Dombey and Son—Charles Dickens

[This is a journal in ten sections, each covering two of the twenty original instalments. I’m reading two instalments at a time, then I write about them before reading on. So far I have read the first ten instalments.]

1 June 2019
I and II – Chapters 1-7
The first chapter is one long set piece. The 48-year-old Dombey is at the centre of his own patriarchal universe, knowing that everything, and everyone, orbits around him. Or, rather, that it all revolves around ‘Dombey and Son’, an entity which, we soon realise, has always been his monomaniacal obsession. It shoulders aside all other concerns, leaving him a cold, brooding presence incapable of any normal human interactions. His sickly wife has just given birth to his first son, and this is literally all that matters. Before the death of his own father, he had been the ‘Son’ of Dombey and Son. Now the firm will be able to carry on as before. Human beings come and go—Fanny, his wife, is gone by the end of the first chapter—but Dombey and Son remains.

The thing that gets shouldered aside most forcefully is love. We see it in this first chapter, in Dombey’s frankly appalling treatment of his six-year-old daughter. She is an irrelevance, a failure on his wife’s part—Fanny gets a lot of criticism, which spreads as far as blame for not ‘trying’ to rally from the trauma of childbirth—because the Patriarchy doesn’t recognise daughters. Florence, the daughter, is terrified of Dombey, who generally doesn’t notice her unless somebody else points her out. Her mother’s death is the turning off of the one light in her life, because the other women in the house live by Dombey’s rules. Her aunt, Mrs Chick, is—what? Dombey’s staunch ally, or acolyte. Her own self-deluding vanity is that she provides the necessary sensitivity and feeling in the household, going so far as to ‘forgive’ Fanny for her failings—after all, she couldn’t help not being a Dombey. The new baby, she assures her brother, is ‘quite a Dombey.’ The hapless Florence—no surprise here—is definitely not a Dombey.

There’s another hovering female presence, Mrs Chick’s shabby-genteel friend Miss Tox. At first she seems to be exactly the simpering irrelevance Dombey takes her for—her apology to him as she offers a gift for Fanny is a set piece of squirming self-effacement. (Mrs Chick, ever the courtier, feels it necessary to interpret the meaning of this gift—‘one of those trifles which are insignificant to your sex in general—we have no business to expect they should be otherwise—but to which we attach some interest.’) But looking beyond Chapter 1 for a moment, we are shown that there is real ambition lurking in her. Miss Tox understands the Patriarchy’s rules, and she abides by them to the letter, but my God. I’ll come back to her later, because in Chapter 1 the self-promoting doctors have done their inadequate best for Fanny and she has ‘drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.’ Her young daughter—a ‘slight spar’ that Fanny had been clinging on to in Dickens’s (deliberately?) overwrought marine metaphor—is distraught. During all of this, from Dombey, nothing. Nothing, that is, beyond the sound of his loudly ticking watch, apparently competing with the one ticking in the waistcoat pocket of the top doctor called in to preside. Theirs, as we are coming to see, is a world of relentless competition.

This is a Dickens novel, so in the next chapter it’s time for the introduction of other relationships, in particular a family that is the exact opposite of the Dombeys. Not Mrs Chick and her husband, whose married life is sketched in for us first. He has long ago given up, resorting to tunes and nonsense choruses—Mrs Chick scorns them as ‘rump-te-iddity, bow-wow-wow’—whenever her conversation veers off into Dombey talk. Which it does all the time. But the real set piece of Chapter 2 is the arrival of the Toodles. The mother, discovered by way of Miss Tox’s diligent under-cover efforts—it wouldn’t do for her to be seen as too pro-active—is to be the baby’s wet-nurse. But all the family arrive for the interview, including Mrs Toodles’ husband, sister, and five children. Mr T knows his place. When Dombey checks out with him about the legal niceties of the conditions of her service, he says that his wife is the one who’s ‘heard it,’ so he doesn’t need to. Theirs, clearly, is a household in which he does his job and she does the rest—he has two jobs, bringing in a wage and fathering children, and it seems to work for them.

But it’s Polly Toodles—renamed ‘Richards’ because that’s how Dombey’s controlling mindset works—who becomes important in this instalment and the next. If Dombey is the ice-cold patriarch, she is the warmly affectionate mother-figure. She is the only adult character we meet in this story-thread who understands about love, and soon her influence is spreading into the Dombey household. Most importantly, for the six months or so of her tenure she becomes a substitute mother for Florence. She’s the only woman in the house who has an instinctive understanding of what people need from one another. The first time Florence happens upon her, arriving home after having been sent away following her mother’s death until some time after the funeral, Polly is able to overcome the child’s terror and suspicion. Florence’s governess, more of a young prison warder, is harder work. The bad-tempered Susan Nipper, a.k.a. Spitfire, is a fourteen-year-old with no training. She sees her job as forcing Florence into submission by the easiest means available, sarcasm and slaps, but Polly even manages to see the potential in Miss Nipper.

