Tuesday, March 27, 2007
"The Old Curiosity Shop" Charles Dickens
Along with Hard Times, this is my least favourite of Dickens's novels, and for many of the same reasons, namely an imbalance between the end and the means.
The end, or purpose, of art, its deeper meaning, may be thought of in philosophical terms: to show us how to live a virtuous life, to be a good person, to treat our fellow creatures better, to lead to improvements in society, to better our understanding of ourselves and the nature of our humanity, our relationship to our mortality and our consciousness, to assist in the mediation of reality, and so on. The means is the materials and craft of the art form combined with the skill and temperament of the artist: what the Greeks called techne.
Every fictional work is a balancing act between the subterranean end and the surface means. In really great art, the means exemplify and even enact the end: the intellectual and imaginative work done by the reader in order to uncover the end (the deeper meaning) by unpicking the clues left in the discourse is itself the purpose of the novel. It's the process of discovery which leads to greater understanding.
In allegory and parable, the end rises to the surface and becomes more obvious. An allegory or a parable shows its meaning. In the novel, or in poetry, the end becomes submerged and the means to that end becomes the focus. A novel or a poem, in contrast to an allegory or parable, reveals its meaning by hiding it and making the reader work it out for him or her self; meaning is created by the reader and writer in concert. In parable and allegory, meaning is given. Allegories and parables are a restriction on imaginative freedom because they contain absolutely no ambiguity, novels and poems a creation of freedom.
The greater the submersion of the end, the more interesting the discourse, and more often than not, the better the quality of the writing. It's when the end becomes obvious, as in parable and allegory, that the writing deteriorates. For this reason, all allegories and parables, like other people's dreams, are inherently boring, because they are simply too easy and too confined. Both Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop are the most allegorical of Dickens's novels. In these two books, his writing is at its weakest because his purpose is more obvious.
Like The Pilgrim's Progress (another boring allegory), this book features a quest through a wilderness, meetings with highly allegorical figures ending in the redemption of death. However, whereas the Progress features a solitary male traveller in the prime of life, Dickens splits this figure into two: two sexes, two ages, so as to bring to life the themes of gender and intergenerational relations, and also to increase pathos in the figures of the child, and the elder, two helpless states at the extremes of life.
Although Dickens was generally overtly hostile to organised religion in his fiction, regarding it as little more than a hypocritical system, the novel is permeated with a remnant protestant ethic stemming from its allegorical roots:
With the brightness and joy of morning, came the renewal of yesterday’s labours, the revival of its pleasant thoughts, the restoration of its energies, cheerfulness and hope. The worked gaily in ordering and arranging their houses until noon, and then went to visit the clergyman.
Like Bleak House, this novel also employs a kind of double narrative, one that is not so clearly signalled. One story is that of Nell and her grandfather’s quest and their adventures, and the other is the story of Kit and the plot against him. It’s in the Nell story that Dickens’s writing is at its weakest, as in the paragraph quoted above.
That this story is allegorical is signalled in many ways: the writing in these sections resonates with suggestions and echoes of the Book of Common Prayer, and of the King James version of the Bible. The only two occasions in her life where Nell receives paid employment, and therefore some measure of independence, require her to show: in Mrs Jarley’s waxworks, and in the church of her death scene. In allegory, naming takes on a profound importance: consider Everyman in the medieval morality plays, and the names in the Progress. The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with key characters who are only given generic names (the schoolmaster, the bachelor, the single gentleman, the small servant), who refuse to give their names to other characters and to us (the single gentleman), who receive new names from other characters (The Marchioness, Sopphronia Sphynx, Sophy Wackles on the occasion of her marriage) or who have several names (Richard/Dick Swiveller, Kit/Christopher, Sarah/Sally Brass).
And yet, strangely, it’s not exactly clear what the allegory is. Of course there is the usual Dickensian stuff about being good to each other, and there is also the suggestion of a carpe diem idea in the (Hamlet-like) scene with the sexton and his chum. Perhaps the strongest suggestion of a purpose for the allegory is this: There is nothing, no, nothing innocent or good that dies and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith or none. An infant, a prattling child dying in its cradle will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world. I think that Dickens’s power of clear thought was blurred by his grief at the death of Mary Hogarth, his wife’s sister, who died shortly before the writing of The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s as if his purpose was simply to hold on to Mary’s image and to make it immortal through the image of little Nell. Perhaps he also thought that if people were really moved by the death of little Nell, they would become better people, and that in this way, through Nell, Mary would continue to play her part in the redeeming action of the world. People were moved, in their thousands, and Dickens received many letters from his fans imploring him to undo what he had done.
The death of little Nell is one of the most controversial scenes in Victorian literature, and, strangely enough, it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book, despite Oscar Wilde’s remark that one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at it (that’s just Oscar being Oscar; the Naughty Nineties scoffing at the idealism of the Hungry Forties). The scene doesn’t describe the death at all, but focuses on the grandfather, who has become a depersonalised spectre of grief with limbs huddled together, head bowed down, arms crossed upon the breast, and fingers tightly clenched, it rocked to and fro upon its seat without a moment’s pause, accompanying the action with a mournful sound…. When we see Nell she is, shockingly, already dead, and her death is related at third hand, like the murders in Greek tragedy.
