Solomon Gills, Walter Gay and Captain Cuttle by Phiz
I found Dombey and Son to be rather strange: at its heart is Paul Dombey, the man whose rigid certainty and pride form the world of all the other characters. Yet, among all the novel’s wonderful characters brought vividly to life by Dickens through their words and actions, Dombey remains, in the end, a person who we only really know through Dickens’ authorial descriptions of his state of mind. Maybe that was a deliberate intent on Dickens’ part: for Dombey is unknowable to the rest of the world; an impenetrable man who ‘has lived too long shut up in his towering supremacy’ determined to ‘hide the world within him from the world without’.
In my project to re-read (or in some cases, as here, read for the first time) Dickens’ novels, I’ve reached his seventh novel, generally considered to the first novel of his artistic maturity. It was begun while he was living with his family in Switzerland in 1846, worked on further in Paris and completed in Brighton in March 1848. It was serialized in 20 monthly parts, and there are surviving working notes by Dickens which show that he planned each number in detail, something he had only begun to do with Martin Chuzzlewit.
As this cover of the first part, published in October 1846, indicates, the full title of the novel is Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. This suggests a novel that will poke its nose far more than it does into the House of Dombey, where money changes hands, deals are made and broken, property conveyed, and fortunes lost. For although a proud, arrogant capitalist is at the heart of the story, this is not a novel in which Dickens dissects the workings of the capitalist system, though there are plenty of his characteristic observations on the morality of public institutions and those who lead them.
Paul Dombey’s ambition is focussed on having a son to carry on his business. ‘The House will once again …. be not only in name but in fact Dombey and Son,’ is his satisfied comment on the birth of his second child, a son. The first child, a daughter is an irrelevant irritant; no – it has to be ‘Dombey and Son’:
Those three words conveyed the one idea of Mr Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them. A. D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei – and Son.
The Dombey Family by Phiz
As in any Dickens’ novel there are vivid sketches of a society undergoing enormous changes. England at mid-century was experiencing rapid urbanization and industrial development as global trade increased with the expanding empire and other distant parts. The novel reflects these upheavals through Dickens’ use of two main symbols – the sea and the railway.
The novel seethes with wonderful characters, many of them connected or living near the port of London, a place of arrivals and departures, of foreign shipping and foreign peoples that pulsed with the commerce of empire. Here we find Solomon Gills, proprietor of a ship’s chandler’s The Wooden Midshipman, an old man only too aware of the changes taking place around him:
The world has gone past me. I don’t blame it; but I no longer understand it. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same. Seven-eighths of my stock is old-fashioned. I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again.
Solomon is uncle to Walter Gay who is employed in the house of Dombey and Son. Walter befriends Dombey’s daughter Florence; the great man is displeased and despatches him to the firm’s branch in Barbados, and the ship in which he sails is lost. When that happens, Sol leaves the shop in the care of the book’s his old sea-faring friend, and the book’s most enjoyable character, Captain Cuttle, a bulbous-nosed mariner with a hook in place of his right hand, who has left the sea but not its lingo: ‘Stand by!’ he constantly urges those around him. He’s fond of book-learning, often declaiming misquoted passages and insisting to his listeners: ‘When found, make a note of’:
In the Proverbs of Solomon you will find the following words, ‘May we never want a friend in need, nor a bottle to give him!’ When found, make a note of.
Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade on it. Overhaul the – Well, I ain’t quite certain where that’s to be found, but when found, make a note of.
‘Constructing the cutting at Park Street, Camden Town’, drawing by J. C. Bourne, 1837
While Solomon Gills senses that ‘the world has gone past him’, the greatest evidence of change – literally ripping apart the landscape of parts of London at this time – is the result of the coming of the railway. For these are the years of railway mania, the speculative frenzy that swept Britain in the 1840s. Dickens not only employs the railway as a monstrous symbol of speed and destruction that destroys the novel’s most evil character; he gives us one of the most vivid, documentary-like accounts of the devastation wrought in Camden by the construction of the cutting through to Euston:
The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.
