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6 december 2014
Thirty years ago, I was an adjunct English lecturer, teaching Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times in freshman composition courses. Having no professional future, but being a completist about reading – actually both those characterizations still fit me – I set out to read all of Dickens's novels. I had read a few when I was a child: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations. I read them again, and set off across the Dickens canon on a mission.
Dickens may seem to have written innumerable novels, but he actually only wrote fifteen, and one is unfinished. They're more like interminable than innumerable. There's an unkillable meme that Dickens wrote long books because he was paid by the word, but that's not really true, and anyway, it would make sweet-damn-all sense if there hadn't been a market for long books. Basically, there's always been a market for long books. Stephen King and Ken Follett are no different from Dickens in this respect. Some readers just want to take something big and heavy to bed with them.
When I'd read through Dickens's 15, I sorted them into three tiers, and they've held up for me ever since. There are five I don't want to read again: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (simply because it's unfinished), the two glurgiest (The Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit), and the two historicals (Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, sorry, Ronald Colman). There are five I will get back to if I live: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, the aforementioned Hard Times, and Dombey and Son. Those five strike me as considerable achievements, books that would still be in print even if their author had written nothing else, and part of the Victorian-novel canon I'd recommend to anyone.
And then there are the five superior novels, ones I want to re-read continually, novels that stand among the best written by any author in any country or century. David Copperfield and Great Expectations are extraordinarily personal books, though their appeal doesn't just lie in matching them to Dickens's biography; they're sympathetic without being syrupy, precisely because they are personal, and Dickens could be withering about his own surrogate selves. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are titanic achievements, on a par with War and Peace, Les Misérables, or any other pre-eminent 19th-century novel you can name. You can name Moby-Dick. I'll put those Dickens novels up against it.
And Martin Chuzzlewit, too. It may seem an obscure nomination for one of the world's great works of fiction, but many of Dickens's contemporaries would have put it in that class, and I don't think I'm being idiosyncratic in elevating it over some better-known Dickens novels. Martin Chuzzlewit was a sensation in its day (the early 1840s) for the characters of Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp, and for its surreally (and gratuitously) hideous portrait of the United States.
And Martin Chuzzlewit remains great because of its characters. In Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, Pierre Bayard says that
although fictional characters might not possess a material reality, they certainly have a psychological reality, which leads undeniably to a form of existence. (trans. Charlotte Mandell, NY: Bloomsbury, 2009, p. 113)One can't believe that Pecksniff, or Mrs. Gamp, or Mark Tapley, or Jonas Chuzzlewit could exist materially, or as coherent individuals. Henry James put it more epigrammatically, late in Dickens's career: "He knows Man but not men." I think that James meant in part that Dickens didn't get out much, at least in the sense of keenly observing contemporary mores. But for all the outlandishness of his creations, Dickens was astonishingly good at knowing "Man," as James put it: knowing what drives people, how they rationalize, how they let their appetites and their weaknesses force them into cruelties of commission and omission alike.
Pecksniff is the great hypocrite of English literature, as Tartuffe is of French. (The illustrator Phiz underscored the connection by having the defeated Pecksniff, at the end of the novel, fall to the floor at the same time as a copy of Tartuffe.) Butter wouldn't melt anywhere within a six-foot radius of Pecksniff, even as he behaves in the most brazenly self-aggrandizing way, appropriating credit for every success and blandly flattening every prospect of happiness around him. But just to personify "Extreme Hypocrisy" would be both facile and uninteresting, if Dickens hadn't invested Pecksniff with numerous nuances that ring true even as their aggregate defies the suspension of disbelief.
Take the great sequence of scenes in chapters 30 and 31, for instance, where Pecksniff courts the innocent young Mary Graham, and then overhears Mary complaining about him to the even more innocent Tom Pinch. Pecksniff's character notes have long since been established: mild-mannered, canting, plagiaristic, inexplicably (or all-too-explicably) a worldly success, always bobbing up after a fall. The good characters (except for the too-good Tom Pinch) figure out early that Pecksniff is a fraud, but the general public never seems to. Yet Pecksniff is neither a supervillain nor a master rhetorician. He simply can't help promoting himself at the expense of others, and covering his insolence with gentle words as he goes. He hits on Mary without the slightest reticence, and when she rejects him, it just doesn't register on him.
