Review of The Old Curiosity Shop
By Charles Dickens. (Boz.) With Ninty-one Illustrations by George Cattermole and Hablot Browne. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.
WHAT WE here give [the above titles] is the duplicate title, on two separate title-pages, of an octavo volume of three hundred and sixty-two pages. Why this method of nomenclature should have been adopted is more than we can understand–although it arises, perhaps, from a certain confusion and hesitation observable in the whole structure of the book itself. Publishers have an idea, however, (and no doubt they are the best judges in such matters) that a complete work obtains a readier sale than one "to be continued;" and we see plainly that it is with the design of intimating the entireness of the volume now before us, that "The Old Curiosity Shop and other Tales," has been made not only the primary and main title, but the name of the whole publication as indicated by the back. This may be quite fair in trade, but is morally wrong not the less. The volume is only one of a series–only part of a whole; and the title has no right to insinuate otherwise. So obvious is this intention to misguide, that it has led to the absurdity of putting the inclusive, or general, title of the series, as a secondary instead of a primary one. Anybody may see that if the wish had been fairly to represent the plan and extent of the volume, something like this would have been given on a single page–
MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK
By Charles Dickens. Part I. Containing "The Old Curiosity Shop," and other tales, with numerous illustrations, &c. &c.
This would have been better for all parties, a good deal more honest, and a vast deal more easily understood. In fact, there is sufficient uncertainty of purpose in the book itself, without resort to mystification in the matter of title. We do not think it altogether impossible that the rumors in respect to the sanity of Mr. Dickens which were so prevalent during the publication of the first numbers of the work, had some slight–some very slight foundation in truth. By this, we mean merely to say that the mind of the author, at the time, might possibly have been struggling with some of those manifold and multiform aberrations by which the nobler order of genius is so frequently beset–but which are still so very far removed from disease.
There are some facts in the physical world which have a really wonderful analogy with others in the world of thought, and seem thus to give some color of truth to the (false) rhetorical dogma, that metaphor or simile may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description. The principle of the vis inertiae, for example, with the amount of momentum proportionate with it and consequent upon it, seems to be identical in physics and metaphysics. It is not more true, in the former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and that its subsequent impetus is commensurate with this difficulty, than it is, in the latter, that intellects of the vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more extensive in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and are more embarrassed and more full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress. While, therefore, it is not impossible, as we have just said, that some slight mental aberration might have given rise to the hesitancy and indefinitiveness of purpose which are so very perceptible in the first pages of the volume before us, we are still the more willing to believe these defects the result of the moral fact just stated, since we find the work itself of an unusual order of excellence, even when regarded as the production of the author of "Nicholas Nickleby." That the evils we complain of are not, and were not, fully perceived by Mr. Dickens himself, cannot be supposed for a moment. Had his book been published in the old way, we should have seen no traces of them whatever.
The design of the general work, "Humphrey's Clock," is simply the common-place one of putting various tales into the mouths of a social party. The meetings are held at the house of Master Humphrey–an antique building in London, where an old-fashioned clock case is the place of deposit for the M.S.S. Why such designs have become common is obvious. One half the pleasure experienced at a theatre arises from the spectator's sympathy with the rest of the audience, and, especially, from his belief in their sympathy with him. The eccentric gentleman who not long ago, at the Park, found himself the solitary occupant of box, pit, and gallery, would have derived but little enjoyment from his visit, had he been suffered to remain. It was an act of mercy to turn him out. The present absurd rage for lecturing is founded in the feeling in question. Essays which we would not be hired to read–so trite is their subject–so feeble is their execution–so much easier is it to get better information on similar themes out of any Encyclopaedia in Christendom–we are brought to tolerate, and alas, even to applaud in their tenth and twentieth repetition, through the sole force of our sympathy with the throng. In the same way we listen to a story with greater zest when there are others present at its narration besides ourselves. Aware of this, authors without due reflection have repeatedly attempted, by supposing a circle of listeners, to imbue their narratives with the interest of sympathy. At a cursory glance the idea seems plausible enough. But, in the one case, there is an actual, personal, and palpable sympathy, conveyed in looks, gestures and brief comments–a sympathy of real individuals, all with the matters discussed to be sure, but then especially, each with each. In the other instance, we, alone in our closet, are required to sympathise with the sympathy of fictitious listeners, who, so far from being present in body, are often studiously kept out of sight and out of mind for two or three hundred pages at a time. This is sympathy double-diluted–the shadow of a shade. It is unnecesary to say that the design invariably fails of its effect.
