As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.
Continuing my journey through Dickens, I’ve reached his sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, another first reading for me. Although Dickens regarded the novel as one of his best, it failed to capture the public imagination when it was first published – through 1843 and into 1844 – with sales of the early monthly parts being particularly disappointing compared to previous works. I can see why: the novel definitely has weaknesses. It is slow to get started, and seems to struggle and lose momentum in the final episodes. Yet, overall, I still enjoyed the book, and was entertained especially by the American passages and by some classic Dickensian characters, especially, of course, Mrs Gamp.
Dickens couldn’t understand Chuzzlewit‘s comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold between 40 and 50,000). He was so pleased with the opening chapters that he declared to John Forster that it was the best thing he had ever done. But, after the first few episodes had sold disappointingly, he realised he had to do something to retrieve the situation.
In 1842 he had travelled across America with his wife Kate On returning to England, Dickens had published American Notes in which he attacked slavery, and American politicians motivated by money, not ideals. He criticised the hypocrisy he had found in the republic for which he had held out such high hopes beforehand: ‘I am disappointed,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘This is not the republic of my imagination’. In American Notes, Dickens wrote of ‘despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers’. Now he saw an opportunity to vent his feelings about American society in scenes of fierce, satirical comedy by sending young Martin Chuzzlewit to America – a move he hoped would also revive his readers’ flagging interest in the novel. It did, but only marginally.
Dickens had already established the novel’s overarching theme of hypocrisy in the opening episodes in which he had introduced the complex genealogy of the Chuzzlewit dynasty and the greed of Old Martin’s relatives, in particular the unctuously hypocritical Pecksniff, each of whom hope to inherit the old man’s wealth. Now, in the sixth instalment, Dickens had the young Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man’s grandson, sail to America with Mark Tapley, who will come to represent the opposite virtues of selflessness and concern for others.
In her concise survey of Dickens’s life and work, Jane Smiley makes some interesting observations about the way in which Dickens’s thoughts about society and reform were developing at the time of writing Martin Chuzzlewit – thinking that found its way into the novel. Dickens, she says, differed from many fellow reformers of the period – people like Lord Shaftesbury, who were Evangelicals and ‘promoted, first and foremost, the prohibition of sinful acts such as prostitution and alcohol consumption, and who combined teaching the poor to read and write with rigorous religious instruction’. Dickens, Smiley says, ‘always ridiculed the Evangelical impulse to look for sinfulness and evil nature, instead interpreting kindness, fellow-feeling, charitableness and social conscience as virtues of generosity and love. Society would be reformed through an expansion of love and responsibility, through the cultivation of comfort and beauty, not through clamping down’.
When I read Jane Smiley’s words it seemed to fit right in with James Kincaid’s observations on Sairey Gamp in his Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter, which can be found on the Victorian Web. At first, it might seem that Dickens has no sympathy for the outrageous Gamp, the gin-sodden midwife and nurse to the poor who treats those in her care with cavalier roughness. But Kincaid regards her as ‘the central moral figure in the novel’, the morality she lives by being ‘much more humane and more adequate to the demands of the bleak world’ she inhabits.
Though purely selfish, she is never mean and, more important, directs our attention and our values far away from such narrow moral verdicts. Mrs. Gamp is selfish only from the perspective of a fool like old Martin; Dickens and his readers saw her as a triumphant expression of selfhood.
Mrs Gamp, Kincaid points out, ‘continually satirizes the barbaric consolation offered to the poor by religion and its basic appeals to envy and vindictiveness’:
Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ’em. to see out of a needle’s eye. That is my comfort, and I hope I knows it.
For Kincaid, Gamp is the archetypal anti-Puritan, ‘who would drink and laugh even in the Slough of Despond’. She hates the prudential life which does nothing more than prepare for death, and she is dedicated to the happiness to be found in society. ‘She functions’, Kincaid writes, ‘to provide a way out of despair, through imagination, versatile artistry, and resiliency’.
The American episodes are a rollicking good read. Like Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit sets off for America full of hope that he will quickly make his fortune in this new land full of promise. But, like Dickens, he is disillusioned. Observing America through the eyes of Martin and Mark, Dickens develops a sweeping critique of America, embracing aspects such as spitting in public, lack of respect for individual privacy revealed in impertinent questioning of strangers, voracious eating habits, pompous oratory, and misuse of the English language (Dickens’ ear for how people speak is as sharp as always).
