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Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…
Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.
He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.
Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.
It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.
Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.
Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.
For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.
Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!
Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).
Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!