In his preface to the present volume, Mr. Dickens seems to feel the necessity for an apology in regard to certain portions of his commencement, without seeing clearly what apology he should make, or for what precise thing he should apologize. He makes an effort to get over the difficulty, by saying something about its never being "his intention to have the members of 'Master Humphrey's Clock' active agents in the stories they relate," and about his "picturing to himself the various sensations of his hearers-thinking how Jack Redburn might incline to poor Kit–how the deaf gentleman would have his favorite and Mr. Miles his," &c. &c.–but we are quite sure that all this is as pure a fiction as "The Curiosity Shop?" itself. Our author is deceived. Occupied with little Nell and her grandfather, he had forgotten the very existence of his interlocutors until he found himself, at the end of his book, under the disagreeable necessity of saying a word or two concerning them, by way of winding them up. The simple truth is that, either for one of the two reasons at which we have already hinted, or else because the work was begun in a hurry, Mr. Dickens did not precisely know his own plans when he penned the five or six first chapters of the "Clock."
The wish to preserve a certain degree of unity between various narratives naturally unconnected, is a more obvious and a better reason for employing interlocutors. But such unity as may be thus had is scarcely worth having. It may, in some feeble measure, satisfy the judgment by a sense of completeness; but it seldom produces a pleasant effect; and if the speakers are made to take part in their own stories (as has been the Case here) they become injurious by creating confusion. Thus, in "The Curiosity Shop," we feel displeased to find Master Humphrey commencing the tale in the first person, dropping this for the third, and concluding by introducing himself as the "single gentleman" who figures in the story. In spite of all the subsequent explanation we are forced to look upon him as two. All is confusion, and what makes it worse, is that Master Humphrey is painted as a lean and sober personage, while his second self is a fat, bluff and boisterous old bachelor.
Yet the species of connexion in question, besides preserving the unity desired, may be made, if well managed, a source of consistent and agreeable interest. It has been so made by Thomas Moore–the most skilful literary artist of his day–perhaps of any day–a man who stands in the singular and really wonderful predicament of being undervalued on account of the profusion with which he has scattered about him his good things. The brilliancies on any one page of Lalla Roohk would have sufficed to establish that very reputation which has been in a great measure self-dimmed by the galazied lustre of the entire book. It seems that the horrid laws of political economy cannot be evaded even by the inspired, and that a perfect versification, a vigorous style, and a never-tiring fancy, may, like the water we drink and die without, yet despise, be so plentifully set forth as to be absolutely of no value at all.
By far the greater portion of the volume now published, is occupied with the tale of "The Old Curiosity Shop," narrated by Master Humphrey himself. The other stories are brief. The "Giant Chronicles" is the title of what appears to be meant for a series within a series, and we think this design doubly objectionable. The narrative of "The Bowyer," as well as of "John Podgers," is not altogether worthy of Mr. Dickens. They were probably sent to press to supply a demand for copy, while he was occupied with the "Curiosity Shop." But the "Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second" is a paper of remarkable power, truly original in conception, and worked out with great ability.
The story of "The Curiosity Shop" is very simple. Two brothers of England, warmly attached to each other, love the same lady, without each other's knowledge. The younger at length discovers the elder's secret, and, sacrificing himself to fraternal affection, quits the country and resides for many years in a foreign land, where he amasses great wealth. Meantime his brother marries the lady, who soon dies, leaving an infant daughter–her perfect resemblance. In the widower's heart the mother lives again through the child. This latter grows up, marries unhappily, has a son and a daughter, loses her husband, and dies herself shortly afterward. The grandfather takes the orphans to his home. The boy spurns his protection, falls into bad courses, and becomes an outcast. The girl–in whom a third time lives the object of the old man's early choice–dwells with him alone, and is loved by him with a most doting affection. He has now become poor, and at length is reduced to keeping a shop for antiquities and curiosities. Finally, through his dread of involving the child in want, his mind becomes weakened. He thinks to redeem his fortune by gambling, borrows money for this purpose of a dwarf, who, at length, discovering the true state of the old man's affairs, seizes his furniture and turns him out of doors. The girl and himself set out, without farther object than to relieve themselves of the sight of the hated city, upon a weary pilgrimage, whose events form the basis or body of the tale. In fine, just as a peaceful retirement is secured for them, the child, wasted with fatigue and anxiety, dies. The grandfather, through grief, immediately follows her to the tomb. The younger brother, meantime, has received information of the old man's poverty, hastens to England, and arrives only in time to be at the closing scene of the tragedy.
