongness”, and you sometimes see a villain whose disability has caused them to become “warped” and malignant.
Daniel Quilp is both. He is described factually as a dwarf, then figuratively as a monkey, an ape, and a demon. Oh, so often a demon. We even have entered Dungeons & Dragons-style demonic bestiaries with “imp”! He’s strangely agile (thus the monkey image) and uses his agility — and his capacity for disturbing facial expressions — to upset and frighten people, to project this demon-ape image. Of course the words “warped” and “twisted” are used. On the other hand, we see him occasionally justifying his evil — for this is an evil, manipulative, vitriolic character — by reminding himself of insults paid to him on the basis of his disability. Our working-class boy-hero, the euphoniously named Kit Nubbles, is reported to have called Quilp “an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny” after one of the central pieces of Quilp villainy is executed, and this remark is used by Quilp as justification for all his subsequent efforts against Kit.
The Bitter part of this stereotype is as close as it ever comes to real characterization: are we to believe Quilp is evil because people mocked him for his disability? But then, why are other Dickensians stalwart and pure in the face of their afflictions and the world’s cruelty? (Is this a literary Puritanism, with an Elect and a Damned?) In the absence of any really understandable motivation for Quilp’s Herculean efforts in the service of villainy, he isn’t a character, just a malign force moving through the book and serving the plot. Greed may explain this action, revenge that, but fundamentally he hates all the good characters for no better reason than that they are the good characters. He hates, explicitly, their virtue. Unlike the general run of Dickens’s shadowy villains, nursing their monomanias and dreams of avarice, Quilp feels unfocused and emotionally diffuse. This is not a character with human motivations. This is a plot device with a face.
The other character to whom I object is — don’t hurt me — Little Nell. I have long said, “I love Dickens, but he doesn’t love me back.” Dickens doesn’t write a lot of relatable women. At least, you can relate to some of his major characters, but I really don’t recommend doing it. The classic Dickens heroines — the Good Girls — are endless flowing fonts of generosity. They are virtuous, compassionate, and honest. All good things, but in the Dickensian heroine they are taken to excess. If you ever find yourself considering what Agnes Wickfield would do as a guide to your everyday behavior, I suggest you preemptively check yourself in for therapy. Giving as much and as thoroughly as these women do is not healthy. Their entire personalities are defined by their nurturing. In Agnes, we forgive it, because she’s a secondary character. In Little Nell, the nominal protagonist, it’s poison.
Characters need, to state the obvious, flaws. Even in the starkly drawn world of Dickens’s imagination, heroes have them: Nicholas Nickleby’s temper (however much I find it refreshing) is a flaw. Pip, Boz help him, is a mass of flaws. The characters need something in themselves to strive against, not just in the world. Even Kit Nubbles, the bonus protagonist of this volume, introduced as Nell’s comic relief and only marginally older than she, has flaws and struggles, small though they be. He struggles to “stay cheerful” and govern his temper for the sake of his mother. He can be oblivious to others’ feelings. He can, albeit less spectacularly than Nickleby, snap.
Nell, on the other hand, is imperturbably perfect. She’s less naive than that other pure little waif, Oliver Twist, so she’s able to get herself and her beloved Grandfather (the recipient of her Eternal Spring of Giving) out of scrapes, and out of clutches. She’s sweet, kind, soft-spoken, moral, uncomplaining (to the point of collapse from hunger) and true. She likes to ease others’ suffering. She wants simplicity and quiet. Oh, and of course, she is gorgeously beautiful, and small for her age, allowing her to inhabit a nebulous zone between the pitiful child and the vulnerable woman for maximum victimhood.
We have Mary Sue and Marty Stu — can there be a Martyr Sue, too? A character with no flaws is just frustrating, not engaging. I’m willing to wait for her flaws to emerge, but at some point — and I remember the point vividly, when Grandfather was whinging at her for uprooting them which she did to rescue them from his folly and she answered mildly — you lose all suspension of disbelief. No one that sweet can exist, should exist. Anything you do to her to make me cry is cheap. Anything she says is cloying. She has too few dimensions to exist on a flat page.
This is what we’re talking about when we say that writing in stereotypes is bad writing. For all the cleverness and fun moments in Old Curiosity Shop (and it did definitely have them), it’s strung around empty spots instead of believable person-facsimiles.
Dickens learned by doing, as we all must. Besides the convincingly flawed Bad Girls like Nancy and Louisa Gradgrind (and less convincingly drawn Estella), he eventually produced women who were allowed to be much less than perfect and still good, like Bella Wilfer. Some of his later characters seem almost like apologias for those that came before — Jenny Wren for Tiny Tim, Riah for Fagin. I don’t resent Little Nell or condemn her as a sexist depiction. I just see her as a missed opportunity, like many before and since. Art needs justice every bit as much as justice, to get a hold on people, needs art.