on 26 January 2007
Dickens is unquestionably one of the best writers in the history of English literature, combining compelling plots with laugh-out-loud humour and a savage satirical eye. Having read most of his books, I have to say Martin Chuzzlewit is one of the best - second only, in fact, to the awesome Tale of Two Cities.
This is despite the book having possibly the worst beginning of the lot - if you can get past the initial 8 pages, where not one character appears, you'll find several dozen well worth the wait. This includes the usual memorable characters - drunken Mrs Gamp and her imaginary friend; the older-than-his-years Mr Bailey; and Mark Tapley, who finds no credit in being happy unless he is surrounded by the most miserable of circumstances; not to mention Pecksniff, Charity and Mercy.
But what is most notable in the book is its picture of a self-mythologising America, a country where "they're so fond of Liberty 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," a country which holds itself up as an example to the rest of the world, and where any criticism of an individual American is held to be a criticism of its "institutions" and defended as such. It's a picture that has many echoes more than 150 years on, perhaps demonstrating how long the legend of 'America' has been in development.
The story is about greed, and the plot is comedy. The observation is sharp as ever, focusing on hypocrisy, selfishness, and including a fascinating portrait of guilt. It's one of the best books ever, hilarious at points, and wickedly true. Just read it.
on 7 April 2015
Unless a due degree of fame for Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit has somehow passed me by (and that's easily quite possible), then this at least appears to be one of the great man's lesser known / lesser read works. If so, then it makes it even better as I think this is one of Dickens' secret gems; note I didn't say little, it is far far from that, but a gem regardless. It isn't perfect by any means, but it really is, in my opinion anyway, one of Dickens' very best.
Basically, we have the usual Dickens trait of a situation early on in the story not only setting the scene, but acting as the core of several strands with each strand representing different characters but with each strand linked, to a lesser or greater degree, with each other, and with happenings and person / people we are introduced to very early on.
Old Martin Chuzzlewit, a wealthy, mean, family-hating curmudgeon, along with a faithful young female companion book themselves into an inn; separate rooms of course in case anyone asks . . . but the old man takes ill; the attack is so bad it's generally thought he would not recover. Within hours it seems, his entire wider family are gathered at the inn, hoping to find out who would benefit from the old man's passing, or to curry favour and put their case to him in his final hours. This fails - totally. Not only that, he recovers and steals away, with his companion in tow.
It is the above which really starts the whole thing off; we come to know many relatives, friends, enemies, and some odd humurous characters as the story progresses. Much of the tale is devoted to scheming, cynical supposed-architect, Seth Pecksniff; one of those love 'em 'cause you hate 'em Victorian hypocrites, painting evils as virtue, and true virtue as vulgar. He passes this philosophy on to his two daughters, Charity and Mercy (ha!), and the ones on the immediate receiving end of such compassion are the young gentleman who are duped into attending his architectural school, where from day one they are accordingly fleeced, both their cash and even their ideas. One in his employ, Tom Pinch, is a poor unfortunate meek young lad, supposedly also there to learn architecture but ends up part of the inventory, acting the part of general dogs-body to fathers and gals - poorly paid and ill treated. But he's also the nicest character in the book, and his meek mild ways can (and does at times) diffuse potentially nasty situations.
It's too much I think to mention all other main characters in depth, so here's just a few lines on most, and how they fit it into the tale.
John Westlock and young Martin Chuzzlewit, very similar in some ways, but John is the nicer of the two at first (at first as in, he stays nice, but Martin junior has to deal with some elitism issues along the way). They both leave Pecksniff's establishment, the former after a long spell, glad to go after realising Pecksniff is just an out and out fraud, the latter after only seemingly arriving and still drying his boots - he was sent to Pecksniff by Pops, and then due to family developments and tensions, Pops just as quickly asks Pecksniff to send him packing.
Young Martin's departure sees him off to the good ole USA; he takes this book's version of Sam Weller with him - Mark Tapley, a happy go lucky yet at the same time solid as reliable young-ish man. Current position, barman, but he wants to be rather jollier somewhere else, so virtually forces himself onto Martin as his butler-assistant-valet-horseman, or perhaps all-round gentleman's gentleman is a better way of putting it. It is at this point the disinherited Martin realises his days of lording it are over, and duly makes Mark an equal partner in any venture they get in to; Mark is unsettled at this idea but eventually agrees, although he unceasingly cannot forget what he sees as his rightful position. Now, on the USA side of the tale - it is two things at once, neither of which add much to the main story, but thankfully nor does it spoil; it stands alone, it does well standing alone, and once over, there's no problem with coming back across the briny, for us as readers that is. The two things in question though, firstly, I think it acts as pure padding with the original serialisation in mind, and I also think it's about Dickens' wanting to be honest in fiction and of course humour, about the somewhat dubious principals displayed by most eminent US citizens at that time. The almighty dollar was just as almighty then as it is now. But, Martin's and Mark's adventure is enjoyable as they set up home and business in a feverous swamp area somewhere in the south.
Tom's tale continues, we meet his sister Ruth, a lovely quiet girl much ill-used and abused (in a bullying sense) by her employers. They are flung together soon after Tom is also shown the door from Pecksniff's, and they try and eek out a living somehow, living in dingy rooms in a poor part of London.
Much of the rest of the tale concerns other wider members of the Chuzzlewit clan, mostly bent and obnoxious, especially Jonas, a drunken, arrogant violent man; Chevy Slyme - another neer-do-well for much of the tale but without the extra-harsh edge of Jonas, and who is really a foil for Victorian scam artist, Tigg Montagu. Near the end of the tale Tigg and Jonas come together in a banking / investment scam and even trap Pecksniff into its nets.
One other character, and her umbrella, also merits a mention - Mrs Sarah Gamp. She is - supposedly - a nurse of sorts, but her skills don't stop at the living; she is often drafted in to deal with the early aspects of death. She is a hoot. Her mannerisms and speech and turns of phrase, so so affected, are hilarious. Her nursly demands for her on-shift viands are considerable too, giving the maid her orders for her supper early on in the evening; including various beers and spirits, which, of course, are for medicinal purposes only (for herself that is). Her constant references to an old friend that may not exist, 'Mrs 'Arris, are delightful, and her relationship, both the good times and bad, with her shift oppo, are a joy to read.
Now I hope the above is non-spoilery for new readers, if not, then I do apologise, but these last few lines are quite possibly a spoiler to some degree, so do bear this in mind if thinking of buying and reading the book.
Not long after Martin and Mark return from the USA, wiser, poorer, poorly shod and probably even thinner than upon leaving, the different strands begin to come together, and we find, some things at least, are not what we as readers were led to believe was quite the case. Contrived, convenient, too much so perhaps? Yes, of course it is, but it just does not matter.
Martin Chuzzlewit is a highly engaging and entertaining yarn of life at the top, in the middle and at the bottom, as usual, or as we usually expect from the great man.