Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.

Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain.  Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’.  Dickens did not concur. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House”

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

These days when we visit London we invariably stay at the Travelodge in Drury Lane. There, in Covent Garden, you’re at the heart of things, a walk gets you to innumerable places of interest, without having to descend into that ‘world of perpetual solitude, World not world’ that is the underground. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, a sequel to his rumbustious history, City of Laughter, that explored the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of 18th century London. In The First Bohemians, Gatrell zooms in on the square quarter-mile or so around Covent Garden’s Piazza, 18th century London’s most creative territory.  ‘It’s an extraordinary fact’, Gatrell writes, ‘that by far the majority of 18th century painters and engravers, as well as most noted writers, poets, actors and dramatists’,lived in that narrowly-defined territory. Continue reading “The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden”

Re-reading Dickens: David Copperfield

Re-reading Dickens: David Copperfield

Charles Dickens around 1850

Charles Dickens, photographed around the time he was writing David Copperfield

Reading the opening chapters of David Copperfield again for the first time in more than half a century brought vividly to mind the memory my first encounter with Dickens’s own favourite novel, teeming with some of Dickens’s most familiar characters.  I was a child, like Copperfield; I was off school and ill in bed, dirty chunks of snow piled in mounds along the roadside outside, and the delicious feeling of drowsy bedroom warmth and nowhere to go but follow where Dickens leads as his narrator sees ‘the phantoms of those days go by me, accompanying the shadow of myself, in dim procession’.

That such a long-forgotten memory should come flooding back as I turned the pages seems entirely appropriate for a book in which the narrator records the memories and early experiences which shaped his life and led him towards a deeper understanding of the world and his own inner feelings:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Now a grown man, David Copperfield looks back on his life, tracing his personal growth and achievements but also recognising, with sadness, mistakes he has made and friends he has lost. The novel falls into three broad sections, of which the first two – telling of his early childhood, youth and early manhood – are undoubtedly the most memorable, approaching a state of literary perfection.

Throughout the first part of the novel Dickens brilliantly combines two points of view: the reader sees David’s childhood experiences as if through the boy’s eyes – the writing plain and pared-down – whilst at the same time the tone and occasional commentary by the older David offer a mature reflection by the narrator:

As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me… When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

There is a fine example of this approach in chapter 11 when, in another incident adapted by Dickens from his fragmentary autobiography, Copperfield recalls himself as a young innocent entering  a  pub not far from the Thames:

I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: “What is your best—your very best—ale a glass?” For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday.

“Twopence-halfpenny,” says the landlord, “is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.”

“Then,” says I, producing the money, “just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hard, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good marry questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might not commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning: and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring, and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.


Hablot Browne (Phiz), My magnificent order at the public house

Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘My magnificent order at the public house’ 

In David Copperfield, Dickens employs the first person narrative for the first time, and in the process he transmutes his own life experiences into a story rich in both comic and sentimental passages, and populated by some of his most memorable characters.  In her study of Dickens, Jane Smiley notes that the incidents of Dickens’s early life were quite different to those in the novel, but that David Copperfield ‘seemed to evoke the feelings he had had as a child, and therefore to be true to his life as he had experienced it’. Smiley observes that David Copperfield evokes Dickens’s life without relating it:

The fiction frees him to contemplate not only his boyhood and young manhood, but boyhood and young manhood in general.

Dickens had begun writing an autobiography in the late 1840s which he shared with his friend and future biographer, John Forster. However, he found the process too painful, and abandoned the project. He opted instead to follow Forster’s advice and work his own story into a first-person fictional narrative. Much of the detail contained in Dickens’s lost autobiographical fragment forms the basis of chapter 11 in the novel, ‘I Begin Life on my Own Account, and Don’t Like It’.

It’s here – in Copperfield’s account of being taken from school and separated from his friends Steerforth and Traddles to work at Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse – that Dickens draws upon his own painful memories of the time when, after his father had been imprisoned for debt, he was set to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory:

A period of my life, which I can never lose the remembrance of, while I remember anything: and the recollection of which has often, without my invocation, come before me like a ghost, and haunted happier times.

Here, too, that we meet the Micawbers, whose financial troubles – and Micawber’s perennial hope that ‘something will turn up’ – mirror those of Dickens’s parents. When David is asked by Mrs Micawber to take some of their treasured possessions to the pawn shop to help meet their obligations, Dickens is recalling his own painful memories of having to pawn the books he read and treasured as a child.