The first instalment ends with a chapter introducing another household, whose only connection with the Dombeys is that they are celebrating the job with the firm that the boy of the house has started that day. Uncle and nephew, mutual respect and affection. And one of Dickens’s superb mise-en-scène creations, the old-fashioned chandler’s shop run by Solomon Gills. It’s a perfect metaphor for the man himself: perfectly preserved, endlessly engaging—and obsolete. He knows that both he and his shop are of no commercial use to anyone any more, which is why he’s secured the boy a place where he can earn a living. He’s done it through one of the last tenuous connections he has, with Dombey and Son. Dombey is at least as much the gainer as Walter, the boy. He’s hugely likeable, clearly a capable young man—and we’re not a bit surprised when he enters the main story thread at the end of the second instalment. There’s also one of Dickens’s larger-than-life characters in the shape of Captain Cuttle, complete with hook and sailor’s hat as solid as wood. I suspect he’ll be back too.

In the second instalment, among other things, are a couple of extraordinary set pieces. One is the christening of the baby, Paul, delayed because… because, as Dickens makes explicit, whatever goes on in churches isn’t a priority with Dombey. It’s November—the child is six months old by now—and Dickens gives us variations on the theme of chilly. Everybody pretends they’re snugly comfortable, and Dombey is too obtuse to see through the dutiful lie. Or too accustomed to it, I guess. The other set piece, near the end of the instalment, is the one that loses Polly her job…

…but I should rewind, because the situation comes about through the sense of trust and helpfulness that Polly has established with Susan Nipper. The spikiness never goes away—she has a habit of pretending that ‘temp’ry’ staff get all the privileges in this house—but, basically, Polly becomes the nearest thing to a friend that the Spitfire has ever had. And it comes about, of course, because of Florence. Polly can see what the girl needs, which is proper human contact, and she finds a way to bring round the emotionally leaden Dombey. She persuades him that having the baby’s sister play with him would do him good, and Dombey effectively gives her free rein from then on. Cue injured-party mutterings from Susan Nipper—but, without admitting it, she realises her days are soon more interesting, and her duties less onerous. Win-win.

It gets better. The appalling Mrs Chick has persuaded herself that the funereal little outings she arranges for the boy, with her, Miss Tox, Florence and Polly making a tedious progress up the characterless street, are the best thing that has ever happened to him. But Polly gets them to make a longer, more exciting excursion, to see her first-born son in the uniform of the awful school that Dombey has sponsored him to attend. It’s the undoing of her. Dickens needs to move things on, and he does it by bringing about an unhappy combination of circumstances. Polly sees her son being set upon by street boys, a cart nearly collides with the party, and… Florence runs off. As unfazed as usual by matters of plausibility, Dickens effectively has her ambushed by a witch—the fairy-tale elements are quite deliberate—and the hag steals all her clothes before stranding her in a street in the middle of nowhere.

At least three things come about because of this. One, young Walter is able to rescue her when the first sensible person she asks the way of calls him to take her to her father’s. (Cue his boyish fantasies of heroic rescues, dragons thwarted—and possible happy endings far in the future. This being a Dickens novel, he might be right. Captain Cuttle had already invited Walter and Sol to drink to her health at the end of the first instalment.) Next, Polly loses her job—interestingly, because of the insalubriousness of the area she took his son to, not because of any danger Florence was in. Dombey doesn’t miss a beat when his daughter arrives home safely, because why would he? And Susan Nipper is allowed to keep her job despite losing her charge for more than half a day. I don’t think Dickens offers any further comment, because he doesn’t need to.

The third outcome concerns Miss Tox. Having given us another mise-en-scène, the tiny, inconvenient house she lives in round the back of the Dombeys’, and the umbrage felt by Joe/Joey/Josh (etc.) Bagstock, retired army major who thought he’d been in with a chance with her, Dickens reveals all: without Polly, new wet-nurse arrangements need to be made, and Miss Tox is the one to make them. She brings the boy to her house, and the substitute nurse is waiting there. It’s in this final chapter of the instalment that Miss Tox’s motives become clearer—and that Joey Bagstock is right to be jealous. ‘If the Major could have known how many hopes and ventures, what a multitude of plans and speculations, rested on that baby head … he might have stared indeed. Then would he have recognised, among the crowd, some few ambitious motes and beams belonging to Miss Tox; then would he perhaps have understood the nature of that lady’s faltering investment in the Dombey Firm.’ Ah. Dickens is saying nothing specific, but she’s set her sights a lot higher than the major now. And I just remembered that at the christening, through Mrs Chick’s suggestion, Miss Tox had been named as godmother. Dombey agreed because, he assumes, she comes with no expectations from the connection, unlike others who had been in the frame. He can think that if he wants.

