The Shop Without the Novel
As one walks from Holborn towards the Strand Underpass, seeking the vestiges of Dickensian squalor, a little to east, between the intersections with Keeley and Kemble Streets, lies the Sardinia street, south of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Most tourists will not take this, but instead walk fifty yards ahead towards the building of the London School of Economics. If, however, one does step into the Sardinia Street, and follows it up turning right into the Portsmouth Street, one comes across the shop, even without of the novel, The Old Curiousity Shop. Ideally, the title to this should read as “The Shop with a Novel,” it being a classic case where a real tract of London’s landscape was reified/territorialised into fiction, without any change of name. “Immortalised by Charles Dickens,” as the inscription beneath the roof reads, The Old Curiosity Shop became the model for the eponymous novel (1840-41) and the home of the teenage orphan, Little Nell, and her grandfather, therein. That the characters and the shop in the novel were conjured from geographical and human precedents, in and around the real shop, Dickens confirms in the very first opening of the novel:
I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street-lamp or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add the truth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremony or remorse.
Established somewhere around 1567, the shop began as a dairy on an estate presented by King Charles to one of his mistresses, the Duchess of Porstmouth. It is arguably a claimant to one of London’s oldest existing shops, and certainly the one in central London. The building’s low-rise upper storey, irregular floorings, slanted roof, Tudor gabling, dainty winding staircases, and low wooden ceiling beams are an indication of London’s architecture and cityscape prior to the Great Fire of 1666. It is a miracle that, despite been made of wood salvaged from an unusable ship, it survived that and the London Blitz of the World War II. The building’s heritage and future architectural destiny is protected by an order of preservation.
Although it provides the setting for a readymade platter to tease the nostalgic literary tourist’s sensibilities, the shop is often as easy as difficult to trace. For, it is now dwarfed by the presence of the London School of Economics, and sells less of its touted high-end shoes, than the promise of old London’s wistfulness the frontage provides. Apparently, Dickens was a regular visitor to the shop, while he lived in Bloomsbury. But the name of the shop was used as the title after the first release of the novel. Dickens’ story was first serialized in in the periodical, Master Humphrey’s Clock.
Here we leave you with two brief excerpts from Dickens’ novel, for you to carry in your imagination and mark their veracity vis a vis the concrete Old Curiosity Shop.
I walked past the house, and took several turns in the street, with that kind of hesitation which is natural to a man who is conscious that the visit he is about to pay is unexpected, and may not be very acceptable. However, as the door of the shop was shut, and it did not appear likely that I should be recognized by those within, if I continued merely to pass up and down before it, I soon conquered this irresolution, and found myself in the Curiosity Dealer’s warehouse (Chapter 2).
Kit made his way through the crowded streets, dividing the stream of people, dashing across the busy road-ways, diving into lanes and alleys, and stopping or turning aside for nothing, until he came in front of the Old Curiosity Shop, when he came to a stand; partly from habit and partly from being out of breath.
It was a gloomy autumn evening, and he thought the old place had never looked so dismal as in its dreary twilight. The windows broken, the rusty sashes rattling in their frames, the deserted house a dull barrier dividing the glaring lights and bustle of the street into two long lines, and standing in the midst, cold, dark, and empty—presented a cheerless spectacle which mingled harshly with the bright prospects the boy had been building up for its late inmates, and came like a disappointment or misfortune. Kit would have had a good fire roaring up the empty chimneys, lights sparkling and shining through the windows, people moving briskly to and fro, voices in cheerful conversation, something in unison with the new hopes that were astir. He had not expected that the house would wear any different aspect—had known indeed that it could not—but coming upon it in the midst of eager thoughts and expectations, it checked the current in its flow, and darkened it with a mournful shadow (Chapter 41).