But, most of all, Dickens turns his spotlight on the failure of the country to live up to the constant proclamations of the founding ideal of democracy he heard from the mouths of Americans while he was in the country. Dickens presents America as being as hypocritical as Pecksniff – but this greed and hypocrisy is systemic, rather than individual. In one passage, Martin observes that all conversation is about money:
Dollars! All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures were gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Nature and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!
Dickens focusses on slavery over to reveal, as Martin puts it, that in getting rid of ‘masters’ the country has simply substituted ‘owners’. One scene in particular reveals Dickens’s loathing of slavery; Mark Tapley introduces Martin to a man he has just met on the street:
And may I ask,’ said Martin, glancing, but not with any displeasure, from Mark to the negro, ‘who this gentleman is? Another friend of yours?’
‘Why sir,’ returned Mark, taking him aside, and speaking confidentially in his ear, ‘he’s a man of colour, sir!’
‘Do you take me for a blind man,’ asked Martin, somewhat impatiently, ‘that you think it necessary to tell me that, when his face is the blackest that ever was seen?’
‘No, no; when I say a man of colour,’ returned Mark, ‘I mean that he’s been one of them as there’s picters of in the shops. A man and a brother, you know, sir,’ said Mr Tapley, favouring his master with a significant indication of the figure so often represented in tracts and cheap prints.
‘A slave!’ cried Martin, in a whisper.
‘Ah!’ said Mark in the same tone. ‘Nothing else. A slave. Why, when that there man was young—don’t look at him while I’m a-telling it—he was shot in the leg; gashed in the arm; scored in his live limbs, like crimped fish; beaten out of shape; had his neck galled with an iron collar, and wore iron rings upon his wrists and ankles. The marks are on him to this day. When I was having my dinner just now, he stripped off his coat, and took away my appetite.’
‘Is THIS true?’ asked Martin of his friend, who stood beside them.
‘I have no reason to doubt it,’ he answered, shaking his head ‘It very often is.’
‘Bless you,’ said Mark, ‘I know it is, from hearing his whole story. That master died; so did his second master from having his head cut open with a hatchet by another slave, who, when he’d done it, went and drowned himself; then he got a better one; in years and years he saved up a little money, and bought his freedom, which he got pretty cheap at last, on account of his strength being nearly gone, and he being ill. Then he come here. And now he’s a-saving up to treat himself, afore he dies, to one small purchase—it’s nothing to speak of. Only his own daughter; that’s all!’ cried Mr Tapley, becoming excited. ‘Liberty for ever! Hurrah! Hail, Columbia!’ […]
‘Lord love you, sir,’ he added, ‘they’re so fond of Liberty in this part of the globe, that they buy her and sell her and carry her to market with ’em. They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her. That’s what it’s owing to.’
Martin soon hands over all his savings to an agent in order to purchase a ‘location’ in ‘the thriving city of Eden. In a passage with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress, Martin and Mark arrive in Eden:
As they proceeded further on their track, and came more and more towards their journey’s end, the monotonous desolation of the scene increased to that degree, that for any redeeming feature it presented to their eyes, they might have entered, in the body, on the grim domains of Giant Despair. A flat morass, bestrewn with fallen timber; a marsh on which the good growth of the earth seemed to have been wrecked and cast away, that from its decomposing ashes vile and ugly things might rise; where the very trees took the aspect of huge weeds, begotten of the slime from which they sprung, by the hot sun that burnt them up; where fatal maladies, seeking whom they might infect, came forth at night in misty shapes, and creeping out upon the water, hunted them like spectres until day; where even the blessed sun, shining down on festering elements of corruption and disease, became a horror; this was the realm of Hope through which they moved.
At last they stopped. At Eden too. The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before; so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp which bore that name.
Martin succumbs to despair and depression. But, after nearly dying from malaria himself, Mark Tapley sees Martin through depression and desperate illness. Mark is a figure of genuine, even heroic, goodness His self-proclaimed mission in life is to remain ‘jolly’ at all times, no matter how challenging the circumstances. It is his concern for others that helps keep him happy. Both men manage at last to return to England: penniless, they are loaned the fare home by a Boston doctor they had encountered soon after landing in New York.