The other story is the story of Kit and the plot against him, involving characters such as Sampson Brass, Dick Swiveller and the deeply repulsive Quilp. While Nell and her grandfather wander through unnamed allegorical spaces, Kit’s story takes place firmly in recognisable locations: London Bridge, Bevis Marks and Finchley. It’s in the London scenes, as one would expect, that the writing is as rich and strange as anything in Dickens’s career. London is alive and teeming, and the river in particular has a real presence, as it was to do later in Our Mutual Friend:
The day, in the highest and brightest quarters of the town, was damp, dark, cold, and gloomy. In that low and marshy spot, the fog filled every nook and corner with a thick dense cloud. Every object was obscured at one or two yards distance. The warning lights and fires upon the river were powerless beneath this pall, and but for a raw and piercing chilliness in the air, and now and then the cry of some bewildered boatman as he rested on his oars and tried to make out where he was, the river itself might have been miles away. The mist, though sluggish and slow to move, was of a keenly searching kind. No muffling up in furs and broadcloth kept it out. It seemed to penetrate into the very bones of the shrinking wayfarers and to rack them with cold and pains. Everything was wet and clammy to the touch.
There are the scenes of hilarity and good fellowship that are characteristic of Dickens’s work of this period, but the writing is also taking on gloomier colours. In the death of Quilp especially, the writing takes on the magnificent oppressive darkness of Dickens’s later works:
And there it lay [Quilp’s corpse], alone. The sky was red with flame, and the water that bore it here had been tinged with the sullen light as it flowed along. The place the deserted carcase had left so recently, a living man, was now a blazing ruin. There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death – such a mockery as the dead man himself would have reveled in when alive – about its head, and its dress fluttered idly in the night wind.
(Conrad learnt much from Dickens: And this too has been one of the dark places of the earth). This description is marvelously complemented by Phiz’s superb illustration with its obscene phallic suggestiveness.
Notwithstanding the unevenness of the writing over these parallel narratives, the novel is full of great stuff. There are some bizarre images, many of them involving simulacra. Nell and the old man meet with fake people: puppets, dancing dogs and waxworks. Quilp, in his hatred for Kit, installs in his room an old ship’s figurehead which bears a resemblance to Kit, and attacks it viciously with the poker: the huge immobile statue towers over the vicious, repulsive dwarf and bears his attacks with a mute and indifferent gaze. Quilp himself, is also a kind of human simulacra. Like Punch, he pops out unexpectedly from doors and windows and dark passages when he is least expected, and has the awful ability to drink boiling brandy, neat, without blinking, and smoke incessantly all through the night, like a dismounted nightmare.
The novel contains fascinating glimpses of two exotic or marginal types: the Victorian female entrepreneur, and the homosexual.
Mrs Jarley is one of the rare female business people in Victorian fiction. The text tells us approvingly that she has inventive genius. Illiterate, she has all the skills of the modern business person; she is adept at marketing, logistics and managing her staff; she diversifies her products to meet local market needs: These audiences were of a very superior description, including a great many young ladies' boarding-schools, whose favour Mrs Jarley had been at pains to conciliate, by altering the face and costume of Mr Grimaldi as clown to represent Mr Lindley Marray as he appeared when engaged in the composition of his English Grammar ; uses marketing and advertising skills to create demand by employing Mr Smugs to produce copy which is judiciously distibuted around the town; negotiates like a master negotiator; socializes like a business person: What line are you in?; and knows how to utilize the skills of her key employees. She is a truly independent woman (if a bit alcoholic…) and is also one of the most sympathetic characters Nell and Gramps encounter on their pilgrimage.
The other marginal type is the homosexual, rarely and fleetingly glimpsed in Dickens. Sally Brass, like Marian Halcombe in Collins's The Woman in White, is pointedly described as masculine. She relates to the world as a man in the same way as the world relates to her as a man: he had gradually accustomed himself to talk to her like a man ... but Miss Brass looked upon it quite as a matter of course, and has most of her femininity stripped away from her by the narrative. All suggestions that the small servant is the illegitimate child of her and Quilp were carefully expunged by Dickens from the manuscript before publication, probably in an attempt to forestall a scandal by reducing the risk of offending the more ‘sensitive’ (conservative) among his audience with the mention of illegitimacy. However, the result is to place Sally Brass firmly at the lesbian end of the sexual spectrum, at least for this reader. Another situation which sets my critical gaydar pinging, is the priest and his bachelor friend in the unnamed town where Nell and Gramps finally end up. The bachelor, described as an ‘early friend from his youth' (one imagines them as sensitive types at Oxford…), named by the villagers 'the bachelor' perhaps because he was an unmarried, unencumbered gentleman cohabits with his (current?) life partner, and is obsessively interested in interior design and local history. How many other gay couples in Dickens’s time might have buried themselves away in the country to lead this kind of life, possibly tactfully described by the villagers as ‘two gentleman sharing’?