Monday, August 5, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP’ by Charles Dickens (first published as a serial 1840-41; in book form 1841)

            By now you know my dismal track record with these “Something Olds”, don’t you? If it is some venerable classic, I proceed to give you a long plot summary, which, if you are a literate person who actually reads the classics, you find very irritating. After all, you don’t need to be told what you already know.

            Then I append some general comments and reactions of my own, at which you grit your teeth. How dare I intrude upon things that are better commented on by academic critics, who are more astute than I am at relating the works in question to current academic fashions? I seem to have the subversive idea that people who actually read and understand things, even outside an academic context, are entitled to their informed opinions. What’s the world coming to? Soon you will be calling me a “bookman”.

            Worst of all though, there is my habit of quoting choice bits, which I have copied into my notebooks, from the books under discussion. This really annoys you, as it is proof that I really have read what I am discussing. It should be much easier to slap me down as somebody who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Red with apoplectic rage, you quit the blog at this point and console yourself with your favourite volume of postmodernist literary theory.

            Yes, I myself get tired of the way I sometimes handle these “Something Olds”. So this week, instead of giving you my synopsis-plus-judgment, I will do something else. I offer you no synopsis. I assume you know the novel. I instead attempt to convey to you the actual experience of reading a book that is sort-of part of the canon.

            I first read The Old Curiosity Shop when I was a teenager.

            I read it again, out loud, to some of my older children over twenty years ago.

            Five years ago, taking just over four weeks to do so, I read it yet again, out loud, to my two youngest daughters who were then ten and twelve years old. I made a point of reading the novel to them complete and unabridged, though occasionally dropping in a word of explanation if something really obscure came up, just as I had when I read Oliver Twist to them earlier that same year. They could follow the story quite easily – it is, after all, a picaresque melodrama with clear villains and heroes and comedy. The only points at which they became confused were when the 28-year-old Dickens was laying on the heavy irony or over-indulging in those long, descriptive sentences with multiple subordinate or (more often) conditional clauses. Only one chapter in the book completely stumped them and made them look blankly at me when I had read it, because they obviously had not taken in a word. That was the one where Dick Swiveller goes to the party with Sophie Wackles, who is now being courted by his rival Cheggs. This is a chapter mocking gallant small talk etc., which went quite over their heads because the gallant small talk was of a type that is now quite dead.

            Apart from this, though, the story and characters gave them no trouble at all.

            When you read aloud, you become an actor, and you can’t read Dickens aloud without distinctive and exaggerated voices. That’s the way the characters are written. I found myself reading the oily and dishonest lawyer Samson Brass with a whining nasal voice modelled on a priest I used to know; Sally Brass as a booming-voiced dike (she is clearly a “man-woman”, tougher than her sneaking brother, and in the denouement, when she is escaping justice, one rumour is that she has got away by disguising herself as a man). Dick Swiveller I read as a likeable silly ass – almost Bertie Wooster; the Marchioness as a clever, but very young, Cockney kid; Kit Nubbles as a pocket edition of Sam Weller.

            But I really went to town on the villainous dwarf Daniel Quilp. You have to. I had Mr.Quilp shouting and growling with a slightly East End Jewish twang to his voice. I’m afraid, in short, that I did a variation on my successful reading impersonation of Fagin earlier that year. (I know Mr.Quilp is not meant to be Jewish.) As I was doing all this, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a fallacy to think that there was no worthwhile British drama for most of the nineteenth century. Dickens was writing excellent scripts for the printed page. That’s why they read so dramatically. That’s why the dialogue adapts so well to films and TV versions of Dickens.

            My (then) 12- and 10-year-old responded in ways not always expected. They seemed to like best the travels of Nelly Trent and her grandfather; the fairground Codlin and Short (puppeteers) and Mrs. Jarley (waxwork show) episodes; and the Marchioness’ and Dick Swiveller’s exposure of the schemes of the Brasses. Given that they were still at the stage when girls like cuddly animals, I was surprised that they didn’t respond to the repeated comic scenes of the Garlands’ recalcitrant pony Whisker, which refuses to obey anyone but Kit Nubbles. Maybe it was because Dickens’ wordplay about the beast didn’t translate in their minds into the slapstick images intended. When I read them Oliver Twist they were underwhelmed by Nancy’s being bludgeoned to death, but my youngest daughter gasped with horror when Bill Sikes’ dog fell to its death and had its brains smashed out. With Oliver Twist, they also loved the Rose Maylie bits (where Oliver finds safe haven in the countryside), which get cut out of all the film and TV versions because they hold up the plot. With The Old Curiosity Shop, they were most horrified by the bizarre scene where Quilp pretends a figurehead he has bought is Kit Nubbles, whom he is plotting to destroy, and he does a kind of wild voodoo act with it, driving brass nails and spikes into it and cursing it. The girls got the savagery and intended homicidal violence of it. Thus they greatly relished Quilp’s death, by drowning, in the fog. Little girls who are sentimental about animals also love to see a villain plunging to his doom. Another great scene was the wonderful comedy of Dick Swiveller and the Brasses trying to wake up the “single gentleman” when he has slept in his lodgings for over 24 hours. That would make a good film sequence with the right comic director.