Hablot Browne (Phiz), Mrs Gummidge casts a damp on our departure

Hablot Browne (Phiz), ‘Mrs. Gummidge casts a damp on our departure’: Barkis and Peggotty depart the upturned boat house on Yarmouth shore

In a superb passage in his monumental survey, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd suggests that David Copperfield ‘is both a novel of memories and a novel about memory’:

Memory brightens: ‘. . I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons . . . ‘; memory creates in the mind fresh associations: ‘ . . the Martyrs and Peggotty’s house have been inseparable in my mind ever since, and are now’; memory revives the clearest and most detailed impressions: ‘… the scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment . . . ‘; memory retains the sharpest of all impressions: ‘ the face he turned up to the troubled sky, the quivering of his clasped hands, the agony of his figure, remain associated with that lonely waste, in my remembrance, to this hour. It is always night there, and he is the only object in the scene.’ And memory brings back the earliest and most permanent impressions of childhood, like the occasion when David sees his mother for the last time:

‘I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold, still weather and not a hair of her head, or a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child. So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school – a silent presence near my bed – looking at me with the same intent face – holding up her baby in her arms.’

But there is also the mystery of other memories, preconscious memories: ‘. . . a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time . . .’ Memory, then, as a form of resurrection and thus of human triumph; as David Copperfield looks out of the window he had known so many years before and sees the old sorrowful image of himself as child.

‘Long miles of road then opened out before my mind; and,toiling on, I saw a ragged way-worn boy forsaken and neglected, who should come to call even the heart now beating against mine, his own.’

Thus does memory recreate the self out of adversity, linking past and present, bringing continuity and coherence, engendering peace and stillness in the very centre of the active world. It is the purest and best part of Dickens’s self, the source of his being, the fountain of his tears.

Yet memory here is also such a troubling force. It is associated with ‘the old unhappy loss or want of something . . .’ as if in the act of remembrance the narrator must confront and once again experience some central bereavement; it is linked, too, with the fear and sense of ‘change in everything’; and somehow memory is associated in Dickens’s imagination with the pain which men cause women.

Introducing the 1997 World Classics edition, Andrew Sanders described David Copperfield as ‘a key text of mid-Victorian civilization, a text in which the self-fashioned hero is redefined for a post-Romantic generation’, one that combines an exploration of the moral and imaginative growth of the individual with the contemporary concern with change and doubt. In David Copperfield there are obvious similarities with earlier novels – in the focus on an individual hero’s adventures and on childhood, as well as its cast of comic and grotesque characters.  But now there is a concern with individual development, a strain of pessimism and more carefully-planned structural development which foreshadows the later novels.

I fall into captivity

Hablot Browne (Phiz),I fall into captivity (David meets Dora)

The last time I read Copperfield I was barely a teenager;  this time I was struck by the centrality of Dickens’ views on marriage – or perhaps a better word would be uncertainties. The nub of the novel’s argument comes in chapter 45 where Annie Strong remarks to her husband, Doctor Strong, ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’  Annie’s words haunt the rest of the novel as David, in his marriage to Dora (the ‘child-wife’), slowly comes to realize that his and Dora’s characters are irreconcilably different:

I was thinking of all that had been said. My mind was still running on some of the expressions used. ‘There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.’ ‘The first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.’ ‘My love was founded on a rock.’ But we were at home; and the trodden leaves were lying under-foot, and the autumn wind was blowing.

It will take David a painfully long time to truly understand that the feelings he has for Agnes are more than those ‘for a sister’.  At certain points in the story, Dickens inserts intimations of the mature Copperfield’s understanding of his true feelings:

Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, what I knew long afterwards – !


There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; and as I turned my head towards the window, thinking of her calm seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering, as if he were an echo of the morning: ‘Blind! Blind! Blind!’

This is only one aspect of the clear moral thrust of the novel, which also emphasises values such as: hardships in life can be overcome by hard work and an honest behaviour; goodness has nothing to do with social position; greed and ambition corrupt people’s judgement and behaviour; and suffering is part and parcel of the process of gaining maturity.