18 June 2019
III and IV – Chapters 8-13
More set pieces, more horrors. Not only horrors, of course, but we do meet one of Dickens’s grotesques, Mrs Pipchin, and one of his monsters, Mr Carker. And, although we’ve no idea how it’s all going to work out yet, we can see the small beginnings of great story arcs that will end badly. But badly for whom? Dombey needs to watch out, because the great set-piece that is Chapter 13 shows how Carker, by behaving precisely in the reverential manner towards him that Dombey takes for granted, is building up a power-base of his own. Uriah Heep won’t be making an appearance in David Copperfield for another three years, but Carker’s suave obsequiousness is a close relation of Heep’s grovelling manner. And we know he’s just as self-serving. He’s also vicious in a way that’s all his own, and it’s a sign of Dombey’s moral weakness that he lets him get away with it. Carker is on his side, he thinks, and he’s glad to have a man like him on board. He’s a fool. But I’ll come back to Carker later…

…because a lot of other things happen before we meet him. Dickens jogs through five years at the beginning of the third instalment, and we find out what a sickly child the young Paul Dombey is. It gives Dickens the chance to be droll about the names of childhood illnesses—it wouldn’t do for him to be too downbeat: ‘Some bird of prey got into his throat instead of the thrush; and the very chickens turning ferocious … worried him like tiger-cats.’ But Paul is not strong, a fact hidden from Dombey by the women who can’t find a way of telling him the truth. It’s always easier to hedge around it, as we see Mrs Chick and Miss Tox doing as the truth begins to dawn on him. Upshot: he needs sea air, as the doctor has suggested. In Brighton, Miss Tox (I think) has found Mrs Pipchin, the mistress of the forbidding ‘castle,’ really an unprepossessing house on a terrace. She plays on being the tragic widow of a man killed in the Peruvian mines—we realise, of course, that he lost his money through an unwise speculation—and this has unaccountably contributed to her high reputation for the management of children.

She’s one of those small-time monsters Dickens loves, who make the lives of everybody around them miserable while revelling in undeserved respect. She bullies the other children in her charge, her skivvy, and as for her niece… when the poor woman, good-hearted but plain, is offered the chance of a happy marriage, Pipchin vetoes it. These are the small tyrannies she can perpetrate because nobody is going to stop the poor victim of the Peruvian mines. However… she doesn’t bother Florence, the daughter of the gent who is such a willing and prompt payer—and, much more interestingly, she can’t bully Paul. He is safe because, as we’ve learnt before the move to Brighton, he is simply not like other children.

Dombey had found himself completely out of his depth when his little boy—Dickens keeps emphasising how small he is—asks him questions that sidestep all conventional responses. Which, of course, is all Dombey has. ‘What’s money?’ he asks, and Dombey struggles. ‘He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency, paper, bullion, rates of exchange’ and so on, and on, ‘but looking down at the little chair, and seeing what a long way down it was, he answered: ‘“Gold, and silver, and copper. Guineas, shillings, half-pence. You know what they are?”’ This isn’t going to work. ‘“I don’t mean that, Papa. I mean what’s money after all?” Heaven and Earth, how old his face was as he turned it up again towards his father’s! “I mean, Papa, what can it do?”’ Dombey is thrown, again, and his answer falls short, again: ‘Money can do anything.’ Paul is having none of this, and he persists with his interrogation. It didn’t save his mother, and he wonders aloud whether money is cruel…. Which is definitely an idea to file away for later.

This is a crucial first indication of how Paul somehow carries a weight of years on his shoulders, and we are not at all surprised when he sees right through the self-centred, self-serving Mrs Pipchin. She is completely wrong-footed by him, finds herself seeking out his company next to the fire—and is grateful one time when, having told her he’s glad there’s nobody like her, he doesn’t explain what he means. And yet this tiny five-year-old sage—Dickens more than once refers to his ‘old, old face’ and likens him to ‘an old man or a young goblin’—is to grow up, if his father has anything to do with it, as the living embodiment of Dombey and Son. Dombey himself wants to skip over the next ten years. When Paul reaches six and is to go to school, Dombey wistfully considers how ‘six will be changed to sixteen, before we have time to look about us.’ Mrs Pipchin, ‘with a frosty glistening of her hard grey eye’ which Dombey chooses to ignore, reminds him that ten years is a long time. Oh yes.

