'I'll beat you with an iron rod, I'll scratch you with a rusty nail, I'll pinch your eyes!'
I love the thought of someone's eyes being pinched. How is this even possible? And I love Quilp, the leering, deformed, lustful, sadistic villain of The Old Curiosity Shop, not only because he insults people in inventive ways such as this, but because his demonic energy brings the novel to life: appearing from the shadows like an evil Rumpelstiltskin, threatening to bite people, pinching the arm of his inexplicably pretty and 'well-trained' wife, trying to seduce poor little Nell, and even starting a fight with a dog, just for the hell of it.
The Old Curiosity Shop is the fourth in our Dickens readathon (see Parts 1, 2 and 3 here), which means we are officially a quarter of the way through – cue small whoop – and it is by far the strangest of the books I've read so far. Despite desperately wanting to prove Oscar Wilde's famous maxim wrong, I did find Little Nell intensely annoying: an angel in human form, little more than a cypher. It's the badness that really works in this freakish, carnivalesque, episodic, sexually troubling and morbid novel: the torturing of the starving servant 'the Marchioness'; Nell's grandfather terrifyingly transformed by his gambling habit; the random acts of cruelty. Here's what our other indefatigable readers thought:
"I worried at first that we'd been spoiled forever by the brilliance of David Copperfield (how can simpering, perfect little Nell compete with David's flaws, courage and good humour) but after a slow start, I did end up enjoying this one. It's so clearly written in serial form – the opening narrator falls away in chapter 3 and characters introduced as simpletons or drunken clowns become strong moral heroes by the end of the book – but Quilp the dwarf makes everything OK again. He's a wonderful, horrific little demon, popping up at windows, appearing in every shadow, eating eggs and prawns with the shells on and gulping boiling rum from the pan, and his strength and vitality and amazing language puts everyone else in the shade. The whole book is really strange and nightmarish, full of religious references and weird sideshow freaks living as functioning members of Dickens's society, with weird occurences and apparent non-sequiturs adding to the sense of dream-like oddness. Marvellous. Ignoring Nell's Cordelia act, I'd give this book a hearty 6.75/10." Sam Binnie
"Dickens hadn't thought through his plot when he published the first few bits of The Old Curiosity Shop, and some of the characters change personality half way, so it's strange as a novel, but understandable as a soap opera, and stands up to close scrutiny about as well as Hollyoaks. I'm reading the complete works of Dickens on my Kindle because I have weak arms, and the free version I downloaded is full of spelling errors. I don't want to sound too Penguiny here, but I enjoyed this odd, dreamlike story a lot more once I'd upgraded to the Penguin Classics e-book, with its introduction, notes, and habit of putting the right letters in the right order. My attention wandered a lot in the chapters starring angelic, tragic Little Nell, who is a mechanism designed to tug at the heart strings of your more sentimental Victorian soap opera fan. But Quilp, the sado-masochistic, perverse, antagonistic, evil plotter is the most vital, disgustingly enjoyable villain I have ever come across. He and Whisker the unreliable horse, who has far greater psychological depth than little Nell, make it all worthwhile." Becky Stocks
Next time: Nicholas Nickleby, and after that we'll be squeezing in a quick read of A Christmas Carol before the festive season.