Steerforth and Mr Mell

Hablot Browne (Phiz), Steerforth and Mr Mell

Throughout David Copperfield, the powerful abuse the weak and helpless – orphans, women, and the mentally disabled.  Exploitation – not pity or compassion – is shown to be the rule in society. Dickens could draw on his own experience as a child for the passages that describe the inhumanity of child labour and the indignities of the debtors’ prison. Murdstone can end David’s education and send him to work in the wine-bottling factory because David is too small and dependent to resist. Virtually all of the characters suffer at the hands of the hard-hearted or due to forces beyond their control, even though they are morally good people. Emily is ruined and spirited away by Steerforth while her uncle Peggotty tramps Europe to find her and bring her home. Ham loses Emily and dies trying to foreign save sailors in the great storm. In a perceptive passage, the older and wiser Copperfield recalls how Steerforth causes the likeable but ineffectual teacher Mr Mells to lose his job. Traddles (‘the most unfortunate boy in the world’) is the only one to see the injustice in Steerforth’s action, while David and the other boys continued to admire and respect Steerforth:

Poor Traddles, who had passed the stage of lying with his head upon the desk, and was relieving himself as usual with a burst of skeletons, said he didn’t care. Mr. Mell was ill-used.

‘Who has ill-used him, you girl?’ said Steerforth.

‘Why, you have,’ returned Traddles.

‘What have I done?’ said Steerforth.

‘What have you done?’ retorted Traddles. ‘Hurt his feelings, and lost him his situation.’

‘His feelings?’ repeated Steerforth disdainfully. ‘His feelings will soon get the better of it, I’ll be bound. His feelings are not like yours, Miss Traddles. As to his situation—which was a precious one, wasn’t it?—do you suppose I am not going to write home, and take care that he gets some money? Polly?’

We thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. We were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies: especially when he told us, as he condescended to do, that what he had done had been done expressly for us, and for our cause; and that he had conferred a great boon upon us by unselfishly doing it.

A Will Office, from Picturesque Sketches of London by Thomas Miller, 1852

A Will Office, from ‘Picturesque Sketches of London’ by Thomas Miller, 1852

But this wouldn’t be Dickens if, amidst the serious moral lessons there were not high comedy.  My favourite part of the story is the chapter entitled ‘My First Dissipation’ in which Copperfield, newly-established as an articled clerk in Doctors’ Commons (a ‘common house’ of ‘doctors of law’ practising civil law) and settled in his accommodation – ‘a singularly desirable, and compact set of chambers … with a view of the river’, decides to invite his friends round for ‘a little house-warming’:

I abandoned myself to enjoyment.

I began, by being singularly cheerful and light-hearted; all sorts of half-forgotten things to talk about, came rushing into my mind, and made me hold forth in a most unwonted manner. I laughed heartily at my own jokes, and everybody else’s; called Steerforth to order for not passing the wine; made several engagements to go to Oxford; announced that I meant to have a dinner-party exactly like that, once a week, until further notice; and madly took so much snuff out of Grainger’s box, that I was obliged to go into the pantry, and have a private fit of sneezing ten minutes long.

I went on, by passing the wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed. I proposed Steerforth’s health. I said he was my dearest friend, the protector of my boyhood, and the companion of my prime. I said I was delighted to propose his health. I said I owed him more obligations than I could ever repay, and held him in a higher admiration than I could ever express. I finished by saying, ‘I’ll give you Steerforth! God bless him! Hurrah!’ We gave him three times three, and another, and a good one to finish with. I broke my glass in going round the table to shake hands with him, and I said (in two words)


I went on, by finding suddenly that somebody was in the middle of a song. Markham was the singer, and he sang ‘When the heart of a man is depressed with care’. He said, when he had sung it, he would give us ‘Woman!’ I took objection to that, and I couldn’t allow it. I said it was not a respectful way of proposing the toast, and I would never permit that toast to be drunk in my house otherwise than as ‘The Ladies!’ I was very high with him, mainly I think because I saw Steerforth and Grainger laughing at me—or at him—or at both of us. He said a man was not to be dictated to. I said a man was. He said a man was not to be insulted, then. I said he was right there—never under my roof, where the Lares were sacred, and the laws of hospitality paramount. He said it was no derogation from a man’s dignity to confess that I was a devilish good fellow. I instantly proposed his health.

Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder. Steerforth had made a speech about me, in the course of which I had been affected almost to tears. I returned thanks, and hoped the present company would dine with me tomorrow, and the day after—each day at five o’clock, that we might enjoy the pleasures of conversation and society through a long evening. I felt called upon to propose an individual. I would give them my aunt. Miss Betsey Trotwood, the best of her sex!

Somebody was leaning out of my bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as ‘Copperfield’, and saying, ‘Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn’t do it.’ Now, somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.