            Apart from the girls’ enjoyment of The Old Curiosity Shop, how did I respond to the novel myself?

            Yes, it is very, very sentimental, though it is not the fact of Little Nell’s death that troubles me so much as the overblown rhetorical way it is presented – all the talk of angels and the ennoblement of the spirit etc. My youngest daughters listened solemnly, but it did not move them to tears or anything of the sort.

            I was surprised at how strong and convincing were the three mainly descriptive chapters where Nell and her grandfather journey through the industrialised Midlands. There is a chapter where bargemen give them a lift, and their “roughness” is explicit enough to suggest (at least to alert adult readers) a sexual threat to the 14-year-old girl. There is another scene where a slightly demented factory worker worships a factory furnace fire like a god. This put me in mind of Conrad’s paragraph in Heart of Darkness about the African worshipping the riverboat’s engine. In fact, taken out of the narrative context, this part of the couple’s journey is almost like a nineteenth century The Waste Land (or it would be if Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came hadn’t got there first). Early industrialised England as very hell.

            I was surprised that the Marchioness is not given that name until about three-quarters of the way through the novel (until then she is just “the small servant”). The most delicious scenes in the novel (and the girls loved them too) are the ones between her and Dick.
            But I found Quilp brilliant, and the real genius of the book.

            This is where there is really something demonic in Dickens’ imagination. Quilp is the novelist’s equivalent of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Marlowe’s Jew of Malta – a picture of evil so grotesque and lively and anarchic that you actually like him and you can see the author relishes the over-the-top effects he is producing. Quilp eating boiled eggs, shells and all; Quilp torturing his wife by getting her to sit up all night while he smokes cigars; Quilp forcing Samson Brass to drink scalding hot liquor and to smoke until he’s sick, and cackling all the while. (“Is it good, Brass? Is it wholesome, Brass?”) The best is Quilp bursting in on the tea-party after his mother-in-law thinks he’s dead. This is better than Huck and Tom attending their own funeral. You laugh with him. It is just right that Dickens makes Quilp’s mischievous hired boy (“Tom Scott”) – the boy who stands on his head and walks on his hands - actually like him and weep at his death. The cheeky boy and the novel’s villain are indeed kindred spirits in anarchy.

            Yes, there is much evidence of that tiresome Dickens serial improvisation – characters tried and dumped, and bits of the narrative left hanging; the narrator (Master Humphrey) who disappears after three chapters; the fact that in the opening chapters Nell’s brother Fred was obviously going to play a major role, but he just disappears from the action; the hasty thread-tying explanations of the “single gentleman” at the end; and of course the death of Little Nell. After a moment’s pause, my 12-year-old’s reaction to the death was “Well now there can be a happy ending with Kit Nubbles and Barbara”.

            You can’t fool kids for long about literary contrivances.

            I have to admit to something else that influenced the way I read the novel. Back in the very early 1960s, when I was about ten, I saw on our single-channel, black-and-white television a BBC serial adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop, starring Michele Doctrice as Nell. I remember vividly her performance, and the weary shabby-genteel performance of an excellent actor called Anton Rodgers in the role of Dick Swiveller. But the outstanding performance was – as it should have been - Patrick Troughton as Mr.Quilp, relishing his villainy in ways that had us laughing uproariously. It added to my childish fun that Troughton’s face, with its bushy eyebrows, reminded me of my father. Troughton went on to be the second Dr.Who, and I have always regarded him as one of the best. (For the record, in my years as a film-reviewer, I saw an appalling musical adaptation of the novel called Mister Quilp, which is best forgotten; and more recently an okay TV adaptation made in 2007, which squeezed the whole plot into under two hours and hence managed to miss most of the really comic bits.)

            Back to the novel. I grant there is something weightless about the whole thing. It’s a fable often without a social context – despite those haunting “industrial wasteland” episodes. The comic characters are delightful. The evil ones are vigorous and grotesque. But it all seems to inhabit an alternative universe. I guess I missed the clearer understanding of class and its effects that is found in Dickens’ later novels, and think that by reading it out loud I really handled it as it should be handled – as a wonderful and inspired children’s bedtime book.

            Parting shots. After reading The Old Curiosity Shop for the third time in my life, I checked out a couple of the older Dickens enthusiasts. To my surprise, I discovered that the genial G.K.Chesterton disliked Little Nell almost as much as the sardonic Oscar Wilde did. (Wilde’s dead-obvious sneer – “It would take a hard-hearted man to read the death of Little Nell without… laughing” – was once quoted to me as if it were the height of wit.) But Chesterton generally liked the novel and chose Dick Swiveller as its best point, relishing particularly the fellow’s barmy poetry-quoting rhetoric. I’d go along with that. Like Micawber in David Copperfield, Dick Swiveller is a self-dramatizing ne’er-do-well who turns out to have a strong streak of decency. I think such people exist. At least I hope they do.

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