“The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or more worn than he.”
(The Old Curiosity Shop – by Charles Dickens)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was Dickens’ fourth novel, and also his fourth straight bestseller. It tells the story of little Nell and her senescent Grandfather who inhabit the Old Curiosity Shop, a pokey little outlet full of trinkets and oddities.
“She had gone singing through the dim rooms, and moving with gay and lightsome step among their dusty treasures, making them older by her young life, and sterner and more grim by her gay and cheerful presence.”
The grandfather is a gambling addict and falls in debt to a malicious and psychotic loan shark. They are forced to flee from the shop and after a series of unfortunate episodes Nell succumbs to death, shortly followed by her grandfather.
The story was initially published in weekly parts from April 1840 until February 1841. Near the end of the serialization, Dickens was inundated with letters begging him to spare Nell’s life. When the last installment arrived by ship, the crowds in New York shouted from the pier “Is Little Nell dead?” Its’ repute, however, has not lasted the test of time and remains one of his lesser works. Oscar Wilde’s witticism – “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing” – certainly added to its detriment.
The character of Nell is believed to have been inspired by the death of his own wife’s beloved 17-year old sister, Mary, in 1837. So devastated by Mary’s death was he that Dickens wore her ring for the rest of his life and asked to be buried in the same plot. In the novel, Dickens seems to have taken the sentimentality of Nell’s death overtly to heart.
“The child lying dead in the little sleeping room, which is behind the open screen. It is winter-time, so there are no flowers; but upon her breast and pillow, and about her bed, there may be strips of holly and berries, and such free green things. Window overgrown with ivy. The little boy who had that talk with her about angels may be by the bedside, if you like it so; but I think it will be quieter and more peaceful if she is alone. I want it to express the most beautiful repose and tranquility, and to have something of a happy look, if death can…I am breaking my heart over this story, and cannot bear to finish it.”
Located just off the Strand The Old Curiosity Shop dates back to the 16th century. It was built using the timber from old ships, was at one stage a dairy on an estate given to one of the many mistresses of King Charles II and also miraculously survived the Blitz bombing. Dickens lived in the neighborhood and although not 100% proven, allegedly took the place as inspiration for his novel. It actually only acquired the name of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ a few years after the novel was published. It now operates as a quirky shoe shop.
“Preceding me with the light, he led me through the place I had already seen from without, into a small sitting-room behind, in which was another door opening into a kind of closet, where I saw a little bed that a fairy might have slept in, it looked so very small and was so prettily arranged.”
Upon entering the shop, you can see that not much has changed over the centuries. The doorways are tiny, the floors creak incessantly, the shelves are all crooked so much so that you find it hard to discern what is in fact a correct vertical or horizontal. The changing room is so cramped that you can hardly spread your arms or bend down without fearing you might not make it up again. The stairs would be most unforgiving of a large lunch as would the doorframes of lofty dispositions. It is lucky that the shoemaker, Daita Kimura, and his assistant are themselves proportionately bijou. They sit amongst the congestion of tools and cuts of leather in the basement, quietly tinkering away in a way that most befits the character of the building.
I wonder what Dickens himself would make of this place’s latest reincarnation. Although attuned to modern standards it has in many ways stubbornly retained its kooky character. Sandwiched snuggly between much taller and perfect structures it stands defiant in its modesty. Dickens really was the champion of the wretched and the down-troden and I’m sure he would still find great comfort from the place if he could see it today.
NEXT WEEK’S LONDON INSIGHT:
An audience with the glorious and fearless Virginia Bates