Somebody said to me, ‘Let us go to the theatre, Copperfield!’ There was no bedroom before me, but again the jingling table covered with glasses; the lamp; Grainger on my right hand, Markham on my left, and Steerforth opposite—all sitting in a mist, and a long way off. The theatre? To be sure. The very thing. Come along! But they must excuse me if I saw everybody out first, and turned the lamp off—in case of fire.

Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains, when Steerforth, laughing, took me by the arm and led me out. We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.

Hablot Browne (Phiz), The emigrants

Hablot Browne (Phiz), The Emigrants

One interesting aspect of David Copperfield that reflects Dickens’s tendency to incorporate contemporary details in his novels is that he has several of the major characters emigrate to Australia: the Micawbers, Mr. Peggotty, Emily, Martha, and Mr. Mell, the wronged school-teacher. Each of these characters is successful in beginning a new life in the English colony.

Whilst writing David Copperfield, Dickens had developed a keen interest in Australian emigration, believing that it represented the possibility of starting a new life abroad for families with few prospects in Britain. In the first issue of Household Words, the two-penny weekly magazine of original short fiction and crusading social journalism launched by Dickens on 30 March 1850, there had appeared a ‘Bundle of Emigrants’ Letters‘ which consisted of a number of emigrants’ letters passed on to him by the founder of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, whom Dickens later satirized for her ‘telescopic philanthropy’ as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

In a preface to the letters, Dickens stated the case in favour of the Society’s scheme for transferring the poor, unemployed, and starving from the slums of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other blighted urban areas to the ‘Bush’ and the new towns of Australia, where they could contribute their energies and skills to the greater good of the Empire and build prosperous futures for themselves.

Five months later, in the 17th number of David Copperfield, Dickens despatches a number of his characters to the antipodes, resolving the Micawbers’ financial difficulties, and enabling Mr Peggotty, Emily and Martha to make a new life. Micawber’s initial reaction to the idea is less than enthusiastic:

‘Why, what a thing it would be for yourselves and your family, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, if you were to emigrate now.’

‘Capital, madam, capital,’ urged Mr. Micawber, gloomily.

‘That is the principal, I may say the only difficulty, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ assented his wife.

In the illustration by Phiz we see the figures of Micawber, Peggotty, and David Copperfield as they shake hands before the departure of the emigrant ship at Gravesend. It’s a scene of working class men, women, and children crowded into restricted quarters below deck in which Phiz has drawn upon Dickens’s allusion to the 17th century Dutch genre painter Ostade, notable for painting the gloomy interiors of working class homes and taverns:

It was such a strange scene to me, and so confined and dark, that, at first, I could make out hardly anything; but, by degrees, it cleared, as my eyes became more accustomed to the gloom, and I seemed to stand in a picture by Ostade. Among the great beams, bulks, and ringbolts of the ship, and the emigrant-berths, and chests, and bundles, and barrels, and heaps of miscellaneous baggage – ‘lighted up, here and there, by dangling lanterns; and elsewhere by the yellow daylight straying down a windsail or a hatchway—were crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking; some, already settled down into the possession of their few feet of space, with their little households arranged, and tiny children established on stools, or in dwarf elbow-chairs; others, despairing of a resting-place, and wandering disconsolately. From babies who had but a week or two of life behind them, to crooked old men and women who seemed to have but a week or two of life before them; and from ploughmen bodily carrying out soil of England on their boots, to smiths taking away samples of its soot and smoke upon their skins; every age and occupation appeared to be crammed into the narrow compass of the ‘tween decks.

In this departure scene, the figures of the two fallen and homeless women,Martha and Emily, are hidden in the shadows.  They, too, reflect Dickens’s active concern with working class conditions and his active involvement in a project to rescue prostitutes from exploitation and destitution. While he was writing David Copperfield, Dickens was actively involved in the day-to-day operation of Urania Cottage, a home for homeless women, which he administered on behalf of his friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts. The home aimed to separate homeless, and ‘fallen’ women from their former lifestyle, to educate them in the execution of household duties and self-discipline, and then help them emigrate to Australia to begin new lives.

Dickens signed David Copperfield first edition

Dickens signature on a first edition of David Copperfield  (full story here)

There are moments in David Copperfield when Dickens’s writing approaches the poetic.  I was taken, especially, with this passage from the introduction to chapter 43 (you can imagine it being translated in a filmed adaptation) in which Dickens evokes time passing:

Weeks, months, seasons, pass along. They seem little more than a summer day and a winter evening. Now, the Common where I walk with Dora is all in bloom, a field of bright gold; and now the unseen heather lies in mounds and bunches underneath a covering of snow. In a breath, the river that flows through our Sunday walks is sparkling in the summer sun, is ruffled by the winter wind, or thickened with drifting heaps of ice. Faster than ever river ran towards the sea, it flashes, darkens, and rolls away.