The American passages are, primarily, hilarious satire. Back in England, the comedy is uppermost, too – at least until the final episodes. The comic characters and scenes are as funny as any I’ve read in Dickens (indeed, James Kincaid has asserted that Martin Chuzzlewit is Dickens’s funniest novel). He may be right; chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London, for example, comprise a brilliant passage of comic writing. And then there’s Mrs Gamp:
She was a fat old woman, this Mrs Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye … Having very little neck, it cost her some trouble to look over herself, if one may say so, at those to whom she talked. … The face of Mrs Gamp – the nose in particular – was somewhat red and swollen, and it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits.
The sense-crunching, gin-tippling, patient-abusing Gamp is regarded by many as Dickens’s finest comic creation. Yet, although she appears to us now as grotesque, he saw her as realistic; in his Preface to the 1850 Cheap Edition, Dickens wrote: ‘Mrs Sarah Gamp is a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness.’ So Dickens clearly intended Mrs Gamp and her partner Betsey Prig to represent a critique of ‘nursing’ in poor neighbourhoods at the time. Gamp appropriates her patient’s pillow in order to make herself more comfortable, and administers medicine to another patient by squeezing his windpipe to make him gasp and then pouring the medicine down his throat. She shakes old Chuffey so hard that his bones rattle.
Dickens’s rendition of Mrs Gamp’s behaviour and language is priceless. There is her fondness for the bottle:
‘Tell Mrs Gamp to come upstairs,’ said Mould. ‘Now Mrs Gamp, what’s your news?’ The lady in question was by this time in the doorway, curtseying to Mrs Mould. At the same moment a peculiar fragrance was borne upon the breeze, as if a passing fairy had hiccoughed, and had previously been to a wine vault.
Her eccentric speech, with its confused sentence structure, chaotic syntax and strange allusions, is best summed up in her words – those with which she concludes each one of her speeches: ‘Gamp is my name, and Gamp is my nater’. She’s always coming out with statements that stop you in your tracks and cause you to laugh out loud.
A remarkable aspect of Mrs Gamp’s speech, used by Dickens to reveal not only her thoughts but also her conviction that she is not alone in her thinking, is her constant evocation of the imaginary Mrs Harris. Mrs Harris exists not only to let the world know what Gamp is thinking, but also makes Gamp look good:
I knows a lady, which her name … is Harris, her husband’s brother bein’ six foot three, and marked with a mad bull in Wellington boots upon his left arm, on account of his precious mother havin’ been worrited by one into a shoemaker’s shop, when in a sitiwation which blessed is the man as has his quiver full of sech, as many times I’ve said to Gamp when words has roge betwixt us on account of the expense–and often have I said to Mrs Harris, ‘Oh, Mrs Harris, ma’am! your countenance is quite an angel’s!’ Which, but for Pimples, it would be. ‘No, Sairey Gamp,’ says she, ‘you best of hard-working and industrious creeturs, as ever was underpaid at any price, which underpaid you are, quite diff’rent … But he never said it was an angel’s countenance, Sairey, wotever he might have thought.’
Mrs Harris asserts that Sairey Gamp is sober, trustworthy, hard-working – and exploited:
Mrs Harris,” I says, “leave the bottle on the chimley-piece, and don’t ask me to take none, but let me put my lips to it when I am so dispoged, and then I will do what I am engaged to do, according to the best of my ability.” “Mrs Gamp,” she says, in answer–“if ever there was a sober creetur to be got at eighteen pence a day for working people and three and six for gentlefolk–nightwatching … being an extra charge–you are that inwalable person.
Perhaps the best testimony to Sairey Gamp’s qualities is provided in the ironic observation of Mr Mould the undertaker:
I’ll tell you what, my dear,’ he observed, when Mrs Gamp had at last withdrawn and shut the door, “that’s a ve-ry shrewd woman. That’s a woman whose intellect is immensely superior to her station in life. That’s a woman who observes and reflects in an uncommon manner. She’s the sort of woman now,’ said Mould, drawing his silk handkerchief over his head again, and composing himself for a nap “one would almost feel disposed to bury for nothing; and do it neatly, too!’
In the last part of the novel Dickens returns to the murder mystery form he introduced in Barnaby Rudge (this time, complete with his first detective, the shadowy Nadgett). The murder subplot involving Jonas Chuzzlewit has only a loose relationship with the main plot, but it does have the virtue of introducing Montague Tigg and his fraudulent, wonderfully-named Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. Tigg blackmails Jonas into investing heavily in the Anglo-Bengalee and when it collapses, Jonas seeks revenge. The passage in which we first learn of this venture is eerily reminiscent of events in recent times:
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is rather a capital concern, I hope, David,’ said Montague.