This plot is the best which could have been constructed for the main object of the narrative. This object is the depicting of a fervent and dreamy love for the child on the part of the grandfather–such a love as would induce devotion to himself on the part of the orphan. We have thus the conception of a childhood, educated in utter ignorance of the world, filled with an affection which has been, through its brief existence, the sole source of its pleasures, and which has no part in the passion of a more mature youth for an object of its own age–we have the idea of this childhood, full of ardent hopes, leading by the hand, forth from the heated and wearying city, into the green fields, to seek for bread, the decrepid imbecility of a doting and confiding old age, whose stern knowledge of man, and of the world it leaves behind, is now merged in the sole consciousness of receiving love and protection from that weakness it has loved and protected.
This conception is indeed most beautiful. It is simply and severely grand. The more fully we survey it the more thoroughly we are convinced of the lofty character of that genius which gave it birth. That in its present simplicity of form, however, it was first entertained by Mr. Dickens, may well be doubted. That it was not, we are assured by the title which the tale bears. When in its commencement he called it "The Old Curiosity Shop," his design was far different from what we see it in its completion. It is evident that had he now to name the story he would not so term it; for the shop itself is a thing of an altogether collateral interest, and is spoken of merely in the beginning. This is only one among a hundred instances of the disadvantage under which the periodical novelist labors. When his work is done, he never fails to observe a thousand defects which he might have remedied, and a thousand alterations, in regard to the book as a whole, which might be made to its manifest improvement.
But of the conception of this story deserves praise, its execution is beyond all–and here the subject naturally leads us from the generalization which is the proper province of the critic, into details among which it is scarcely fitting that he should venture.
The Art of Mr. Dickens, although elaborate and great, seems only a happy modification of Nature. In this respect he differs remarkably from the author of "Night and Morning." The latter, by excessive care and by patient reflection, aided by much rhetorical knowledge, and general information, has arrived at the capability of producing books which be mistaken by ninety-nine readers out of a hundred for the genuine inspirations of genius. The former, by the promptings of the truest genius itself, has been brought to compose, and evidently without effort, works which have effected a long-sought consummation–which have rendered him the idol of the people, while defying and enchanting the critics. Mr. Bulwer, through art, has almost created a genius. Mr. Dickens, through genius, has perfected a standard from which Art itself will derive its essence, in rules.
When we speak in this manner of the "Old Curiosity Shop," we speak with entire deliberation, and know quite well what it is we assert. We do not mean to say that it is perfect, as a whole–this could not well have been the case under the circumstances of its composition. But we know that, in all the higher elements which go to make up literary greatness, it is supremely excellent. We think, for instance, that the introduction of Nelly's brother (and here we address those who have read the work) is supererogatory–that the character of Quilp would have been more in keeping had he been confined to petty and grotesque acts of malice–that his death should have been made the immediate consequence of his attempt at revenge upon Kit; and that after matters had been put fairly in train for this poetical justice, he should not have perished by an accident inconsequential upon his villany. We think, too, that there is an air of ultra-accident in the finally discovered relationship between Kit's master and the bachelor of the old church–that the sneering politeness put into the mouth of Quilp, with his manner of commencing a question which he wishes answered in the affirmative, with an affirmative interrogatory, instead of the ordinary negative one–are fashions borrowed from the authors own Fagin–that he has repeated himself in many other instances–that the practical tricks and love of mischief of the dwarf's boy are too nearly consonant with the traits of the master–that so much of the propensities of Swiveller as relate to his inapposite appropriation of odds and ends of verse, is stolen from the generic loafer of our fellow-townsman, Neal–and that the writer has suffered the overflowing kindness of his own bosom to mislead him in a very important point of art, when he endows so many of his dramatis personae with a warmth of feeling so very rare in reality. Above all, we acknowledge that the death of Nelly is excessively painful–that it leaves a most distressing oppression of spirit upon the reader–and should, therefore, have been avoided.
