The Old Curiosity Shop is another Dickens novel that revels in an expansive cast of character whilst still giving a sense of there being 'central characters'. One of these is undoubtedly Nell Trent, the most famous character from the book. The story begins with a look at Nell and her grandfather, who has been secretly gambling to try and create a fortune he believes Nell deserves. She, however, has always been content with very little. Nonetheless, his actions lead to them losing everything and they sneak out of the clutches of evil Daniel Quilp in the dead of night. They then begin a trek to find safety, encountering a variety of interesting characters along the way.
It's difficult to convey the scope of this novel. Who are the characters we care about? Nell, her grandfather, Kit, his mother and two brothers, Richard Swiveller, the unnamed schoolmaster and, on the villainous side, Sampson and Sally Brass and Daniel Quilp himself. These are just the main ones but they offer a good overview. While Dickens takes Nell and her grandfather off into the countryside, he doesn't neglect the tribulations of those back at home, in particular Kit and the rather dim-witted Swiveller. Quilp's maliciousness touches every life, especially when he decides to punish Kit for simply getting in his way.
Although the ending of this novel is well-known, I won't spoil it for anyone who has managed to avoid it. Even knowing the ending, though, doesn't diminish the quality of the story and comic effects of the various characters. The Old Curiosity Shop is a Dickens book through-and-through with my edition containing the original drawings by Phiz and George Cattermole. The depiction of Quilp in these drawings isn't something easily forgotten.
I do have some slight criticisms though. The tactic of introducing Nell and her grandfather via an unnamed narrator who wanders straight out of the story afterwards irritated me a little but it's a common feature of Victorian fiction. There were enough characters to get my head around without an additional one at the beginning! Also, the title quickly becomes redundant as the story spans far beyond the shop itself. These are slight criticisms, though, and I don't really have a bad word to say about the plot, characters or setting. The use of the river throughout leads to a suitably grisly climax and the plethora of unnamed and unexplored characters add to the depth of the novel.
I had my favourite characters, of course, and my favourite scenes but I can't list them all here. Anything involving Kit or Richard Swiveller could probably be on it, though most of Quilp's scenes were memorable enough to live with me after reading them. I won't forget his hideous little shack with a ship figurehead inside which he mutilates any time soon, that's for sure.