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The mystery of Master Humphrey

By Ruth Howells, on 14 February 2012

In a month where you seem not to be able to switch on the television or open a newspaper without encountering something to do with Charles Dickens, this Lunch Hour Lecture fell on 7 February, the very day marking the bicentenary of the great Victorian novelist’s birth.

The lecture, by Dr Matthew Beaumont (UCL English Language & Literature), fell a little off the beaten track in terms of Dickens scholarship. It focused on a peculiar and often overlooked character from perhaps one of Dickens’ less well-known and well-loved novels, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Dr Beaumont said that the novel has been neglected in scholarly terms because of its notorious sentimentality. Referring to the scenes describing the death of the saintly child Nell, Oscar Wilde famously said that, “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.”

People who have studied The Old Curiosity Shop tend to focus on the character of Quilp in the novel – the sinister, violent villain of the piece.

As Quilp is one of Dicken’s “great grotesques”, Dr Beaumont admitted that it is tempting to focus on him. The more genial Master Humphrey is a less overtly sinister presence in a novel teeming with the creepy and menacing, so easy to overlook.