The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. The Old Curiosity Shop
This “ebullience of creative” faculty (to borrow once more from Coleridge, though from a less admirable phrase) is, however, notoriously subject to boiling over; and it certainly does so in the misplaced ingenuity of the framework which, for a time, enshrined, and very far from adorned, the next two books, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. There are two explanations, though they can hardly be called excuses, of the mistake of Master Humphrey’s Clock. One is that Dickens (whose strong sense of his predecessors is never to be forgotten, though it often is) had not freed himself from that early difficulty of the novelist—the nervous idea that, in some way, he ought to account to his readers for the way in which he got his information. The other is that the period of publication—weekly not monthly—suggested the necessity of some vehicle to excuse and convey the actual works. However, this framework soon proved itself (as it was bound to do) not merely a superfluity but a nuisance; and Dickens (who, if he was not a perfect critic, was, as has been said, a born man of business) got rid of it. The “transient, embarrassed [and still more embarrassing] phantom” of Master Humphrey still hinders, without in the least helping, the overture of The Old Curiosity Shop; with the actual text of Barnaby Rudge, it, fortunately, does not interfere at all. In the more recent reprints of Dickens’s miscellaneous remains, the reader may, if he choses, read so much of the framework as was actually written; but, except for critical purposes, he had much better not. The belated club machinery of the Tatler tradition works to no satisfaction; and the inset tales (with the possible exception, to some extent, of “Gog and Magog”) take us back to the level of the Sketches. The frequently falsified maxim as to the badness of sequels has, perhaps, never been more thoroughly justified than in the unfortunate resurrection of the Pickwick group; and the additions to them are wholly uninteresting. For one good thing, it taught him never to reintroduce his characters—a proceeding successful enough with some other authors, but which the very stuff and substance of his own form of creation forbade.
But, if the attempted, and, fortunately, abortive, husk or shell was worthless, the twin nuts or kernels were very far from being so. The Old Curiosity Shop, like all Dickens’s novels without exception save The Pickwick Papers, contains a tragic or, at least, sentimental element; at the time, that element attracted most attention and it has, perhaps, attracted most favourable or unfavourable comment since. On the vexed question of little Nell, there is no need to say much here. She ravished contemporaries, at least partly because she was quite new. She often, though not always, disgusted the next age. That wise compromise for which there is seldom room at first has withdrawn the objections to herself, while, perhaps, retaining those to her grandfather, as (except at the very last) an entirely unnatural person, especially in speech, and one of Dickens’s worst borrowings from the lower stage. But it has been, perhaps, insufficiently noticed that, except in her perfectly natural and unstage-like appearances with Kit, with Codlin and Short and elsewhere, she could be cut out of the book with little loss except of space, taking her grandfather and her most superfluous and unsatisfactory cousin Trent with her. There would remain enough to make a book of the first class. The humours of the shop and the pilgrimage are almost, if not quite, independent of the unhappy ending. We should not lose Codlin and Short themselves, or Mrs. Jarley, or other treasures. The Brasses—close, of course, to the Squeerses and even to the Fagin household, but saved, like the former, if not like all the latter, by humour—Quilp, an impossibility, equally of course, but, again, saved from mere loathsomeness by a fantastic grotesque which is almost diablerie; and, above all, Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness would abide with us as they do. There have been some, it is believed, who regard the prodigal son of Dorsetshire (that small but delightful county bred the Dorrits, too, but cannot be so proud of them; and, though it has had important offspring in literature since, has been unfairly merged in “Wessex”) as one of Dickens’s choicest achievements, while the Marchioness herself (would there were more of her!) is simply unique—the sentimental note being never forced, the romantic pleasantly indicated and the humorous triumphantly maintained.