But when we come to speak of the excellences of the tale these defects appear really insignificant. It embodies more originality in every point, but in character especially, than any single work within our knowledge. There is the grandfather–a truly profound conception; the gentle and lovely Nelly–we have discoursed of her before; Quilp, with mouth like that of the panting dog–(a bold idea which the engraver has neglected to embody) with his hilarious antics, his cowardice, and his very petty and spoilt-child–like malevolence, Dick Swiveller, that prince of goodhearted, good-for-nothing, lazy, luxurious, poetical, brave, romantically generous, gallant, affectionate, and not over-and-above honest, "glorious Apollos;" the marchioness, his bride; Tom Codlin and his partner; Miss Sally Brass, that "fine fellow;" the pony that had an opinion of its own; the boy that stood upon his head; the sexton; the man at the forge; not forgetting the dancing dogs and baby Nubbles. There are other admirably drawn characters–but we note these for their remarkable originality, as well as for their wonderful keeping, and the glowing colors in which they are painted. We have heard some of them called caricatures–but the charge is grossly ill-founded. No critical principle is more firmly based in reason than that a certain amount of exaggeration is essential to the proper depicting of truth itself. We do not paint an object to be true, but to appear true to the beholder. Were we to copy nature with accuracy the object copied would seem unnatural. The columns of the Greek temples, which convey the idea of absolute proportion, are very considerably thicker just beneath the capital than at the base. We regret that we have not left ourselves space in which to examine this whole question as it deserves. We must content ourselves with saying that caricature seldom exists (unless in so gross a form as to disgust at once) where the component parts are in keeping; and that the laugh excited by it, in any case, is radically distinct from that induced by a properly artistical incongruity–the source of all mirth. Were these creations of Mr. Dickens' really caricatures they would not live in public estimation beyond the hour of their first survey. We regard them as creations–(that is to say as original combinations of character) only not all of the highest order, because the elements employed are not always of the highest. In the instances of Nelly, the grandfather, the Sexton, and the man of the furnace, the force of the creative intellect could scarcely have been engaged with nobler material, and the result is that these personages belong to the most august regions of the Ideal.
In truth, the great feature of the "Curiosity Shop" is its chaste, vigorous, and glorious imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed. It is not only seen in the conception, and general handling of the story, or in the invention of character; but it pervades every sentence of the book. We recognise its prodigious influence in every inspired word. It is this which induces the reader who is at all ideal, to pause frequently, to reread the occasionally quaint phrases, to muse in uncontrollable delight over thoughts which, while he wonders he has never hit upon them before, he yet admits that he never has encountered. In fact it is the wand of the enchanter.
Had we room to particularize, we would mention as points evincing most distinctly the ideality of the "Curiosity Shop"–the picture of the shop itself–the newly-born desire of the worldly old man for the peace of green fields–his whole character and conduct, in short–the schoolmaster, with his desolate fortunes, seeking affection in little children–the haunts of Quilp among the wharf-rats–the tinkering of the Punchmen among the tombs–the glorious scene where the man of the forge sits poring, at deep midnight, into that dread fire–again the whole conception of this character, and, last and greatest, the stealthy approach of Nell to her death–her gradual sinking away on the journey to the village, so skilfully indicated rather than described–her pensive and prescient meditation–the fit of strange musing which came over her when the house in which she was to die first broke upon her sight–the description of this house, of the old church, and of the churchyard–everything in rigid consonance with the one impression to be conveyed–that deep meaningless well–the comments of the Sexton upon death, and upon his own secure life–this whole world of mournful yet peaceful idea merging, at length, into the decease of the child Nelly, and the uncomprehending despair of the grandfather. These concluding scenes are so drawn that human language, urged by human thought, could go no farther in the excitement of human feelings. And the pathos is of that best order which is relieved, in great measure, by ideality. Here the book has never been equalled,–never approached except in one instance, and that is in the case of the "Undine" by De La Motte Fouque. The imagination is perhaps as great in this latter work, but the pathos, although truly beautiful and deep, fails of much of its effect through the material from which it is wrought. The chief character, being endowed with purely fanciful attributes, cannot command our full sympathies, as can a simple denizen of earth. In saying above, that the death of the child left too painful an impression, and should therefore have been avoided, we must, of course, be understood as referring to the work as a whole, and in respect to its general appreciation and popularity. The death, as recorded, is, we repeat, of the highest order of literary excellence–yet while none can deny this fact, there are few who will be willing to read the concluding passages a second time.
Upon the whole we think the "Curiosity Shop" very much the best of the works of Mr. Dickens. It is scarcely possible to speak of it too well. It is in all respects a tale which will secure for its author the enthusiastic admiration of every man of genius.
The edition before us is handsomely printed, on excellent paper. The designs by Cattermole and Browne are many of them excellent–some of them outrageously bad. Of course, it is difficult for us to say how far the American engraver is in fault. In conclusion, we must enter our solemn protest against the final page full of little angels in smock frocks, or dimity chemises.
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.