Only one unhappy ending

Dear Charlie,

Poor, poor little Nell! I know I thought she was a touch too innocent for her own good, but having finished The Old Curiosity Shop today I feel slightly guilty for ever thinking ill of her. I may be on vacation, but I had a solid lump in my throat for that entire chapter where the travelers finally track down her whereabouts, but arrive too late – and her grandfather’s reaction!  And Kit! And even the goddamned bird! Ack! Just take my heart and rip it apart, why don’t you?

Americans loved Little Nell almost as much as Dickens himself, it seems, as this statue in Philadelphia testifies.

I’m being selfish, I know. Killing off such a lovely heroine was even harder for you as the writer than for me as the reader. “I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it,” you wrote to your illustrator, and I believe it, especially since I read here that your sister-in-law was the inspiration for Nell. I hope, in that case, that the novel was in some way a cathartic experience for you.

In every other respect, though, your supporting cast’s stories are deeply satisfying. Kit’s honesty and integrity is amply rewarded, in spite of his loss, and Sampson Brass’s crimes are also rewarded in kind. I was thrilled to see that Dick Swiveller, weak willed though he is, was not beyond hope, and he and the “small servant” are such an adorable pairing, especially when they first play cribbage together in Brass’s gloomy kitchen and strike up an unlikely friendship. His original companion, Nell’s brother of dubious reputation, faded into oblivion rather early, which was a bit of a shame, but I suppose he got his just desserts. I wonder what became of the very interesting Sally Brass? If ever there was an interesting story waiting to be told, it’s of her adventures after she slips away quietly and vanishes. Soldier? Pirate? Beggar? Personally, I vote pirate.

And Quilp! Oh, Charlie, thank you for dealing with him so irrevocably! I was a little disappointed at his rather quiet death, but when I read about his being buried with a stake through his heart I nearly cheered out loud. Ha! Take that, you bastard!

I’ll bring this letter to a close by quoting from your friend Forster, who was touched by a poem originating from the state in which I’m currently residing. Little Nell’s power was felt even out here in your time, as well as in mine, as Forster says that her “gentler influences, which, in even those Californian wilds, can restore outlawed “roaring camps” to silence and humanity.”

Yours in silence and humanity,


P.S. I didn’t bring any other volumes of yours with me on this trip, but I’m a little ahead of schedule, so I’m going to read some twentieth-century literature on the remainder of my vacation. I hope you don’t mind. I may even write to tell you about what I read.

Curiouser and curiouser

Dear Charles,

Please forgive me if this letter is less coherent than usual, but the incongruity of our circumstances has never been more apparent. Here I am, having finished the first volume of The Old Curiosity Shop, on a patio in Palm Desert, where it’s 35 degrees Celsius in the shade (96 F), while you, my dear friend, languish, dead, in a chilly 19th century English autumn. I considered bringing your American Notes with me, but even then I suspect you never made it as far as California, so I’ll save those for their proper chronological place.

My brain may be liquefying in the sun, but I can make one tenuous connection with your novel, in that both Little Nell and I have left our home town in anticipation of brighter days ahead. And since I’ll be travelling to Las Vegas, we might even be able to compare notes on wax-works exhibitions, where Nell herself is currently employed the last time we saw her. I think, though, that that’s where any similarities end.

Obviously, reading about the trials of Nell makes me think back to poor little Oliver, both young innocents cast upon the world to find their own way, and both slightly aggravating in that very innocence. Could you not have given the girl a few brains? I mean, she’s thought far enough ahead to stash a gold coin for a rainy day, but then you have her witness her grandfather suffer a huge relapse into his gambling addiction in an inn full of suspicious characters – wouldn’t you have her think of hiding the money before she goes to bed? On the other hand, having her discover that it was her grandfather stealing into her room to search for the money was terrifying and heartbreaking. You really have nailed both her love for her grandfather (and his devotion to her) and her pain and fear at seeing the person he turns into when tempted. And the way he turns from a gentle but vacant figure to this insatiable creature who takes everything from Nell in order to win her a fortune is chilling. It’s truly a brilliantly written relationship. She is absolutely caught between a rock and a hard place here, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the “baddies” that are circling around her and waiting to strike. Poor old Kit seems very far away and powerless, although I am glad to see that he’s gainfully employed with some good people.

Speaking of baddies, Mr. Quilp has to rank right up there with the best (or the best so far). And it looks like I’m justified, because he’s #28 on this list of literary villains; there’s just something so frightening about someone who will go out of his way to make others lives worse, and his behavior towards his wife is downright sickening. Sikes and Ralph Nickleby may have met grisly ends, but I sincerely hope you have something extra nasty in store for Quilp. Something lingering involving spikes, perhaps.

Anyway, I should get back out and enjoy the sunshine while I can. Maybe bring Volume 2 along with me. In closing, I just stumbled across this and I share this fellow blogger’s feeling:

I get warm fuzzies just looking at it. 🙂

Until next time, I remain,

Yours affectionately,