Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens

I was a late-comer to Dickens. My first was Bleak House, read over Christmas in 2006. Over the intervening years I have read my way through most of his oeuvre, and am now down to rereading, or to reading his less well loved novels, hence Martin Chuzzlewit as my summer reading choice. As much as I love Dickens, his novels can be a challenge. Martin Chuzzlewit is a good example of this; at the end I was glad to have read it, but it was a hard slog at times.

Martin Chuzzlewit centres on three members of the Chuzzlewit family, both young and old Martins and a Jonas. The latter, along with a Chuzzlewit cousin Mr Pecksniff, is one of this novel’s villains. Thematically the book is about selfishness and most of these characters embody this trait in spectacular fashion. Virtue is represented by Pecksniff’s employee, Tom Pinch, a wholesome and kind young man who is naively devoted to Pecksniff at the novel’s beginning. It is a huge relief, and helps to inject some energy into the novel, when three quarters of the way through he finally grows some balls and realises Pecksniff’s true nature. Throughout the book Pecksniff projects such assuredness in his own virtue that few suspect the depths of greed beneath, and much of the novel is taken up with the events that will lead to his exposé.

As fantastic as his villains can be, Dickens’s characterisation of women is often deeply troubling. Many of his female heroines are paper-thin, idealistic characters, lacking the idiosyncrasies that bring the rest of his creations to life. This book is a particularly bad example of this. The female heroines Mary Gregory and Ruth Pinch epitomise everything Dickens thought a young woman should be: slim, pretty, modest, demure and interested in little other than the men in their lives and running a household. In other words, not like real woman at all. The introduction of my edition of Martin Chuzzlewit (written by Simon Callow) puts it well, calling it ‘fetishistic’ and ‘dehumanising’. I cannot think of better words myself. Dickens writes some fantastic female characters too, the third villain of this novel Mrs Gamp being a good example of his grotesques. Some of his most famous characters are troubled women: Nancy in Oliver Twist, Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, and of course, Miss Havisham. During the course of this novel Jonas Chuzzlewit marries Pecksniff’s youngest daughter, Mercy. Initially she is a callous, flighty girl, but once married she is subjugated by a brutal husband and is portrayed sympathetically as a woman living in real fear. This contrast between his characterisation of women is symptomatic of his relationships with women in real life; he was cruel in later life to his wife, rejecting her and keeping her from her children, even though he was a social campaigner, writing of the plight of fallen women in his papers, and helping to fund and run homes to look after women in desperate circumstances. I’m looking forward to reading more about this in Claire Tomalin’s Dickens: A Life, one of my Christmas presents (although I think I need a wee break from Dickens first).

The story itself begins when the older Martin has cast off his nephew, the young Martin who now has to make his own way in the world, without the promise of a vast inheritance. After some time with Pecksniff, where he befriends Tom Pinch, Martin heads to America to make his fortune. He is accompanied by Mark Tapley, who begins as comic relief, but who soon develops into a generous hearted individual from whom Young Martin will learn many important, and predictable, lessons. Considering this is often referred to as Dickens’s American novel, I was surprised how little of the time was spend in America. However, what it lacks in length it makes up for in spite. Dickens’s loathing of the United States is apparent on every page. He mocks the manners of its people, their belief in their country, and he takes a stab at the practice of slavery. In short it is not a very flattering portrait, and at the time was greeted with outrage in America. It is quite funny though, with nearly every man introduced by someone else as ’one of the most remarkable men in the country’. Dickens would be horrified that his portrayal of the American press is now most prescient in the case of the British tabloids; his account of the New York Sewer with such headlines as ‘the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies’ and ‘the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old’ could be in a piece of modern satire.

Dickens’s razor sharp wit is only one of the reasons I love his books. When he breathes life into a character they rate amongst some of the finest characters in literature. None of the characters in Martin Chuzzlewit quite make that grade - Mrs Gamp comes the closest. His ability to bring Victorian England to life is another reason. I think I was sold from the opening paragraphs of Bleak House with its description of the muddy foggy streets; incidentally this is the original appearance of now clichéd urban fog. In this book Dickens describes a character out for a walk in the country side; we follow him down paths, through fields, and into a copse. However, when we reach the other side, no figure emerges, and we realise that something insidious has happened out of our view. It is beautiful writing, with an almost cinematic quality in the movement Dickens uses to paint the scene. When I read passages like that, I fall in love with Dickens all over again.

Once Young Martin has returned home, a suitably reformed character, and reunited with Tom Pinch, all that remains is to see our villains punished and heroes rewarded. This is done in typical Dickensian fashion, with astounding coincidences and improbable turns of events, leading to a satisfying conclusion. The book ends stronger than it begins, with a clear sense of purpose. The tying up of loose ends here is done no more ridiculously than in other Dickens’s novels. After hauling myself through the middle few hundred pages I enjoyed the final chapters as everything came to a speedy conclusion, with only the mildest sense of relief that it was indeed finishing.

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