David Copperfield was published in instalments from 1849 to 1850 and in book form in 1850. Dickens wrote in the preface to the first edition of being deeply affected by its completion:

An Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever.


‘Dickens’s Dream’: Robert Buss’s unfinished posthumous painting of the author in his chair, dreaming of his creations, who flutter in outline around his head.

The completion of the novel coincided with a tragic period in Dickens’s life.  His third daughter was born in August 1850, just as Dickens had decided that Dora in the novel must die.  Curiously, he named his new daughter Dora.  His wife Catherine was unwell for months after the birth.

Dickens finished writing David Copperfield on 21 October 1850.  He wrote to Forster:

If I were to say half of what Copperfield makes me feel tonight, how strangely, even to you, I should be turned inside out!  I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World.

In the coming year Dickens would suffer two devastating losses: first the death of his father, and then in April 1851, the death of his baby daughter, Dora. In these months of the year ‘in which all the bleakness of Bleak House descend[ed] upon him’ (Ackroyd), Dickens began work on possibly his greatest novel, and certainly my own favourite.

Re-reading Dickens

Re-reading Dickens: Dombey and Son

Re-reading Dickens: Dombey and Son

Captain Cuttle by Phiz

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.

Dombey and Son cover

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 Phiz

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, 1837. Wash drawing by J. C. Bourne.

‘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, illustration by “Phiz

‘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 postcard

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 in 'Captain Cuttle's Parlour'; by William Maw Egley,1888

 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!

See also

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

A Christmas Carol illustration by John Leech

‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech

The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story.  Spoke, too, of  the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.

‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’


‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in.  But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’

‘I know what you mean.  I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting.  They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”

My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books.  During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.

Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going.  Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.

This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness.  Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.

Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’  To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.

I am the Ghost of Christmas Present

‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’.  Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843

In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.

Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches.  In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice.  Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation.  As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’

Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’.  In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns –  the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:

All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it.  Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.

Liverpool Mechanics Institution 1841

Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841

I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks  after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.

Artist impression of the Soiree  - 26th February 1844

An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844

In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’.  Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:

Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…

One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was

That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.

Dickens plaque

The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution

Dickens added that he derived great  pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.

This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that

It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.

That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught  themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.

That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts).  As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls.  For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.

Liverpool Institute

The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA

Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance.  The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover.  Inside were  four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts.  The book was an immense success.  Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.

Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844 text

Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit.  In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the  moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.

These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries.  Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:

Miserliness as a vice.  Generosity as virtue.  How people obtain money.  How people exert power over others because of money.  How money can be an aspect of cruelty.  How money can destroy a family.  How the want of money is oppressive.  How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.

The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.

A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”


“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)

Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier,  in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.

While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:

Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate.  Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.

A Christmas Carol first edition illustration by John Leech

Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens.  Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position.  When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:

I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government.  At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Trotty Veck

Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’

I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story.  Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency.  Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.

The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety.  It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings.  It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.

The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story.  Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.

Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!

For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present.  In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’.  Here’s Filer:

‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born.  And that we know they haven’t.  We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’

Alderman Cute and his friends

Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition

And his friend, Alderman Cute:

‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down.  There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down.  That’s all!  Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]

Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this.  I tries to live elsewhere.  And I’m a vagabond.  To jail with him!  I comes back here.  I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two.  To jail with him!  One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun.  To jail with him!  I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again.  To jail with him!  I cuts a stick.  To jail with him!  I eats a rotten apple or a turnip.  To jail with him!  It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road.  To jail with him!  At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything.  To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’

Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?”  demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’.  However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Amen to that!

See also

Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

Re-reading Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
‘And this … is the Land of Liberty is it? Well, I’m agreeable. Any land will do for me after so much water.’

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.

Charles Dickens by Francis Alexander, 1842
Dickens, painted by Boston artist Francis Alexander at the start of the American trip in 1842.

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.

Eden by Phiz
Eden: original illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)

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.

Chuzzlewit, Pinch, Pecksniff and his daughters Charity and Mercy. Illustration by Fred Barnard

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.

Mrs Gamp gives Chuffey a good shake.

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.

See also