The school Paul is to go to—we’re into the fourth instalment by now—is as awful as Mrs Pipchin’s. Like her, Mr Blimber has a reputation based on nothing but the good word of fools, and Dombey is taken in again. Do I need to go into details? Probably not, beyond the fact that the impossible tasks set for Paul by Blimber’s daughter—in the big spectacles that dominate her face she’s the personification of unworldly bookishness—enable Florence to come to his rescue, again. I haven’t mentioned her for a while, but she’s a constant presence, and not only as the source of love that Paul hasn’t otherwise had since the sacking of poor Toodles. Whilst building her up as the epitome of familial love—and of intelligence, as she reads ahead in Paul’s studies so she can guide him during their time together at the weekends—Dickens constantly reminds us how invisible she remains to her father. As in the first two instalments, Dombey gets absolutely nothing right regarding her. We can only guess how Dickens will somehow let her come into her own later. Because Paul will never be the cipher that Dombey wants him to be, the continuation of his own cipher-like self. Florence, meanwhile, quietly gets on with finding a way through whatever the world throws at both of them.

I’ll come back to Dombey getting it wrong, and not only with Florence, when I deal with Carker. That isn’t far off now, because in the third instalment there are dangerous developments in the Walter/Sol/Captain Cuttle subplot. The world of romantic fancy that Walter only half-believed in anyway is brought crashing down, and by the end of the fourth instalment he at least is in a much grittier place. It happens because of the close dealings they are forced to have with what we heard Dombey and Paul talking about. Money. Walter isn’t as starry-eyed as he was, now that he’s grown up a bit, although he’s always kept his heroic cheeriness. But, money problems for his uncle bring him into close contact not only with Dombey and Son, but with Carker.

But I need to rewind. Through no fault of his own, Sol is faced with a huge debt that is about to be called in. Before this, the nostalgic world of Sol’s marine supplies shop had seemed a safe haven, with Sol its bewigged, old-fashioned owner and its little midshipman mascot looking back (through his little wooden telescope) to an earlier era. The reader hasn’t been asking too many questions about how he had seemed to be keeping afloat, but now, along comes this unpayable debt. He’d acted as security for his brother, Walter’s father, and he’d paid the original value of the loan many times over. What is Walter to do when the benign-seeming Mr Brogley, ‘sworn broker and appraiser,’ comes calling for the £300-odd that’s owing? He’s the owner of a warehouse-sized collection of repossessed house contents that Dickens had been drolly riffing on only moments before,

We’re not in the real world yet. Walter goes to find Captain Cuttle, and we get one of those absurd little episodes, the brave mariner being held captive by his fearsome landlady and her washing. But even Mrs Stinger can’t keep him back as he gathers his worldly goods, consisting of £13 and a silver spoon and watch, and comes to the rescue. Brogley is by no means contemptuous, he’s far too kindly for that, but £13 and some knickknacks are no good. What to do now? To Captain Cuttle it’s plain: they must ask Dombey for help—and when they discover he’s in Brighton on his weekly visit, that’s where the Captain insists they go. Water is torn. He wants to let the Captain down gently—he knows it’s a fool’s errand, and feels it all the more keenly when the Captain lays his treasure before the appalled Dombey. Except… we’re still not in the real world yet—in a Dickens novel we only ever are when he chooses—and a happy combination of circumstances saves the day.

It’s masterful. What other novelist would engineer an unexpected denouement in this way? How to bring about a fairytale ending for Sol, whilst sealing Walter inside a different, far less comfortable reality? It doesn’t all happen at once, but the strange little being that is Paul Dombey is able to be the deus ex machina for Sol. His father asks him what he would do, as the holder of money, for this man who has made a grave mistake with other people’s money. (As Dombey puts it, ‘It is an act of dishonesty and presumption, too … great presumption; for the wealthy could do no more.’ Of course they couldn’t.) Paul, of course, says he should have it—but Dombey makes sure it isn’t a gift, but a loan. Walter is to receive a note from Carker next day, and even before we meet the man for the first time in Chapter 13 Walter understands he has entered a darker world. Captain Cuttle might sing his old songs later, with Florence’s name substituted for that of the lovely Peg, and he might make all sorts of ‘Whittingtonian’ references to future good fortune, but Walter’s heart isn’t in it. Money is doing its work on him.