In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.
But as yet, the neighbourhood was shy to own the Railroad. One or two bold speculators had projected streets; and one had built a little, but had stopped among the mud and ashes to consider farther of it. A bran-new Tavern, redolent of fresh mortar and size, and fronting nothing at all, had taken for its sign The Railway Arms; but that might be rash enterprise—and then it hoped to sell drink to the workmen. So, the Excavators’ House of Call had sprung up from a beer-shop; and the old-established Ham and Beef Shop had become the Railway Eating House, with a roast leg of pork daily, through interested motives of a similar immediate and popular description. Lodging-house keepers were favourable in like manner; and for the like reasons were not to be trusted. The general belief was very slow. There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places. Posts, and rails, and old cautions to trespassers, and backs of mean houses, and patches of wretched vegetation, stared it out of countenance. Nothing was the better for it, or thought of being so. If the miserable waste ground lying near it could have laughed, it would have laughed it to scorn, like many of the miserable neighbours.
In later chapters Dickens observes a nation transformed by the railway and its requirements: ‘There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.’ Dombey rides the railway, and Dickens gives us this brilliant image of the shrieking locomotive charging through the countryside:
Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!
‘Doctor Blimber’s young gentlemen as they appeared when enjoying themselves’: illustration by Phiz
Another example of the way in which the novel is attuned to contemporary issues is Dickens’ satirical portrayal of Dr and Mrs Blimber’s school in Brighton. Dombey sends his son Paul to this institution, since:
Dombey and Son had often dealt in hides, but never in hearts. They left that fancy ware to boys and girls, and boarding-schools and books.
Doctor Blimber’s is an excellent establishment – ‘strictly conducted, and there is nothing but learning going on from morning to night.’ And, adds Dombey approvingly, ‘It’s very expensive’. While in Brighton, Paul Jnr and Florence stay at a boarding house run by Mrs Pipchins, who observes:
‘There is a great deal of nonsense—and worse—talked about young people not being pressed too hard at first, and being tempted on, and all the rest of it, Sir,’ said Mrs Pipchin, impatiently rubbing her hooked nose. ‘It never was thought of in my time, and it has no business to be thought of now. My opinion is “keep ’em at it”.’
At Blimber’s school, Paul and the other boys undergo an intense and arduous education under the tutelage of Mr Feeder, BA and Cornelia Blimber. I’m writing this a couple of days after both the head of Ofsted and a government minister called for children as young as two to be engaged in ‘structured learning’, so this passage has a certain contemporary piquancy:
In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.
This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. Moreover, one young gentleman, with a swollen nose and an excessively large head (the oldest of the ten who had ‘gone through’ everything), suddenly left off blowing one day, and remained in the establishment a mere stalk. And people did say that the Doctor had rather overdone it with young Toots, and that when he began to have whiskers he left off having brains.
‘How old are you, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘Six,’ answered Paul, wondering, as he stole a glance at the young lady, why her hair didn’t grow long like Florence’s, and why she was like a boy.
‘How much do you know of your Latin Grammar, Dombey?’ said Miss Blimber.
‘None of it,’ answered Paul. Feeling that the answer was a shock to Miss Blimber’s sensibility, he looked up at the three faces that were looking down at him, and said:
‘I have’n’t been well. I have been a weak child.’
When Doctor Blimber informs Dombey that his son has made great progress and is naturally clever, Dombey is ‘more bent than ever on his being forced and crammed’
In short, however high and false the temperature at which the Doctor kept his hothouse, the owners of the plants were always ready to lend a helping hand at the bellows, and to stir the fire.
Such spirits as he had in the outset, Paul soon lost of course. But he retained all that was strange, and old, and thoughtful in his character: and under circumstances so favourable to the development of those tendencies, became even more strange, and old, and thoughtful, than before.
