Dick Swiveller's bed

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Author: Joel J. Brattin
Date: Sept. 2009
From: Dickens Quarterly(Vol. 26, Issue 3)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,697 words

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Dick Swiveller, an imaginative young man steeped in popular poetry, melodrama, and (at times) gin, has a peculiar bedstead, described in chapter seven of The Old Curiosity Shop: it is a "deceptive piece of furniture, in reality a bedstead, but in semblance a bookcase," and it occupies "a prominent situation in his chamber and seem[s] to defy suspicion and challenge inquiry." The narrator goes on to tell us:

There is no doubt that by day Mr. Swiveller firmly believed this secret convenience to be a bookcase and nothing more, that he closed his eyes to the bed, resolutely denied the existence of the blankets, and spurned the bolster from his thoughts. No word of its real use, no hint of its nightly service, no allusion to its peculiar properties, had ever passed between him and his most intimate friends. Implicit faith in the deception was the first article of his creed. To be the friend of Swiveller you must reject all circumstantial evidence, all reason, observation, and experience, and repose a blind belief in the book-case. It was his pet weakness and he cherished it (1.116; ch. 7).

Although it is never again mentioned in the novel, Dick's bedstead has many cousins elsewhere in Dickens's writings, and it brings together many of the novel's key themes: truth and lies, fiction and reality, and the transformative power of the imagination.

The Old Curiosity Shop is notoriously a novel of contrasts: youth and age, innocence and experience, sentiment and the gothic, and so on; as the narrator of the novel mentions, "Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast" (2.194; ch. 53). One such contrast of great importance for the novel is that of reality and fantasy, with the active and healthy imagination operating as a creative medium between the two extremes. Malcolm Andrews has justly pointed out that Dick Swiveller has a "special position" between the poles of "a preposterous fairy-tale fantasy" and "a grimly precise reality" (21). Dick Swiveller lives, for the most part, in the sometimes grim and sordid world of reality, but Dick sees to it that he charges that reality with his imagination. Dick does not believe his "one glass of cold gin-and-water" is really rosy wine, to cite another example drawn from the same page as the description of his curious bedstead, nor does he believe the grubby little servant who serves the Brasses is really a "Marchioness," but it makes life "seem more real and pleasant" for Dick, and for others including ourselves, when Dick thus seasons his experience with his poetic imagination (2.120; ch. 57).

Dick's bed, "in semblance a bookcase," is what was commonly known in the nineteenth century as a "turn-up bedstead": an article of furniture that does double duty by serving (or at least masquerading) as something else during the daytime, but folding out at night into that necessary item for those who choose to sleep, a bed. Wealthy people do not usually need turn-up...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Brattin, Joel J. "Dick Swiveller's bed." Dickens Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 2009, p. 165+. Accessed 14 May 2021.

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