Poet Alison Brackenbury
Charles Dickens & The Old Curiosity Shop
It was the Vicar who noticed that we had no Dickens in the house.
My father, to my knowledge, never bought a book in his life. (He would, however, get up half an hour early to finish a library book, often a story of marriage or family, before he left to load and drive a lorry for the farmer who still owned most of our village.)
My mother had a small set of books, including poems, from the teacher training for which she had, briefly, left the village. She had then dabbled in bookclubs, which seemed determined to promote the complete works of Howard Spring.
Our Vicar, the surprisingly bookish son of a rich farming family, must have realised there were no classics amongst the fading covers in our bookcase.
So, aged, eight or nine, I found myself fingering a Sunday School prize with a royal blue cover embossed in gold: ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.
The re-discovery of my old friend briefly brightened a dark and dreadful first term in North Oxford. ‘You’re good on this often neglected novel’, a patient tutor scrawled in the margin of an essay which seemed, even to me, longer than the books themselves. Dickens had been engulfed by homesickness and mental confusion.
When I came home, sleep-starved, in December, I was asked by my busy parents to take Mrs. Haywood her Christmas present.
Twice a week, even before the arrival of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, Mrs Haywood had cleaned our house so that my mother had time for teaching. She worked with enormous energy, occasionally colliding with the odd bowl or vase. She would then insist we that we accept an expensive replacement.
As a child she had a disfigurement (a hare lip?) and been tormented at school. Her prickly pride was matched only by inexhaustible kindness. She would come and look after me when I was ill, even in the middle of family bereavement, staying all day, boiling her thick custard, which I loved.
Now thin and eighteen, standing on her doorstep in the windy dark, I tried to answer her eager enquiries about Oxford. I could not tell her about the unhappy hours in my room. I tried instead to describe some of the exotic creatures I encountered in the College corridors, with their black cloaks from Benenden and their pale, fine-grained handbags from Florence.
Mrs Haywood stared at me disapprovingly. ‘But they are’, I said desperately, ‘really quite ordinary people’. ‘Don’t you think, Alison dear,’ said Mrs Haywood, unfailingly kind even in indignation, ‘that we are all ordinary people?’ ‘Yes,’ I muttered miserably. Mrs Haywood softened. ‘And what are you studying?’ ‘Dickens’, I offered, at random. Mrs Haywood’s awkward mouth opened into her rare, wide smile. ‘I love Dickens!’ she cried. Her face was happy as a child’s.
Like one of the racehorses turned out to grass in the village, I ‘broke down’, broke off the course, worked in a shop (fairly old, very curious), then went back.
Like Mrs Haywood, I could now love Dickens again, because I knew that I was not going to stay in a claustrophobic university town, as my teachers had dreamed.
I was going out into the wide world, as the lovers pass into London at the end of ‘Little Dorrit’. First devoured at Oxford, it is perhaps my favourite Dickens novel. I have never forgotten the moment in which the wide steps of Mr Dorrit’s Italian palace shrink, in his dying mind, to the narrow staircase of the Marshalsea. If the prison is inescapable, it is partly because he denies it. In the ridiculous grandeur of his pretensions, truth returns from his past.
So I will return, gratefully, to the Curiosity Shop -where is that small blue book? – with what my daughter’s generation would call some random thoughts about Dickens. First, how terrifying he is. As with the course, I needed two attempts at ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I almost slammed the book shut when I first encountered Quilp, crunching eggshells.
Dickens is, if anything, still more alarming on stage or screen. My mother-in-law, who had iron nerves, screamed aloud in the cinema at the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’, when Magwitch leaps out at Pip.
But when I edged past Quilp, I followed Nell and her unreliable grandfather on their journey out of London. Despite the odd brush with the monstrous fires of industry, this becomes a book of green places, overlooked patches of countryside where a girl can tether a horse. It looks backwards. Dickens, I believe, is an eighteenth century writer.
I was startled to discover that Oliver’s request for food, unlike its tear-jerking dramatisations, is described in the book with cool satire. (This sudden distancing of tone, the reversing of the telescope, may make Dickens an awkward author for schoolchildren.)
I know other readers who think, as I do, that there is a vivacity and sympathy in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ which is never recaptured. Amongst his stagecoaches and ostlers, Dickens is at home. His later descriptions of the building of railways are raw as nightmare. But, in his waking life, Dickens proved adaptable.
The fierce cleric Dean Close, who terrorised nineteenth century Cheltenham, thought that railways would encourage travel on the Sabbath, for immoral purposes, by the working classes. He might have included famous novelists in this class. When Dickens was caught up in a train crash, he was transporting not only his MS, but his teenage mistress, and her mother.
Dickens worked, incessantly. But one of the fascinating features of his books is the inability of either Dickens or his young heroes to find any useful job which they can do. Dickens, I believe, had been a Parliamentary reporter, and worked for a lawyer. He held politics and the law in the same cold contempt.
But what was left, for David or Pip? Industry, to Dickens, was Nell’s lurid fairytale of flames. What would Dickens make of a girl whose parents worked hard, and whose money bought her an excellent education, after which she did nothing but pose, gaunt under high-class cosmetics, at the side of the balding heir to a feudal monarchy?
He might not have tacked a happy ending on to that fairy tale, even though Wilkie Collins persuaded him to improve his commercial expectations, by replacing his clear-eyed verdict on the cold-hearted Estella with a final rosy glow.
