The Old Curiosity Shop: Rough and Smooth

  • Juliet McMaster
Part of the Macmillan Studies in Victorian Literature book series (MSVL)


In The Old Curiosity Shop, perhaps more fully than in any other novel, Dickens acted on and articulated his principle of contrast in composition. The elements of the contrast came to him gradually, and to some degree he was practising them before he was fully conscious of them. He even took a little help from others — an illustrator, and a reviewer — before he was ready to explain the principle. But for all the tentative beginning of the Shop, as it emerged like a butterfly from the chrysalis of Master Humphrey’s Clock, his design was a clear and dominant one.


Church Tower Sharp Lineament Oliver Twist Fairy Godmother Dramatic Monologue 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    Dickens expressed his appreciation in the Preface to the cheap edition of 1848, as well as in a letter written to Hood when he discovered he was the Athenaeum reviewer. Hood’s answer to his letter also moved him deeply. Hood’s writing, he wrote later, was ‘so free from any taint of envy or reluctance to acknowledge me, a young man far more fortunate than himself, that I can hardly bear to think of it’ (Pilgrim Letters, IV, 281). Dickens probably had in mind Hood’s cheerful humility in his letter: Go on, and prosper! — and I wish it most sincerely, though no man in England has so legitimate a right to envy you, for my circulation is so bad I can hardly keep my hands warm. … Should you ever take an airing into Surrey, … you would be certain to find me in it — & to receive literally such hospitality as a Country Mouse can afford — viz bread & cheese. The last friend that dined with us had the Canary. See Alvin Whitley, ‘Hood and Dickens: Some New Letters’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 14 (1951) pp. 393–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 5.
    Thomas Hood, review of vol. I of Master Humphrey’s Clock, Athenaeum, 7 Nov 1840, p. 887.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    John Harvey has also explored the relation of Dickens’s comments (to Williams, and in the new paragraphs of the Shop) with Hood’s review and Forster’s analysis — Victorian Novelists and their Illustrators (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970) pp. 123–4.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (London: Cecil Palmer, 1928) p. 152. The passage is similar to his Examiner review of 7 December 1841.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Joan Stevens, ‘“Woodcuts dropped into the text”; The Illustrations in The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge’, Studies in Bibliography, 20 (1967) 113–33.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Although both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge are considerably shorter than a twenty-part novel, each contains almost double the number of illustrations. See Michael Steig, Dickens and Phiz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978) p. 52.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See Jane R. Cohen: ‘In general … Dickens apportioned out the picturesque subjects to Cattermole, the grotesque to Hablôt Browne’ — Charles Dickens and his Original Illustrators (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1980) p. 129.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Richard Cattermole, Cattermole’s Historical Annual: The Great Civil War of Charles I and his Parliament (London: Longman, 1841). Here George Cattermole’s illustrations to his brother’s text lack the dramatic appropriateness of his cuts in the Shop. Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Aldous Huxley, ‘Vulgarity in Literature’ (1931), in Collected Essays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960) p. 113.Google Scholar
  10. Lawrence Senelick likewise draws attention to the ‘geriatric grotesquerie’ of Nell’s associates — ‘Little Nell and the Prurience of Sentimentality’, Dickens Studies, 3 (1967) 148.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Harry Stone identifies this central motif of ‘the sanctified child leading the corrupted father (an image of sinning man) through the threatening woods of life’ — Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Novel-Making (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979) p. 108.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    G. K. Chesterton pointed out that Nell, with her extraordinarily developed sense of responsibility, is hardly a child at all — Charles Dickens (London: Methuen, 1906) p. 122.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    In spite of the tenderness for him that is evident at one level of the novel, the grandfather is relentlessly exposed and attacked at another. To James Kincaid he is ‘much closer than Quilp to being the chief villain’ — Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) p. 80.Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    I do not go as far as S. J. Newman, who, in Dickens at Play (London: Macmillan, 1981) p. 72, claims Nell ‘begins as holy innocent and ends as monster’, but I agree with his identification of Nell’s negation of life. James Kincaid has also perceptively demonstrated that The approved goals of the Nell group are peace, serenity, sameness, and acquiescence — finally, of course, death’ (Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, p. 87), and has discussed the parody in the waxwork passages.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 22.
    I follow Gabriel Pearson’s now accepted reading of the novel, according to which Dick is the fallible but morally responsible human being who occupies ‘the centre of the field of force created by the opposition between Nell and Quilp’ — ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962) p. 87.Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    Monroe Engel interestingly analyses Dick and the Marchioness as being generative forces for good, as Quilp is generative of evil. Their magic is creative and effective. See Engel’s ‘“A Kind of Allegory”: The Old Curiosity Shop’, in The Interpretation of Narrative: Theory and Practice, ed. Morton W. Bloomfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970) 135–47.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    Hood, review of Master Humphrey’s Clock, I, Athenaeum, 7 Nov 1840, p. 888.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    Other critics have noted this quaint inheritance. See for instance Steven Marcus, Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey (New York: Basic Books, 1965) p. 162.Google Scholar
  19. 27.
    In the case of the single gentleman, Dickens wavered on his policy of anonymity, with embarrassing results. After the story is over, and Master Humphrey and his associates again take the stage, one of them objects, ‘I could have wished … that we had been made acquainted with the single gentleman’s name. I don’t like his withholding his name. It made me look upon him at first with suspicion, and caused me to doubt his moral character, I assure you’ (Master Humphrey’s Clock, II, 224). And here Humphrey chooses to reveal that he was the single gentleman, the grandfather his brother, Nell his great-niece; a revelation that makes nonsense of his early role in the narrative, as well as the character and appearance of the single gentleman as we have come to know him. See Sylvère Monod, Dickens the Novelist (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967) pp. 173–4.Google Scholar
  20. 29.
    Michael Steig discusses this habitual misnomer in ‘Ghosts in Master Humphrey’s Clock: Two Notes on Scholarly Errors’, Dickens Studies Newsletter, 4 (1973) 40.Google Scholar
  21. 32.
    Ian Watt most memorably establishes particularity of identity as a distinguishing feature of the novel’s brand of realism — The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957) ch. 1.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    ‘The Nature of Gothic’, ch. 6 of The Stones of Venice (1853) II, in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1904) x, 214.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Juliet McMaster 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juliet McMaster
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AlbertaCanada

Personalised recommendations