In this year of the Bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, I’ve decided to read the last two of his novels I still have unread – Martin Chuzzlewit & Barnaby Rudge. I’ve never felt any inclination to read either of them before now. The titles have never appealed to me, they always sounded stodgy & depressing. However, I’ve now read Martin Chuzzlewit & I’m pleased to say that, after a slow start, I enjoyed it very much.
I think it helped that I was reading Martin Chuzzlewit in instalments with my online reading group. This approach definitely helped me through the early chapters when we’re introduced to one unpleasant character after another! Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a cranky, disagreeable, rather tyrannical but rich old man. He arrives at the Blue Dragon, an inn in a Wiltshire village, accompanied by a young woman, Mary Graham, who looks after him. Various relatives of Martin arrive to see him & toady to him. Most prominent among these relatives is Mr Pecksniff & his daughters, Charity & Mercy, & Martin’s brother, Anthony with his son, Jonas. Mr Chuzzlewit’s grandson, also Martin, is to be articled to Mr Pecksniff, an architect. Young Martin is in love with Mary Graham but his grandfather won’t hear of them marrying & he’s now in disgrace.
The Pecksniffs are a self-serving family. Mr Pecksniff is all smiles & condescension to old Martin (there they are on the cover of the book) but at home, he’s mean with his money, teaches his pupils nothing & is especially nasty to his clerk, Tom Pinch, who nevertheless worships him & won’t hear a word against his master. Charity & Mercy are almost completely the opposite of their names. Charity is a stringy spinster who would do almost anything to be married & fancies every young man to be in love with her. Mercy is a pretty girl but proud & disagreeable. Both girls set their sights on Jonas Chuzzlewit. Young Martin is a sulky, selfish boy. He loves Mary & feels slighted by his grandfather but is too proud to apologize to him after they argue about his future & is cut off with nothing. He despises Pecksniff & patronises Tom.
At this point, apart from Tom Pinch & Mark Tapley, the young man who works at the Blue Dragon, there wasn’t one character I cared much about. Interestingly this was the first of Dickens’s novels that hadn’t been a roaring success & the circulation figures for the monthly instalments were dropping. So, in an attempt to increase circulation, Dickens sends Martin & Mark Tapley off to America! Martin has become fed up with Pecksniff & decides to run away & make his fortune so he can return & marry Mary without his grandfather’s approval. Mark leaves the Blue Dragon & falls in with Martin so they take ship together.
Dickens had returned from his first trip to America in 1842 exhausted & dissatisfied with much of what he had seen of American life. He had gone to America ready to be impressed with a vigorous young democracy. At first, he loved it. He was lionised & feted wherever he went. He was impressed by the people & their institutions. Gradually, however, disillusionment set in. By the end of his trip he felt like a bear in a gilded cage, on show constantly & unable to rest. He was disgusted by slavery & incensed by the lack of copyright protection that meant that his work could be reprinted in pirated editions in the States & he was paid nothing. He returned to England & wrote a book, American Notes, based on his experiences. American Notes was lauded in England & decried in the States. The Americans hated the book, even though Dickens was full of praise for many things. They focused on his chapters on slavery & their bad habits like tobacco chewing & spitting & the reviews were vicious. Dickens’s revenge was the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Martin & Mark endure a dreadful crossing in steerage with the poorest of passengers. Martin treats Mark as a servant & while Martin moans & groans his way across the Atlantic, cheerful Mark makes friends & helps his fellow passengers. Once they arrive, Martin is swindled of what little money he has left by a crooked property developer who encourages him to set up as an architect in a new settlement called Eden. Eden turns out to be a swamp in the middle of nowhere. There’s no town & no food. The atmosphere is unhealthy & people die every day. Martin comes close to death from fever & only Mark’s careful nursing pulls him through. This is the beginning of Martin’s transformation from a selfish young man into a man who can admit his past faults & begin to be worthy of his friends.
On returning to England, Martin discovers that his grandfather has come under Pecksniff’s influence. Old Martin seems completely subservient to Pecksniff & refuses to see his grandson. Pecksniff is also pursuing Mary & wants to marry her. Mercy Pecksniff has married Jonas Chuzzlewit & is regretting it. Her proud nature is being crushed by her husband’s cruelty. Jonas is an evil man who may have had a hand in his father’s sudden death. He has become involved with some shady characters who run the Anglo-Bengalee Insurance Company & his entanglement will lead him on to even greater crimes.
There are some wonderful characters in Martin Chuzzlewit. The greatest of them all is Mrs Gamp. I have to admit that she’s one of the reasons why I was keen to read the book. Miriam Margolyes has been touring her show, Dickens’s Women, & I’ve heard her on radio several times doing a bit of Mrs Gamp. Mrs Gamp is a villain, but a comic villain. She’s a nurse & midwife who also lays out the bodies of the dead. She’s fond of a drink & is usually more than a little drunk. She neglects her patients & is fond of picking up any little trifles on the way whether portable property or information. Her drunken maunderings are very funny but horrible as well. She has no compassion for her patients & no real interest in looking after them.
Jonas Chuzzlewit is a villain with nothing comic about him at all. The chapters near the end of the book after he has committed a great crime are full of mental torment that anticipates the torment of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. Tom Pinch & Mark Tapley are wonderfully kind, generous characters of the sort that Dickens could write so well. Tom’s silent, unrequited love for Mary Graham is very touching. Ruth Pinch, Tom’s sister, is another of Dickens’s perfect & bland young women, modeled on his dead sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. Apart from Mrs Gamp, the women in Martin Chuzzlewit are not very interesting. Mercy’s decline from proud, conceited young woman to cowed wife is interesting but we don’t see very much of her.
I’m glad I’ve read Martin Chuzzlewit. I enjoyed it very much although it’s not one of Dickens’s great novels. I’ve almost finished rereading Great Expectations & the contrast between the two books could hardly be greater. Martin Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens’s baggy monsters. Great Expectations is my favourite of his novels & I think it’s his masterpiece. I needed to reread it after watching the latest BBC adaptation & I’m loving it all over again. I have a copy of Barnaby Rudge but I think I’ll leave it until later in the year.