This is not my favorite Dickens. It’s episodic like Pickwick Papers, with relatively few solid threads to hold it together, and, as such, easy to lose interest in. Little Nell, supposedly Dickens’ tribute to his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, who died at 17 while living in his house, is, like Mary, characterized as practically angelic and emblematic of the inability of goodness to exist long outside of the heavenly realm. It’s clear from the beginning that Little Nell will have to die and then the death scene description is so long and anticlimactic that it’s not hard to regard it as overdone, even comic. Oscar Wilde certainly thought so: ”One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
What I always remember about the book are the crowds of American readers waiting by the dock for the ship bringing the last installment of the novel to New York carrying signs like “Don’t kill Little Nell” and “Did she die?” Recent comments on bringing the manuscript of the latest Harry Potter novel to New York cited the last time readers displayed such eagerness for an English author as when they lined the pier waiting to find out what happened to Little Nell. And yes, of course she died. She was from the beginning described as too good for this world—dedicated entirely to the comfort and welfare of others—code for “died young” in Dickens time and in our own, though we, like Wilde, are much more likely to scorn the sentimentality. In fact, Nell hasn’t much of a character. It’s hard to imagine what she wants for herself. Esther Summerson of Bleak House is often accused of being too good to be true, but Esther, unselfish and dedicated as she is to serving others, has her own agenda too: she has a passion to understand the story of her lost parents; she falls in love. If Nell had only yearned for Kit to rescue her or for the canary she left behind, she might have been more real, though Dickens, I think was not striving for real but for the pathos of good and evil juxtaposed
Quilp, not Nell, is the memorable character from The Old Curiosity Shop, the dwarf who is possibly not so much smaller than everyone else as notable for the extraordinary size of his head; head and heart with Quilp are extraordinarily unbalanced. As evil as Nell is good, Quilp, like Milton’s Satan, but without his grandeur or heroism, arouses our passions with his words and deeds as Nell cannot with her goodness.