As for Chapter 13 and the monstrous Carker…. I feel I’ve almost said enough about him for now, except for his behaviour towards his brother, whom we very briefly met much earlier in the novel, and the further depressing effect this has on Walter. We heard in the second instalment how ‘Mr Carker the junior’ is, in fact, older than Mr Carker the manager, and that he is always passed by when there is a promotion available. Far younger men than he have progressed in the company, and he faces this with a kind of fatalistic acceptance. In Chapter 13 he tells Walter how it came about, how he had once been just like Walter—until he took a wrong turning. ‘I had robbed them when I came of age. I robbed them afterwards. Before my twenty-second birthday, it was all found out; and then, Walter, from all men’s society, I died. … The House was very good to me. May Heaven reward the old man for his forbearance!’

What we have already realised is that any forbearance was a long time in the past. ‘The old man’ is long dead, and in his place is the current Mr Dombey. And in the place of any Christian ideal of forgiveness or redemption is the retributive hand of Mr Carker the manager. He pretends that his older brother has been conspiring with Walter to bring his name into conversations between him and Dombey, and pretends this is a terrible betrayal. The way he speaks to his older brother, in front of Walter himself, is vicious, and he lambasts them both as Dombey blandly looks on. And when Walter overhears their private conversation, it’s worse still. Alone together, when the older brother implies the the younger wishes he had no brother, Carker doesn’t contradict him. And the pain of it comes out: ‘I have been … a useful foil to you. You have trodden on me freely in your climbing up. Don’t spurn me with your heel!’

Walter, listening outside, speaks to him as he leaves. Part of the conversation has been about how the junior Mr Carker sees in Walter a chance of putting something right. Perhaps he can make sure this young man, just like himself in his younger days—’sanguine, giddy, youthful, inexperienced; flushed with the same restless and adventurous fancies’—will not take the same wrong steps in his life that he did himself. But there’s been a plot development even during this chapter: Carker the manager, perhaps to destroy the budding friendship between Walter and his hated brother, or perhaps simply to rid himself of somebody who could not be more different from himself, has Walter posted to Barbados. This is exactly not what Walter wants… but the reader can speculate about how it might be a useful move on Dickens’s part to have Walter out of the way for a while. In Dickens novels, people who leave the country have a habit of returning unexpectedly much later on.

Anything else in these instalments? There are the fairytale aspect of the superstitions harboured by young Paul’s nurse. She tells ‘Berry’, Mrs Pipchin’s niece, that she knew another child just like him, who would take an interest in older people. They always died very soon after—so Mrs Pipchin needs to watch out. (Dickens plays a trick in the telling of this story. Like Berry, the reader assumes the young girl in the story must be one of those children not destined for a long life. Well, we’re wrong—she’s happily married with children of her own.) And there are characters Paul meets in his new school in the fourth instalment, like Toots the young man, still a pupil, whose brain seems to have been reduced to mush by all the cramming. And…

…there are further developments in the Joe Bagstock subplot. Dickens has a good time with this particular comic grotesque, but Bagstock has another job to do as well. He discovers not only that his ‘rival’ is in Brighton, but that the son of a friend from his days in India is there too. It’s none other than Blitherstone, Pipchin’s most put-upon victim, and Bagstock goes to see him. And so on. But the important thing that happens is the contact he has with Dombey—whose opinion of Miss Tox is raised dramatically when he realises she is the neighbour of this hugely impressive man. I told you Dombey’s judgment of people was poor and, a chapter or two before we see him being wound round Carker’s little finger, here he is thinking the regimental bore is somebody worth knowing.

The reason, I think, has to do with Bagstock’s own obsession with names. When Dombey admits to being the ‘unworthy representative’ of the family name, Dickens has Bagstock outdoing himself. ‘By G—, Sir! it’s a great name. It’s a name, Sir … that is known and honoured in the British possessions abroad. It is a name, Sir, that a man is proud to recognise. There is nothing adulatory in Joseph Bagstock, Sir. His Royal Highness the Duke of York observed on more than one occasion, “there is no adulation in Joey. He is a plain old soldier is Joe. He is tough to a fault is Joseph:” but it’s a great name, Sir. By the Lord, it’s a great name!’ The sycophancy has done its work, and the name-obsessed Dombey is lost.