Later, Pecksniff hides in a church and overhears Mary confiding in Tom about his unwanted attentions. He doesn't want to be caught, but he also can't imagine a world where Pecksniff doesn't have the right to overhear everything. Trapped inside as the two walk into the churchyard, Pecksniff goes into the vestry and kills time,
which prompted him to open the vestry cupboard, and look at himself in the parson's little glass that hung within the door. Seeing that his hair was rumpled, he took the liberty of borrowing the canonical brush and arranging it. Remembering that he had seen in the cupboard a port-wine bottle and some biscuits, he peeped into it again, and helped himself with much deliberation; cogitating all the time though, in a very deep and weighty manner, as if his thoughts were otherwise employed.And then he steps out the window and walks off as if such violation of a perfect stranger's personal space were his birthright. This is more than tactical hypocrisy; it's a narcissism that will not out, and that manifests itself by appropriating anything, material or symbolic, within reach.
Including liquor. Pecksniff drunk is one of the deftest moments in fiction. Dickens likes to knock Pecksniff down – it's the first thing that happens to him in the novel, and the last. In the middle (chapter 9), Pecksniff falls under his own propulsion. Pecksniff, blotto, wears
a feeble, helpless, melancholy smile; bland, almost to sickliness. "Do not repine, my friends," said Mr Pecksniff, tenderly. "Do not weep for me. It is chronic." And with these words, after making a futile attempt to pull off his shoes, he fell into the fireplace.Drink is a constant presence in Martin Chuzzlewit. It's Mrs. Gamp's character note ("it was difficult to enjoy her society without becoming conscious of a smell of spirits," chapter 19). Chevy Slyme, a minor villain who goes straight at the end of the book and helps resolve its mysteries, is first seen "engaged in the thoughtful occupation of making a chain of rings on the top of the table with the wet foot of his drinking-glass" (chapter 7). Drink signifies festivity and fellowship (for the good characters like Tom Pinch and young Martin), and also an exorcism of demons (for the evil Jonas). But it is also merely an appetite for disorientation from reality; and though Dickens plays that appetite and that disorientation for laughs, it's not slapstick drunkenness or temperance-oriented highhandedness: it's something real and sad and sympathetic. Mrs. Gamp in particular, who can barely pronounce a consonant or end a sentence in the same clause where she began, cannot cope without her teapot of liquor around at all times. She's awful, she's elemental, and she presides over birth, sickness, and death with a relentlessness that would drive anyone to drink.
Nobody, as I've said, is really like Pecksniff or Mrs. Gamp in toto, but their traits are common, persistent, and universal. Jonas Chuzzlewit's may be even more interesting, as those of an unsympathetic, but psychologically believable, murderer – even as he is enmeshed in plot twists as grotesque as the overall personalities of Mrs. Gamp or Pecksniff.
Even his greatest novels show Dickens's flaws; Great Expectations may be the only book he wrote that is largely without them. Martin Chuzzlewit is extremely long. It can be florid; it's sexually coy; it has the insane (but at times devastating) digression of young Martin Chuzzlewit's trip to America, which is either a distraction or the main event, depending on how you look at the novel: memorable, in either case, if unnecessary. At times fanatically funny, with some of the keenest verbal observation every deployed in fiction, the book can also lapse into lazy blank verse. When its narrator becomes moral or philosophical, he bursts into fulsomeness.
But all told, both the plot and the language of Martin Chuzzlewit are under better control than in Dickens's earlier novels. Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend would be still better-constructed, and David Copperfield and Great Expectations more personal and better-focused on protagonists. (Several young men are possible protagonists in Martin Chuzzlewit, none of them all that interesting, and there are two title characters, grandfather and grandson; and two good women named Mary and Ruth who are hardly distinguishable – although the bad characters in the book are exceptionally vivid.) If it's the fifth-best Dickens novel, it stands above all but a few others in the English language.
Dickens, Charles. Martin Chuzzlewit. 1843-44. iBooks.