Little Nell – spoiler alert! – dies during The Old Curiosity Shop. Actually, since it’s one of the most famous deaths in literature, this isn’t much of a spoiler. It’s the one that Oscar Wilde said you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at. Oh pish, Oscar! Nell walks to her doom, having to pass through Birmingham and Wolverhampton to do so. This would be pretty hard on anyone. There was no Selfridges then. On her travels, Nell spends so much time at various places – a waxworks museum, random dingy old buildings, overgrown churchyards, etc. – that readers begin to suspect she may not be long for the land of the living. Thomas Hardy took a forest of leaves out of Dickens’ symbolism primer when he wrote Tess Of The D’Urbervilles. There are the usual Dickensian problems – such as a fairly pointless subplot holding up the action towards the end – most likely caused by the pressure of instalment writing. But when Dickens hits the spot – as with the gripping description of Nell’s discovery of gentle granddad’s ruinous gambling addiction – your chin hits the floor. (Grandfather, frankly, needs a good kick up the wig). Kit Nubbles (ah, those names!) refers to Nell more than once as an angel, and Dickens sanctioned an illustration which sees Nell taking her place among them. Today’s highly sophisticated readership baulks at such sentimentality. But it’s interesting to note that Lars von Trier did something similarly heavenly in the final shot of Breaking The Waves. These works are wildly different from one another but share one theme: that their other-wordly female protagonist is too good for this life, and will find her true place in the next. Everyone else in The Old Curiosity Shop gets their just deserts too, one way or another. Dickens didn’t always kill off his most vulnerable characters. Remember A Christmas Carol and ‘Tiny Tim, who did NOT die’? In a nice twist, Little Nell is seriously ill at the beginning of the BBC’s recent Dickens-based cliffhanger Dickensian – but survives. With such a turnaround, viewers of the series felt justifiably nervous for Tiny Tim, who was coughing a lot and had just finished the last of his medicine*.
*UPDATE: Tiny Tim did NOT die in this one either. Panic over.