30 June
V and VI—Chapters 14-19
Ah. Dombey isn’t lost because of a complacent belief in superficial things—although I’m sure it will always be a big contributor to his unhappiness—he’s lost because ‘Dombey and Son’ is lost. Or, rather, the frail little boy he had pinned all his hopes upon is dead. We realise by the end of it that this is what the whole of the fifth instalment has been leading up to—and that when Dickens played that little trick on us in the third instalment, when Paul’s nursemaid told the story of the wise little child who didn’t die, we didn’t know then how the trick would play out. This wise little child, with his old, old face and his old, old ways, was not made for this world. Dickens made him for a different purpose altogether.

In the phrase Dickens has almost everybody in Blimber’s school use about Paul, he has always been an ‘old-fashioned’ child—a phrase used in this precise sense for the first time, according to the OED, by Dickens himself in The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s as if now, six years later, he wants to embed it so far inside the public consciousness he uses it thirteen times in Chapter 14 alone. Everyone at Blimber’s calls him that, and they aren’t wrong. Otherwise they are in some way obtuse—in that way, at least, it’s a microcosm of the rest of the Dombey and Son universe—but all of them can see something in Paul that nobody else has. Miss Blimber, reading out to Paul her end-of-year ‘analysis’ of his achievements—it’s the very model of 21st Century school grading systems, based on an arbitrary numerical system of her own devising—can only be objective, obviously. But shortly after the onset of the illness that everyone pretends he is now merely convalescing from, it’s clear she loves him. And it goes for everyone else, too. Everybody wants to protect him, save him, preserve him. And love him.

By the end of this same long Chapter 14 set at Blimber’s, it’s clear that Paul had not been convalescing at all. Florence, who has been able to provide him with little glimpses of everything good during the preposterous little soiree that marks the end of term, is shedding tears as she takes him back to Mrs Pipchin’s before they leave next day. Except they don’t leave, because he isn’t well enough. And in the rest of the instalment it becomes clearer and clearer that he’ll never be well enough for anything ever again. We only hear about him briefly in Chapter 15, as Susan Nipper calls out from a cab to Walter—who is always in the right place at the right time—to help her find the place where his first nurse, Toodles, used to live. Paul has asked to see her, and she’s desperate to do this little thing for him….

And Chapter 16 confirms the inevitable as Dickens rewinds, and plays the events leading up to what turns out to be Paul’s last day, this time from the Dombey family’s viewpoint. We had been following Walter and Captain Cuttle—tell you later—but now almost everything, from Paul’s arrival back in London onwards, is described as perceived by Paul from his sick-bed. It’s been over five years since Dickens caused a storm with the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop—yes, that one again—and now here comes another poignant death in childhood. And what we realise as the chapter goes on is how Dickens has been setting up the metaphorical structure since Paul’s first days in Brighton. OK, he sets it up with Paul’s fragile health, but the particular metaphor is the inevitable flow of the river towards the sea….

I don’t know how old this metaphor must have been when Dickens used it in the 1840s. It doesn’t matter, because the way he plays on the theme is a masterclass. Newly arrived in Brighton, Paul likes nothing better than the sound of the sea, sometimes asking Florence what it is that the waves are saying. He’s sickly then, but he improves. Everybody thinks the sea air really must have been good for him, and they might have been right. Except they’re not right, and Dickens leaves clues for the reader all through the third instalment. What is over the sea, Paul wonders, and Florence speaks of other countries. But ‘he said he didn’t mean that: he meant further away—farther away! … Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.’ This comes at the end of the first chapter in the instalment and, with hindsight, it seems that Dickens’s meaning couldn’t be plainer. (And it’s only now that I remember that in death, Paul’s mother ‘had drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.’ Ah.)

Fast-forward to the next instalment, and to a conversation Paul is having with Toots. Paul, now all of six years old, has seen something on the sea in the moonlight: ‘There was a boat over there, in the full light of the moon; a boat with a sail.’ Just like Florence a year or more earlier, Toots attempts a literal explanation. It might be smugglers. Paul ignores him. ‘A boat with a sail,’ repeated Paul, ‘in the full light of the moon. The sail like an arm, all silver. It went away into the distance, and what do you think it seemed to do as it moved with the waves?’ Pitch, suggests poor Toots. ‘It seemed to beckon,’ said the child, ‘to beckon me to come!’

Fast-forward another instalment, to the onset of Paul’s final illness. No need for details, except one: ‘crowds of thoughts … came on, one upon another, like the rolling waves. Where those wild birds lived, that were always hovering out at sea in troubled weather; where the clouds rose and first began…’ and so on. But then Dickens introduces a new thought, as Paul wonders ‘whether the spot where he and Florence had so often sat, and watched, and talked about these things, could ever be exactly as it used to be without them; whether it could ever be the same to Florence, if he were in some distant place, and she were sitting there alone.’ Ah.