The scenes at Dr Blimber’s are enjoyable, too, because it is here that Paul is befriended by a fellow pupil, another of the novel’s great characters – the scatterbrained Mr Toots who falls helplessly in love with Florence Dombey and who constantly apologises for himself: ‘it’s of no consequence’. Like Captain Cuttle, he is a character of great humanity, as well as humour.
Paul Dombey: a 19th century postcard illustration
Turning now to the character around whom all the others revolve: Paul Dombey. Dickens portrays a man who believes that human relationships can be controlled by money. For Dombey, money can do anything’; it may not be able to keep us alive – ‘we must all die, unfortunately, even in the City, though we were never so rich’, he tells his young son – but money can cause us ‘to be honoured, feared, respected, courted, and admired, and made us powerfuland glorious in the eyes of all men’.
Dombey is always a witness to the emotions of others, with no feelings of his own. This is how he recalls observing his daughter at her dying mother’s bedside:
The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, what was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be as absorbed in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that closing scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it. That, at the bottom of its clear depths of tenderness and truth, lay those two figures clasped in each other’s arms, while he stood on the bank above them, looking down—a mere spectator—not a sharer with them—quite shut out.
Dombey cauterizes his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes ‘a bidder against him’. Interestingly though, Dickens displays some sympathy for his cold and distant central character:
Was Mr. Dombey’s master-vice, that ruled him so inexorably, an unnatural characteristic? It might be worth while, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural. Coop any son or daughter of our mighty mother within narrow range, and bind the prisoner to one idea, and foster it by servile worship of it on the part of the few timid or designing people standing round, and what is Nature to the willing captive who has never risen up upon the wings of a free mind – drooping and useless soon – to see her in her comprehensive truth!
Despite Dombey’s attempts to hide his grief it reveals itself:
He cannot hide those rebel traces of it, which escape in hollow eyes and cheeks, a haggard forehead, and a moody, brooding air. Impenetrable as before…he is humbled, or those marks would not be there.
Central to the development of the narrative is Dickens’ portrayal of a marriage arranged for financial gain – a practice common at the time. After the death of his first wife, Dombey encounters the grotesque Mrs Skewton, who is 70 years old but tries to appear much younger through the use of cosmetics and various devices. Dickens describes her being dismantled for bed by her maid, taking off of paint, clothes and wig, as being ‘tumbled into ruins like a house of painted cards’. Mrs Skewton has a daughter, Edith Granger, who she has already lured one rich gentleman to marry. But Edith was left a widower and now her mother sees Dombey as the ultimate catch. I found Edith to be one of Dickens’ strongest and most interesting female creations – though he seems to lose interest in her later on in the novel.
Edith sees herself as chattel, little better than a prostitute, ‘corrupted, and perverted, to amuse the leisure of a world of mothers’. Hardened and accepting her fate, she nevertheless gives her mother and her new husband no quarter, seeing them as complicit in her degradation. To her mother she rages:
‘There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,’ cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word. ‘Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,’ she said, with flashing eyes, ‘have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!’
This is how Dickens expresses his critique of business and profit: by analysing the ways in it works in the domestic context, and further, by dividing his characters into good or bad according to their desire for privacy or publicity. On the one hand there are those characters who act solely with a mind to seek power or recognition, who attempt to impose their vision on the world. On the other are good characters who keep themselves hidden, letting their deeds go unrewarded. Little Paul keeps ‘his character to himself’ and Florence quietly bides her time, remaining constant. Meanwhile, the manipulative Carker the manager is a sly, insinuating Iago muttering falsehoods into Dombey’s ear while his younger brother seeks to remain ‘unquestioned and unnoticed’. Above all, Dombey thinks only of his standing in the world:
The world. What the world thinks of him, how it looks at him, what it sees in him, and what it says—this is the haunting demon of his mind. It is everywhere where he is; and, worse than that, it is everywhere where he is not. It comes out with him among his servants, and yet he leaves it whispering behind; he sees it pointing after him in the street; it is waiting for him in his counting house; it leers over the shoulders of rich men among the merchants; it goes beckoning and babbling among the crowd; it always anticipates him, in every place; and is always busiest, he knows, when he has gone away. When he is shut up in his room at night, it is in his house, outside it, audible in footsteps on the pavement, visible in print upon the table, steaming to and fro on railroads and in ships; restless and busy everywhere, with nothing else but him.
