Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
“The Old Curiosity Shop”
February 14, 2017
“She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God,
and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.”
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
The Old Curiosity Shop
Little Nell is one of Dickens’ best known characters, yet appears in one of his least read novels. She was the butt of ridicule from a few late-19th Century critics who opposed the romanticism of the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde once said: “…a man would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell without laughing.” G.K. Chesterton, not to be outdone, added, “…it is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell that I object to.” George Bernard Shaw, speaking about Victorian emotional excess, remarked, “Little Nell was nothing but a sort of literary onion, to make you cry.”
Is the story that sappy? Dickens was concerned with good and evil and how good ultimately triumphs, and he cared about the devastation of urban poverty. Dickens wanted to expose those men and women who inhabited London’s underside, the millions who lived apart from Jane Austen’s and Anthony Trollope’s polite society. He wanted his audience to know that these souls (many of whom were illiterate) shared the same emotions: love, grief, passion, despair, anger – that they were real, not caricatures to be pitied or parodied. Good is represented by Little Nell and her friend Kit. Her grandfather, a gambling addict, is fallible but remorseful and loving. Evil is reflected, principally, in Quilp. The story is also an odyssey, the leaving behind of one life in search of another, a better place.
Harold Bloom, in an interview with Ray Suarez on PBS, once said about Dickens (and Cervantes and Shakespeare) that the author carries you “so deep into the interior of the crucial figures in the book that you will be concerned about their lives and deaths as human beings, not about the times in which they live or the political causes through which they’re struggling.” Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, wrote about his favorites, including Dickens: “This is not a canon. This is a refuge.” He’s right; we get lost within the pages. Characters from “The Old Curiosity Shop” – Little Nell, her grandfather, Kit, Swiveller, Sampson Brass and his sister Sally, Quilp and his long suffering wife, and others – remain long after the novel has been put down.
No, I do not agree with the cynics. While Little Nell’s death was necessary to the story, because of her youth and temperament it was tragic. Dickens concludes his story with words borrowed from the Book of Psalms, “…and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told.”
“The Wicked City”
“But I always did wonder what became of Ginger?”
Aunt Julie speaking to her great-niece, Ella
Beatriz Williams (1972-)
The Wicked City
This is a fast-paced novel (her seventh) by my daughter-in-law, a New York Times best-selling author. The story takes place in 1924 prohibition-era New York, and seventy-four years later in 1998 New York. Aunt Julie, born in 1902, is a flapper, and frequenter of the City’s speakeasies. In 1924 she befriended the story’s main character, Ginger. For purposes of historical perspective and to add mystery, Beatriz takes the reader back back and forth across time, and transports the reader from the City to Long Island, from coastal New Jersey rum-runners to moonshine centers in western Maryland.
“The Wicked City” is the first of three novels about New York City during prohibition and, yes, we will find out what became of Ginger in future stories. “Writers,” wrote Joe Bunting, a young author, “then, are the great connectors. We enable our readers and ourselves to experience the rest of humanity, to feel a part of the whole.” That describes Beatriz, and the characters and story she has created.