So, over three monthly instalments, Dickens has kept the idea in the back of the reader’s mind. Now, in the chapter mainly set in Paul’s sick-room, he introduces another, linked idea: what seems to be the reflection of golden water on the bedroom wall. (There’s a more literal explanation, as if that matters.) What we might remember is that ‘golden’ has already been used as an image in this instalment, linked to Paul’s vision of a perfect, innocent love. It was Florence’s perfect singing, perfectly decorous behaviour, perfect everything at the final evening’s soiree that had transported him then: ‘when he saw her sitting there all alone, so young, and good, and beautiful, and kind to him; and heard her thrilling voice, so natural and sweet, and such a golden link between him and all his life’s love and happiness, rising out of the silence; he turned his face away, and hid his tears.

Are we nearly there yet? Of course we are. In his room, after all the doctors have appeared and disappeared, after his father has appeared—but such a detached presence Paul wonders ‘whether that had been his father in the room, or only a tall shadow on the wall’—and after Polly Toodles has come and gone… we get this: ‘How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it’s very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!’ … ‘Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank?—He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck. “Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!” / The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death! / Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!’

Those dozen or so lines, coming at the very end of the fifth instalment, are the perfect culmination of a metaphor that began a very, very long time back. And every single detail in them has a meaning we completely understand. OK, while I consider it quite brilliant I don’t find it heart-rending. Maybe that’s just me—but I doubt that this death featured as regularly in Dickens’s public readings as did that of Little Nell.

I’d better sprint through the rest of this instalment, and the next. As Dickens has been working out the arc of the metaphor relating to Paul’s end, there are narrative arcs going on. I was speculating about one of them last time, although it was unformed then: the arc which, surely, must involve the working-out of some evil scheme of Carker’s. By the end of the sixth instalment, we know what it is—and that for it to be more certain of success, Carker thinks, Walter needs to be kept a very long way away. The death of Dombey’s son and heir has removed an ‘obstacle’, and a meeting he’s just had with Captain Cuttle has made us realise what he means: as Miss Tox couldn’t help remarking after Paul’s death, ‘To think … ‘that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!’ It’s an impossible concept, obviously, in Dombey’s patriarchal vision. What happens in this world, not that Dombey has ever, ever thought about it, is that daughters get married….

Out of sight of Dombey—or in plain sight, but invisible to Mr Blind-spot—there are already three prospective husbands in the frame. Walter we’ve always known about—and he’s always known that in the real world he has no chance. (This isn’t the real world, of course—but the characters don’t know they’re in a Dickens novel.) The MP father of one of Blimber’s new boys is already making moves on her—he’d been impressed at the soiree—and regularly sends Dombey his compliments. He’s clearly thinking in terms of an advantageous marriage for his family, although his young son has no idea of it and has no interest in her. Now Captain Cuttle has just finished telling Carker, quite wrongly of course, that Walter and she are practically engaged. We can see how Carker’s mind works. One son and heir has, metaphorically speaking, sailed away, and by the end of the sixth he sends another obstacle sailing away. This time it happens literally, on a ship called—wait for it—the Son and Heir. You couldn’t make it up.

I ought to rewind. That middle chapter of the fifth instalment, the one that takes place on the day when Paul is at death’s door, is focused on Walter and the Captain. Walter wants him to ease his uncle’s mind about the upcoming posting to Barbados and, after a lot of thought, the Captain agrees. Uh-oh. The big joke—and Dickens makes a very, very big thing of his big joke—is that the more thought Ned Cuttle gives to anything, the less sensible his conclusions always are. He pretends to Walter he’s going to see Sol, but really he goes to see Dombey instead. How we laugh. He’s sure that a word from him, man to man with the gent he got on so well with in Brighton, will seal Walter’s future forever. He’ll rocket up the ladder and, well, he and Florence have known each other for years, and who knows… etc. Luckily, the household is upside-down with Paul’s final crisis. Unluckily, it will take more than that to thwart Ned Cuttle.

It goes on into the sixth instalment, with Dickens not only showing us how obtuse the Captain is, but spelling it out for us. How does it go? ‘Captain Cuttle, in the exercise of that surprising talent for deep-laid and unfathomable scheming, with which (as is not unusual in men of transparent simplicity) he sincerely believed himself to be endowed by nature, had gone to Mr Dombey’s house on the eventful Sunday.’ Thanks, Dickens, got it. And, worse, when it’s clear that Dombey is going to be impossible to see after Paul’s death, he decides to see Carker. Enough said—except it gives Dickens the opportunity to make as big a thing of Carker’s deviousness as he’s made of the Captain’s born-yesterday naivety. We’re already used to Dickens always comparing him to a cat, but in this chapter he surpasses himself. ‘A cat, or a monkey, or a hyena, or a death’s-head, could not have shown the Captain more teeth at one time, than Mr Carker showed him at this period of their interview.’ OK, Dickens, got it again.

