The Old Curiosity Shop
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The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel by Charles Dickens. The plot follows the life of Little Nell and her grandfather, both residents of The Old Curiosity Shop in London.
The Old Curiosity Shop (along with Barnaby Rudge) was one of two novels which Dickens published in his short-lived weekly serial Master Humphrey's Clock, which lasted from 1840 to 1841, when Barnaby Rudge was published. The Old Curiosity Shop was printed as a separate book in 1841.
The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Little Nell, a beautiful and virtuous young girl who lives with her grandfather in his shop of curiosities. Her grandfather loves her dearly, and Nell does not complain, but she lives a lonely existence without friends of her own age. Her only friend is Kit, an honest young lad who works at the shop, and whom she is teaching to write. Unbeknownst to Nell, her grandfather is obsessed with their precarious financial position and is attempting to make Nell a good inheritance by winning at cards. He keeps these nocturnal activities a secret, but borrows heavily from the evil Quilp, a dwarf, in order to raise new capital. In the end, he gambles away what little money they own, and Quilp seizes the opportunity to take possession of the shop and make Nell's and her grandfather's lives a misery. Indeed, her grandfather suffers a breakdown, which leaves him bereft of his wits. Courageously, Nell decides to escape Quilp, and she and her grandfather run away to the country to live as beggars, travelling into the Midlands of England.
However, a further plot is afoot against Nell. Convinced that the old man has stored up a fortune for Nell, her wastrel brother Frederick convinces the good natured but easily led Richard Swiveller to help him track Nell down so that Swiveller can marry her and the two can share Nell's supposed inheritance. To this end they join forces with Quilp, who knows full well that there is no fortune, but sadistically chooses to 'help' in order to enjoy the misery it will inflict on all concerned. Quilp begins to try and track Nell down, but the fugitives are not easily discovered. Having fallen in with a number of characters, some villainous and some kind, Nell succeeds in leading her grandfather to safe haven in a far off village (identified by Dickens as Tong in Shropshire). But this has come at a considerable cost to Nell's health.
Meanwhile, Kit, who lost his job at the curiosity shop, has found new employment with the kind Mr and Mrs Garland. Here he is contacted by the mysterious 'single gentleman' looking for news of Nell and her grandfather. The two go after them unsuccessfully, and encounter Quilp who is also hunting for the runaways. Quilp forms a grudge against Kit and has him framed as a thief. Kit is sentenced to transportation. His redemption comes from an unlikely source, as Richard Swiveller helps to prove Kit's innocence. Quilp is hunted down and dies trying to escape his pursuers. At the same time a coincidence leads Mr Garland to a knowledge of Nell's whereabouts, and he, Kit, and the 'single gentleman' (who turns out to be the younger brother of Nell's grandfather) go to find her. Sadly, by the time they arrive, Nell has died as a result of her arduous journey.
It is revealed in Master Humphrey's Clock that the 'single gentleman' is in fact Master Humphrey himself, also the unnamed narrator of the first three chapters. This is somewhat confusing as the narrator does not give any recognition of his familial relationship to Nell or her grandfather in those chapters.
Characters in "The Old Curiosity Shop"
- Little Nell (Nelly) Trent
- Nell's grandfather
- Christopher 'Kit' Nubbles
- Daniel Quilp
- Richard 'Dick' Swiveller
- The single gentleman
- Sampson Brass
- Sally Brass
- Mrs Jarley
- Frederick Trent
- Mr Garland
- The Marchioness (also the 'small servant' and later, Sophronia Sphynx)
- Isaac List
- Mr James Groves
- Mr Chuckster
- the poor schoolmaster
- Thomas Codlin
- Harris 'Short' Trotters
- little Jacob
- Miss Monflathers
Literary significance & criticism
- Some literary comments on the book 
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
The shop itself is to be found in Portsmouth Street London. The heavily industrialised city where Nell faints and is rescued by the school master is Birmingham. The City where Nell and her Grandfather work at Jarley's Waxworks is Coventry. The village where they finally find peace and rest and where Nell dies is Tong in Shropshire.
The book itself is set, based on clues in the text, in the early 1820s. This is because of references to King George IV and the tradition of burying suicides at crossroads (banned in 1826).
Oscar Wilde once observed that "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
Adaptations for the cinema, TV, radio and theatre
There were several silent movie adaptations of the novel. The first talkie version was a 1934 British movie. It was serialised for television by the BBC in 1960. A musical version (released under the title "Mr. Quilp" in its native Britain) was released in 1971, but was a flop, because the age of the conventional British musical had passed. An adaptation for BBC Radio 4 was first broadcast in 1998. The production starred Tom Courtenay as Quilp.
- 1840 – 1841, UK, Chapman and Hall, Pub date (88 weekly parts) April 1840 to November 1841, Serial as part of Master Humphrey's Clock
- 1841, UK, Chapman and Hall (ISBN not used), Pub date ? ? 1841, Hardback (first edition)
- 1995, USA, Everyman's Library ISBN 0-460-87600-7, Pub date ? ? 1995, Paperback
- 1997, UK, Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-812493-7, Pub date 13 November 1997, Hardback. This is considered the definitive edition of the book.
- 2001, UK, Penguin Books Ltd ISBN 0-14-043742-8, Pub date 25 January 2001, Paperback (Penguin Classic)
- Map of Nell and her grandfather's journey from London through the Midlands to journey's end in Tong 
- The Old Curiosity Shop, available freely at Project Gutenberg
- The Old Curiosity Shop – complete book in HTML one page for each chapter.
- The Old Curiosity Shop - Searchable HTML version.
- The Old Curiosity Shop - Easy to read HTML version.