The Old Curiosity Shop

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The Old Curiosity Shop
Masterclock serial cover.jpg
Cover, the serial in Master Humphrey's Clock , 1840
Author Charles Dickens
Illustrator George Cattermole
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Samuel Williams
Daniel Maclise
Cover artist George Cattermole
Genre Novel
PublishedSerialised April 1840 – February 1841; [1] book format 1841
Publisher Chapman & Hall London
Media typePrint
Preceded by Nicholas Nickleby  
Followed by Barnaby Rudge  
Text The Old Curiosity Shop at Wikisource

The Old Curiosity Shop is one of two novels (the other being Barnaby Rudge ) which Charles Dickens published along with short stories in his weekly serial Master Humphrey's Clock , from 1840 to 1841. It was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841. [2]


The Old Curiosity Shop was printed in book form in 1841. Queen Victoria read the novel that year and found it "very interesting and cleverly written". [3]

The plot follows the journey of Nell Trent and her grandfather, both residents of The Old Curiosity Shop in London, whose lives are thrown into disarray and destitution due to the machinations of an evil moneylender.



The events of the book seem to take place around 1825. In Chapter 29, Miss Monflathers refers to the death of Lord Byron, who died on 19 April 1824. When the inquest rules (incorrectly) that Quilp committed suicide, his corpse is ordered to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart, a practice banned in 1823. [4] Nell's grandfather, after his breakdown, fears that he shall be sent to a madhouse, and there chained to a wall and whipped; these practices went out of use after about 1830.[ citation needed ] In Chapter 13, the lawyer Mr. Brass is described as "one of Her Majesty's attornies" [ sic ], putting him in the reign of Queen Victoria, which began in 1837, but given all the other evidence, and the fact that Kit, at his trial, is charged with acting "against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King" (referring to William IV), this must be a slip of the pen.


The Old Curiosity Shop tells the story of Nell Trent, a beautiful and virtuous young girl of "not quite fourteen". An orphan, she lives with her maternal grandfather (whose name is never revealed) in his shop of odds and ends. Her grandfather loves her dearly, and Nell does not complain, but she lives a lonely existence with almost no friends her own age. Her only friend is Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop, whom she is teaching to write. Secretly obsessed with ensuring that Nell does not die in poverty as her parents did, her grandfather attempts to provide Nell with a good inheritance through gambling at cards. He keeps his nocturnal games a secret, but borrows heavily from the evil Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely deformed, hunchbacked dwarf moneylender. In the end, he gambles away what little money they have, and Quilp seizes the opportunity to take possession of the shop and evict Nell and her grandfather. Her grandfather suffers a breakdown that leaves him bereft of his wits, and Nell takes him away to the Midlands of England, to live as beggars.

Convinced that the old man has stored up a large and prosperous fortune for Nell, her wastrel older brother, Frederick, convinces the good-natured but easily led Dick Swiveller to help him track Nell down, so that Swiveller can marry Nell and share her supposed inheritance with Frederick. To this end, they join forces with Quilp, who knows full well that there is no fortune, but sadistically chooses to 'help' them to enjoy the misery it will inflict on all concerned. Quilp begins to try to track Nell down, but the fugitives are not easily discovered. To keep Dick Swiveller under his eye, Quilp arranges for him to be taken as a clerk by Quilp's lawyer, Mr. Brass. At the Brass firm, Dick befriends the mistreated maidservant and nicknames her 'the Marchioness'. Nell, having fallen in with a number of characters, some villainous and some kind, succeeds in leading her grandfather to safety in a far-off village (identified by Dickens as Tong, Shropshire), but this comes at a considerable cost to Nell's health.

Old Curiosity Shop, Portsmouth Street, 1884 by Philip Norman Old Curiosity Shop, Portsmouth Street, 1884 by Philip Norman.jpg
Old Curiosity Shop, Portsmouth Street, 1884 by Philip Norman

Meanwhile, Kit, having lost his job at the curiosity shop, has found new employment with the kind Mr and Mrs Garland. Here he is contacted by a mysterious 'single gentleman' who is looking for news of Nell and her grandfather. The 'single gentleman' and Kit's mother 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. However, Dick Swiveller proves Kit's innocence with the help of his friend the Marchioness. Quilp is hunted down and dies trying to escape his pursuers. At the same time, a coincidence leads Mr Garland to 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. Her grandfather, already mentally infirm, refuses to admit she is dead and sits every day by her grave waiting for her to come back until, a few months later, he dies himself.

Framing device

Master Humphrey's Clock was a weekly serial that contained both short stories and two novels (The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge). Some of the short stories act as frame stories to the novels.

Originally the conceit of the story was that Master Humphrey was reading it aloud to a group of his friends, gathered at his house around the grandfather clock in which he eccentrically kept his manuscripts. Consequently, when the novel begins, it is told in the first person, with Master Humphrey as the narrator. However, Dickens soon changed his mind about how best to tell the story, and abandoned the first-person narrator after chapter three. Once the novel was ended, Master Humphrey's Clock added a concluding scene, where Master Humphrey's friends (after he has finished reading the novel to them) complain that the 'single gentleman' is never given a name; Master Humphrey tells them that the novel was a true story, that the 'single gentleman' was in fact himself, and that the events of the first three chapters were fictitious, intended only to introduce the characters. This was Dickens's after-the-fact explanation of why the narrator disappeared and why (if he was their near relation) he gave no sign in the first three chapters of knowing who they were. At least one editor thinks this device "need not be taken seriously." [5]

Dickens's original artistic intent was to keep the short stories and the novels together, and the short stories and the novels were published in 1840 in three bound volumes under the title Master Humphrey's Clock, which retains the original full and correct ordering of texts. However, Dickens himself cancelled Master Humphrey's Clock before 1848, and describes in a preface to The Old Curiosity Shop that he wishes the story to not be tied down to the miscellany within which it began. [6] Most later anthologies published the short stories and the novels separately.



