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Friday, 13 July 2012

A Classics Challenge: July Prompt

I've been rather absent from this challenge recently (you can read my January and February responses, also on Dickens!) but I'm ready to participate again. The prompt for July is: What is a moment, quote, or character that you feel will stay with you? Years from now, when some of the details have faded, that lasting impression the book has left you with... what is it? --or why did it fail to leave an impression? I chose to consider The Old Curiosity Shop, reviewed in full here.

It may be an odd choice for me to say that Richard Swiveller from this novel will stick with me for quite some time. Although he doesn't have the presence within the story as, say, Daniel Quilp, his evolution through the novel is as memorable as anything else. Originally introduced as something of an accomplice to Fred Trent's plans to get his hands on money he perceives his grandfather to have, he is nudged towards a marriage with Nell Trent and is forced to sacrifice the affections of Miss Sophy Wackles as a result. He's manipulated by Quilp after the loss of an inheritance forces him to look for a job and ends up working at Quilp's behest for a lawyer and his sister, Sampson and Sally Brass. Poor Richard is then manipulated by them!

What I liked about Richard was the fact that he originally entered the novel as a potential villain (albeit a dim-witted one) and ended it as one of the chief saviours. Although he is struck down with a fever, it's his previous kind attentions to the 'Marchioness' which bring about the climax of the novel and the end of Daniel Quilp. My favourite paragraphs pertaining to Richard are those which summarise his life after the novel:

"Mr Swiveller, recovering very slowly from his illness, and entering into the receipt of his annuity, bought for the Marchioness a handsome stock of clothes, and put her to school forthwith, in redemption of the vow he had made upon his fevered bed. After casting about for some time for a name which should be worthy of her, he decided in favour of Sophronia Sphynx, as being euphonious and genteel, and furthermore indicative of mystery. Under this title the Marchioness repaired, in tears, to the school of his selection, from which, as she soon distanced all competitors, she was removed before the lapse of many quarters to one of a higher grade. It is but bare justice to Mr Swiveller to say, that, although the expenses of her education kept him in straightened circumstances for half a dozen years, he never slackened in his zeal, and always held himself sufficiently repaid by the accounts he heard (with great gravity) of her advancement, on his monthly visits to the governess, who looked upon him as a literary gentleman of eccentric habits, and of a most prodigious talent in quotation.

In a word, Mr Swiveller kept the Marchioness at this establishment until she was, at a moderate guess, full nineteen years of age - good-looking, clever, and good-humoured; when he began to consider seriously what was to be done next. On one of his periodical visits, while he was resolving this question in his mind, the Marchioness came down to him, alone, looking more smiling and more fresh than ever. Then it occurred to him, but not for the first time, that if she would marry him, how comfortable they might be! So Richard asked her; whatever she said, it wasn't No; and they were married in good earnest that day week, which gave Mr Swiveller frequent occasion to remark at divers subsequent periods that there had been a young lady saving up for him after all." (p541)

It may seem a strange thing to enjoy - a girl growing up under the benevolence of a man then marrying him - but Dickens has hinted at such a final solution through all their previous interactions. He offers it with dignity, as Richard educates her, almost beggaring himself in the process, and makes their marriage an equal - and more morally decent - one.

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