Monday, December 20, 2010

Grotesque Dickens


I've recently been reading Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Really enjoying it so far, and I swear it's not just because the word 'grotesque' pops up so often...

The character of Daniel Quilp is most often described as grotesque. His entrance in chapter three gives you a sense of what the term is understood to mean in this context:

"The child was closely followed by an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog. His dress consisted of a large high-crowned hat, a worn dark suit, a pair of capacious shoes, and a dirty white neckerchief sufficiently limp and crumpled to disclose the greater portion of his wiry throat. Such hair as he had was of a grizzled black, cut short and straight upon his temples, and hanging in a frowzy fringe about his ears. His hands, which were of a rough, coarse grain, were very dirty; his fingernails were crooked, long, and yellow."

Amazing, right?

Quilp is a particularly heinous man. He treats his young wife very badly, and finds great delight in pinching, slapping and making her miserable.

[Quilp Interrupts Tea. Via]

Mrs Quilp's mother, Mrs Jiniwin, hates and fears her son-in-law in equal measures.

From chapter five:

"Mr Quilp now walked up to front of a looking-glass, and was standing there putting on his neckerchief, when Mrs Jiniwin happening to be behind him, could not resist the inclination she felt to shake her fist at her tyrant son-in-law. It was the gesture of an instant, but as she did so and accompanied the action with a menacing look, she met his eye in the glass, catching her in the very act. The same glance at the mirror conveyed to her the reflection of a horribly grotesque and distorted face with the tongue lolling out; and the next instant the dwarf, turning about with a perfectly bland and placid look, inquired in a tone of great affection.
'How are you now, my dear old darling?'
Slight and ridiculous as the incident was, it made him appear such a little fiend, and withal such a keen and knowing one, that the old woman felt too much afraid of him to utter a single word, and suffered herself to be led with extraordinary politeness to the breakfast-table."

It gets worse...

"Here he by no means diminished the impression he had just produced, for he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature."

This vision of a man chomping down whole eggs and gnawing on the cutlery is pretty hilarious. For the most part, however, Quilp is genuinely sinister. Especially when he propositions little Nell, who is still a child, and suggests she become his next wife once the current Mrs Quilp dies (presumably sometime soon-ish in a tragic/deliberate 'accident').

Perhaps as the story unfolds he will be redeemed. Or maybe he will get much worse. I will have to read and find out. If you're interested you can find the full text here.

Incidentally, the 1975 film adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop showcases Quilp in full musical mode.

Great performance. Vicious, charming and trashy all at the same time.