‘Capital indeed!’ cried the secretary, with another laugh — ‘ in one sense.’
‘In the only important one,’ observed the chairman; ‘which is number one, David.’
‘What,’ asked the secretary, bursting into another laugh, ‘what will be the paid up capital, according to the next prospectus?’
‘A figure of two, and as many oughts after it as the printer can get into the same line,’ replied his friend. ‘Ha, ha!’
The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company started into existence one morning, not an Infant Institution, but a Grown-up Company running alone at a great pace, and doing business right and left: with a ‘branch’ in a first floor over a tailor’s at the west-end of the town, and main offices in a new street in the City, comprising the upper part of a spacious house resplendent in stucco and plate-glass, with wire-blinds in all the windows, and ‘Anglo-Bengalee’ worked into the pattern of every one of them. On the doorpost was painted again in large letters, ‘offices of the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company,’ and on the door was a large brass plate with the same inscription; always kept very bright, as courting inquiry; staring the City out of countenance after office hours on working days, and all day long on Sundays; and looking bolder than the Bank. Within, the offices were newly plastered, newly painted, newly papered, newly countered, newly floor-clothed, newly tabled, newly chaired, newly fitted up in every way, with goods that were substantial and expensive, and designed (like the company) to last. Business! Look at the green ledgers with red backs, like strong cricket-balls beaten flat; the court-guides directories, day-books, almanacks, letter-boxes, weighing-machines for letters, rows of fire-buckets for dashing out a conflagration in its first spark, and saving the immense wealth in notes and bonds belonging to the company; look at the iron safes, the clock, the office seal — in its capacious self, security for anything. Solidity! Look at the massive blocks of marble in the chimney-pieces, and the gorgeous parapet on the top of the house! Publicity! Why, Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance company is painted on the very coal-scuttles. It is repeated at every turn until the eyes are dazzled with it, and the head is giddy. It is engraved upon the top of all the letter paper, and it makes a scroll-work round the seal, and it shines out of the porter’s buttons, and it is repeated twenty times in every circular and public notice wherein one David Crimple, Esquire, Secretary and resident Director, takes the liberty of inviting your attention to the accompanying statement of the advantages offered by the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company; and fully proves to you that any connection on your part with that establishment must result in a perpetual Christmas Box and constantly increasing Bonus to yourself, and that nobody can run any risk by the transaction except the office, which, in its great liberality is pretty sure to lose. And this, David Crimple, Esquire, submits to you (and the odds are heavy you believe him), is the best guarantee that can reasonably be suggested by the Board of Management for its permanence and stability.
It’s in the final third of Chuzzlewit where, for me at least, the weaknesses of the novel are most apparent. In the convoluted amalgamation of the Jonas murder sub-plot with the muddled resolution of the main plot concerning the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits, Dickens seems to struggle to tie up loose ends and complete his overarching critique of hypocrisy and selfishness. As often in Dickens, this is largely a result of the fact that he tended to be more fascinated by, and draw more convincingly, characters that displayed the darker side of humanity. This is a problem if you want to convince readers that individuals who are selfless, loyal and in all ways virtuous are better people.
Many of the ‘good’ characters here are hardly developed at all by Dickens: Ruth Pinch is the classic ‘little woman’, while Mary Graham is all but invisible. Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley are both selfless and never sure they’re doing enough for others. Of the two, Tapley is perhaps the strongest and more fully developed character. He’s always looking for opportunities for to gain credit for being ‘jolly’, but reckons that it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so comforts himself in bad situations that remaining optimistic and helping others will eventually allow him to stand out in the world. His care for the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit when they are in desperate straits in Eden is the nexus on which the book turns.
Despite the weaknesses of its construction Martin Chuzzlewit is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, peopled with some memorable characters, teeming with wickedly satirical and hugely comic passages, and ringing with the voices of individuals of all classes and conditions from both sides of the Atlantic. The novel sees Dickens presenting a unified social vision, even if that vision is belaboured at times. As Martin Chuzzlewit was about halfway through its run, he distilled that vision into his everlastingly popular work, A Christmas Carol.
- Re-reading Dickens: Barnaby Rudge
- Re-reading Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop
- Re-reading Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, the most scrumdiddlyumptious story
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist
- Re-reading Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
- Charles Dickens: a bicentennial fanfare
- In Dickens’ footsteps (1): Doughty Street
- In Dickens’ footsteps (2): Dickens and London exhibition
- In Dickens footsteps (3): a walk through the City