"At Rest" Illustration by George Cattermole The Old Curiosity Shop At Rest.jpg
"At Rest" Illustration by George Cattermole
Quilp by 'Kyd' (1889) Quilp by Kyd 1889.jpg
Quilp by 'Kyd' (1889)


Literary significance and criticism

Probably the most widely repeated criticism of Dickens is the remark reputedly made by Oscar Wilde that "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing." [8] Nell's deathbed is not actually described, however. Of a similar opinion was the poet Algernon Swinburne, who commented that "a child whom nothing can ever irritate, whom nothing can even baffle, whom nothing can ever misguide, whom nothing can ever delude, and whom nothing can ever dismay, is a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads". [9]

The Irish leader Daniel O'Connell famously burst into tears at the finale, and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was travelling. [10]

The excitement surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented. (However, stories that Dickens fans stormed the docks in New York City, eager for the latest installment of the novel, or news of it, are apocryphal.) [11] In 2007, many newspapers claimed that the excitement at the release of the last instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows . [12]

The Norwegian author Ingeborg Refling Hagen is said to have buried a copy of the book in her youth, stating that nobody deserved to read about Nell, because nobody would ever understand her pain. She compared herself to Nell, because of her own miserable situation at the time.[ citation needed ]

Allusions to actual history and geography

The Old Curiosity Shop, London The Old Curiosity Shop after paint job (cropped).jpg
The Old Curiosity Shop, London

A shop named "The Old Curiosity Shop" can be found at 13–14 Portsmouth Street, Holborn, London, WC2A 2ES, and is now owned by the London School of Economics. [13] The building dates back to the sixteenth century (1567) [14] in an area known as Clare Market, but the shop name was added after the novel was released, as it was thought to be the inspiration for Dickens's description of the antique shop. [15] At one time it functioned as a dairy on an estate given by King Charles II to one of his many mistresses. It was built using timber from old ships, and survived the bombs of the Second World War. The shop was restored in 2023 to repair structural problems and will be rented out again as a shop. [16]

Nell and her grandfather meet Codlin and Short in a churchyard in Aylesbury. The horse races where Nell and her grandfather go with the show people are at Banbury. The village where they first meet the schoolmaster is Warmington, Warwickshire. They meet Mrs. Jarley near the village of Gaydon, Warwickshire. The town where they work at Jarley's Waxworks is Warwick. The heavily industrialised town where Nell spends the night by the furnace is Birmingham (after they have travelled on the Warwick and Birmingham Canal). The town in which Nell faints and is rescued by the school master is Wolverhampton in the Black Country. The village where they finally find peace and rest and where Nell dies is Tong, Shropshire. [17] Other real locations used in the novel include London Bridge, Bevis Marks, Finchley, and Minster-on-Sea.

It is reported by local Coventry historian David McGrory that Charles Dickens used Coventry's Whitefriars gatehouse in The Old Curiosity Shop. This gatehouse building still exists in Much Park Street. [18]
Commons-logo.svg Media related to The Old Curiosity Shop, 13–14 Portsmouth Street at Wikimedia Commons


Dickens and Little Nell, an 1890 statue by Francis Edwin Elwell exhibited in Philadelphia Dickens Statue.png
Dickens and Little Nell , an 1890 statue by Francis Edwin Elwell exhibited in Philadelphia

Major editions

Related Research Articles

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quilp</span> One of the main antagonists in the novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

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The Old Curiosity Shop is a British television film adapted from the Charles Dickens's 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop. It stars Irish actress Sophie Vavasseur as Nell Trent, with Derek Jacobi as her grandfather, Toby Jones as Quilp and George MacKay as Nell's friend, Kit. It was broadcast on 26 December 2007 on ITV. The adaptation is in general very faithful to the novel. The most significant changes are the removal of the Garlands and their household and the identity of the Single Gentleman who is changed from Grandfather's brother to his estranged son and Nell's father.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nell Trent</span> Fictional character in The Old Curiosity Shop

Nell Trent, also referred to as Little Nell, is a fictional character in the 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. The novel's main character, she is portrayed as infallibly good and virginal. An orphan, she leads her grandfather on their journey to save them from misery but gradually becomes weaker throughout the journey, and although she finds a home with the help of a schoolmaster, she sickens and dies before her friends in London find her. Her death has been described as "the apotheosis of Victorian sentimentality."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dick Swiveller</span> Fictional character in The Old Curiosity Shop

Richard "Dick" Swiveller is a fictional character in the 1841 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. Initially a comical accessory to the antagonists in the novel, he undergoes a transformation, becoming a key helpmate bridging the depiction of the main characters that are either mostly villainous or goodly in nature.


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