Finally, how do ‘ordinary people’ encounter Dickens today? I tend to hear him, on the radio. Dickens was the keenest of listeners, perhaps due to his shorthand training. There is nothing in English like the breakneck monologues of Sam Weller. But I heard a radio presenter admit recently that neither he nor his widely read wife had ever attempted Dickens. Were his books ever on school exam syllabuses? His best novels are long, and wildly varied. Somewhere, I suspect, English critics devised a notion of the uniform novel, compact, pale and smooth as those costly handbags. Dickens does not run along even tracks. His prose is a bulging bag, a lurching coach. But if you hang on, and peer out of the tiny window, what crazy, unforgettable views!
Sharon Osbourne, no stranger to craziness, nominates Dickens as her favourite author: ‘I love his books’. Had Mrs Haywood read him? When I stayed with her once, the bedroom shelf held only green copies of ‘The Reader’s Digest’. Perhaps she had borrowed his novels from a library van. Or had she watched the BBC’s serialisations at Sunday teatime, where the bonnets were stiff, but Dickens’ dialogue leapt into life? It is time for a whole new generation of TV adaptations and films. Dickens, I say unhesitatingly, would have loved them, although the producer would have to steer him well away from the young actress playing Little Dorrit or Nell. How did you – and/or your children? – encounter Dickens? Do let me know.
Recently, I was asked to write a poem about Dickens for an anthology. I heard a comment on the radio that very little survives of Dickens’ London. Statistically, I am sure that this is true. But I was once walking South of the Thames when I passed under a wet, black bridge and was suddenly struck by a panicked sense of evil. I almost ran out into the daylight. By a set of dripping steps, I saw a plaque. Here, in ‘Oliver Twist’, Dickens set the murder of Nancy, by Bill Sykes. So some of Dickens’ places do remain.
Dickens’ descriptions of London are, of course, not photographs, but selections, from Dickens’ roving eye. What would Dickens see today? He would see Canary Wharf, but he would also see the immigrant workers with no papers, sleeping in the streets behind Victoria Coach Station. I do not think he would be impressed – perhaps appalled – but still, fascinated. And blogs? He would have had six of them.
Out of all this came a poem, and with it, Mrs Haywood’s final kindness to me, in suggesting its first refrain. She thought that we are all ordinary people. Dickens, less kind, knew that we are all extraordinary. Here is the poem.
Dickens: a daydream
The scrapman’s son bangs at our door,
skives school, like father, his before,
all crammed in van’s hum. ‘Anything, sir?’
curls wild, your scavenging people.
The doe-eyed girl at the café till
is child’s height, yet does not spill
one bean from heaped trays, hammers bills,
your frantic, stunted people.
Bad teeth, bent hips, the pitbull’s snarl
called you out from the lawyer’s yarns.
Happiness bored you most of all,
white tables, good, quiet people.
One was your wife. You glimpsed ahead
the young actress’s breasts instead,
buds crushed by silk. She never said
your name, changed dates, fooled people.
London, in its lost party time,
the trees’ lit snow, the towers’ gold chime,
the heat of bars, the twist of lime,
you shun as in a fever.
We meet beneath the dripping bridge,
soot, fear and sorrow on each ledge.
Hurt child, you scour each rag-strewn beach,
walk all night, stride and shiver
until the dawn strikes London’s walls
and clangs Good morning from St Paul’s.
Waitresses, Poles, striped bankers pour,
your million words. Sleep, river.
A Mutual Friend: poems for Charles Dickens Ed. Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 2012, 978-1-901677-78-2 Highly recommended!
Reprinted in The Times Literary Supplement.)
Photograph Description and Copyright Info
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury
Alison’s grandfather Fred Brackenbury, who was a shepherd.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law
Jacket cover of The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens in 1850
Alison, age 4, holding a hand-fed-lamb Grandmother Dorothy was helping Grandfather Fred rear.
Charles Dickens in New York in 1867
Attributed to Jeremiah Gurney
The Old Curiosity Shop
"Little Dorrit" avatar (engraving) 1856
"Harper's New Monthly Magazine" Vol. XII, No. LXIX, February, 1856, New York: Harper & Brothers (Publisher)
The Marshalsea after it had closed.
Photograph taken in 1897.
Early illustration from The Old Curisoty Shop depicting Daniel Quilp sitting in his chair drinking rum and smoking while his neglected and abused wife sits nearby
Magwitch leaps out at Pip.
Illustration from Great Expectations
Printed in 1890
An early illustration depicting Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop
Illustration depicting Oliver Twist requesting food.
Attributed to Harold Copping
Illustration from The Pickwick Papers
Charles Dickens’s mistress Elen Ternan,
Engraving of the Staplehurst Train Crash that Charles Dickens and his mistress were victims of
Attributed to Illustrated London News
Charles Dickens at his desk in 1858.
Old vintage painting of Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop
Wilkie Collins (a close friend of Charles Dickens) in 1874 at age 50.
Photograph attributed to Napoleon Sarony.
The signature of Wilkie Collins was added later.
Character Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Painting titled “Dickens’ Dream”, depicting Dickens at his desk surrounded by his characters.
Attributed to Robert William Buss
Painting donated by Robert William Buss’s grandson
Early vintage illustration of the murder of Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury
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