But one difference between the two which I’ve been immediately struck with, in only the first 75 or so pages of The Old Curiosity Shop, is how terrifyingly sexual are the clouds gathering around the naïve, 13-year old Nell. Already she is the subject of two plots to either force or trick her into marriage – by her brother, with his friend, the ever charming Dick Sniveller; and by the rapacious and cruel dwarf Daniel Quilp:
The child uttered a suppressed shriek on beholding this agreeable figure; in their first surprise both she and the old man, not knowing what to say, and half doubting its reality, looked shrinkingly at it. Not at all disconcerted by this reception, Daniel Quilp preserved the same attitude, merely nodding twice or thrice with great condescension. At length, the old man pronounced his name, and inquired how he came there.Before reading this and other similar (although somewhat less overtly repellent) scenes in The Old Curiosity Shop, I had been accustomed to a Dickens with, maybe not a gentler touch, but at least a more innocent one. Nelly is as vulnerable as a gothic heroine with white heaving bosoms in a cruel and licentiate lord’s haunted castle, but this isn't one bit hilarious – and her prison is the wide world of London-town and her jailer is her socio-economic vulnerability combined with the defenselessness of being a teenaged girl without family to speak of. There are no supernatural elements to help her out, and the kindly gentleman who began her story, and who expressed interest in contributing to her well-being, has disappeared – having turned his first person narrative over to an impersonal and powerless third person and disappeared from the story!
'Through the door,' said Quilp pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. 'I'm not quite small enough to get through key-holes. I wish I was. I want to have some talk with you, particularly, and in private. With nobody present, neighbour. Good-bye, little Nelly.'
Nell looked at the old man, who nodded to her to retire, and kissed her cheek.
'Ah!' said the dwarf, smacking his lips, 'what a nice kiss that was-- just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!'
Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.
'Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,' said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; 'such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!'
The old man answered by a forced smile, and was plainly struggling with a feeling of the keenest and most exquisite impatience. It was not lost upon Quilp, who delighted in torturing him, or indeed anybody else, when he could.
'She's so,' said Quilp, speaking very slowly, and feigning to be quite absorbed in the subject, 'so small, so compact, so beautifully modelled, so fair, with such blue veins and such a transparent skin, and such little feet, and such winning ways-- but bless me, you're nervous! Why neighbour, what's the matter?' (pp.71-73)
When I read Our Mutual Friend about two years ago, I was struck by how cynical it was compared to the other Dickens novels I’d read. In retrospect, it was cynical in a literary way, a sort of 17th-century Shakespearean way – it reminded one of the cruel tests to which the Bard put his heroes and heroines in the late, so-called “problem plays”; it was literarily, if not emotionally, challenging. And while I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that The Old Curiosity Shop is also in part literary homage - reading it has been reminding me of Wm. Blake’s most agonizingly bitter images from Songs of Innocence and Experience - the bitterness about Nell’s position seems more sordidly realist than literary homage can possibly allow. She is the subject of sexual predation by men whose souls are viciously mangled whether or not their bodies match; her primary caregiver loves her but is a helpless gambling addict and becoming infirm with age to boot; her friends, those she has, are impossibly weak (Mrs. Quilp) or hopelessly hindered by birth (Poor Kit) or like the novel’s first narrator, given to disappearing without explanation. If help is forthcoming, it won't be coming from quarters with which Nell is already familiar. I will find out later, when there's time to pick up my novel again; until then, I fear for her almost bodily.