There’s a brilliant passage in ‘The Thunderbolt’, the thematically pivotal forty-seventh chapter, in which Dickens draws upon the medical and scientific understanding of his time about the airborne spread of disease to draw a picture of moral and social disorder spreading through the city like a pestilence:
Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them and in the eternal laws of outraged Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! Then should we see depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind, overhanging the devoted spots, and creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure. Then should we see how the same poisoned fountains that flow into our hospitals and lazarhouses, inundate the jails, and make the convict-ships swim deep, and roll across the seas, and over-run vast continents with crime. Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down and entail itself on unborn generations, there also we breed, by the same certain process, infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty or shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering and guilt, blasted old age that is a scandal on the form we bear. Unnatural humanity! When we shall gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles; when fields of grain shall spring up from the offal in the bye-ways of our wicked cities, and roses bloom in the fat churchyards that they cherish; then we may look for natural humanity and find it growing from such seed.
Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night’s view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed to no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owing one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!
Not the less bright and blest would that day be for rousing some who never have looked out upon the world of human life around them, to a knowledge of their own relation to it, and for making them acquainted with a perversion of nature in their own contracted sympathies and estimates; as great, and yet as natural in its development when once begun, as the lowest degradation known.
Florence Dombey pictured in ‘Captain Cuttle’s Parlour’ by William Maw Egley, 1888
‘What was a girl to Dombey and Son!’ Against all this we have Florence Dombey, another Dickensian angel, who has no fault but her blindness to her father’s cruelty. It’s odd that Dickens could create convincing three dimensional female characters who were either middle-aged or morally questionable, yet his younger women so often seem vapid and sentimentalised. It’s a weakness here, because Florence represents naturalness and the absence of dissimulation. Crucially, the ending – a transformation from the dysfunctional to harmony – is the result of her constancy.
Admittedly, Florence is not wholly passive. She is not afraid of risk (after her father strikes her, she runs away from home), and she repeatedly takes the initiative toward reconciliation with her father, despite his neglect, rebuff, even physical anger. She operates through love, and ultimately her ‘perfect goodness’ saves her father.
In the end, there is reunion and salvation, and a flurry of forgiveness: Dombey forgives Florence and Walter for eloping; Edith forgives her mother; Edith forgives Dombey; Florence forgives Edith for leaving her father, and abandoning her; Florence forgives her father. It’s heart-warming, but hardly real life. As often in Dickens, the loose ends are tied up too neatly.
Yet, despite the rather rushed and sickly ending, this is a book that is well worth reading. This is due to the way in which Dickens blends solemn themes with great characters, social commentary, comedy and passages of brilliant, poetical writing:
Another time, in the same place, he fell asleep, and slept quietly for a long time. Awaking suddenly, he listened, started up, and sat listening.
Florence asked him what he thought he heard.
‘I want to know what it says,’ he answered, looking steadily in her face. ‘The sea’ Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?’
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘But I know that they are always saying something. Always the same thing. What place is over there?’ He rose up, looking eagerly at the horizon.
She told him that there was another country opposite, but he said he didn’t mean that: he meant further away—farther away!
Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.
At the close of the novel, Dickens’ words hark back to that earlier scene with Florence at her ailing younger brother’s bedside:
And the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence, in their ceaseless murmuring, of love – of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!
- Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books
- Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
- 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