And what of Florence? For three instalments she’s been the golden beacon in Paul’s life, and hasn’t had much life of her own as a properly rounded character. But with Paul out of the way, Dickens can turn the focus back on to her, as it was in the very earliest chapters. And Dombey can revert, totally and utterly, to the uncaring block of wood he was when the little girl tried to comfort him after her mother’s death. He thought he didn’t need comforting then, because he had his boy—except thought had nothing to do with it. Dickens doesn’t take great pains to make Dombey’s response to his daughter, either then or now, explicable or plausible. It’s simply a given and, at one level, perfectly truthful. To the arch patriarch, she has no function, and it occurs to neither him nor his equally obtuse sister that there might be other things to bear in mind. Miss Tox can see, the self-serving MP can see, Carker can see… and Dombey’s blindness to the ways of the world, with no help from his stupid sister, is bound to make him suffer.

This isn’t all, of course. Again as in those early chapters, Dombey’s grotesque insensitivity towards Florence after the death of the brother she doted on as much as he did, is bound to consign him eventually to some kind of purgatory. And, given the way he behaves now and the moral structures Dickens is working within for the purposes of this novel, he will deserve everything he gets. The only question will be whether he’ll come out of it on the other side…. I’m sure he will, not only because Florence loves him in spite of everything—her capacity for perfectly unconditional love is as unaccountable as Dombey’s for Arctic coldness—but because her eventual happy ending will depend on some sort of reconciliation. Somehow, with Walter as the active, cheerful male equivalent—we see his solicitousness and tact towards Sol in the final chapter—they will be one lovely family.

But for now, the only thing left for Dickens to tie up is some sort of bond between Florence, Walter and Sol. She has the run of the Dombey house now—Dombey has left the company, temporarily, in the hands of his capable manager while he goes off to the country to recover—and Susan Nipper is happy to bring her to see them both at the shop the night before Walter leaves. It’s all lovely, and Dickens provides Walter with the link to her he had just been speaking wistfully of to his uncle. She thinks of Walter as a brother—which will do for now—and will come to visit Sol often. So Sol will be able to pass on everything she tells him about herself, which is exactly what Walter had dreamed of…. It’s an easy way for a novelist to set up a line of communication that might one day prove crucial. Florence isn’t fourteen yet, but she might be much older by the next instalment, and Carker will make his move whenever he can find a way to pretend he’s doing something else entirely.

15 July
VII and VIII—Chapters 20-25
These instalments are almost relentlessly dark. The seventh opens with ‘Mr Dombey goes upon a Journey,’ which is to Leamington Spa… except it isn’t only to there. His progress down the railway line, past impoverished settlements made bleaker by his own depressed spirits, becomes a metaphor. Consecutive paragraphs, four in all, conclude on the same note: ‘Death!’ His travelling-partner, the ever more appalling Bagstock, is keeping quiet for now, not trying to compete with the noise of the train. Otherwise, both before the journey and after, nothing wholesome is coming from his direction. In Leamington itself is a different vision of mortality, an ancient ‘Cleopatra’ presenting a withered caricature of her former beauty. And finally there’s almost a whole chapter featuring the self-serving calculations and manipulations of Carker the manager. By the end of it, he’s installed a spy inside old Sol’s premises, a boy he’s terrified so thoroughly we can be certain he’ll do everything he’s told. Especially, he’ll report on the comings and goings of a certain young lady that Carker has an interest in…

…and Florence’s desperate loneliness is at the centre of the next instalment. What’s the title of its opening chapter? ‘Florence solitary….’ It’s an extension of the chapter near the end of the sixth instalment, when Dombey is still in the house but continuing to ignore all her approaches to him. Now, with him gone, she haunts the place, as unloved as the house itself. As before—I didn’t mention it then—her desperation is made worse by her view of the family of daughters across the street, and the father, home from work, who returns all the love they give him. There’s a return to that same theme in the next chapter—tell you later—when there’s also a return of Carker. He must have made use of information received, because he meets her on the road near where she’s gone to stay for a short time.(It’s with Sir Barnet Skettles, the MP we met at Blimber’s who’s trying to make his bored son take an interest in Florence. Obviously, the connection would transform his own career.

The one good thing to come out of it is the best joke in the novel so far, even if it is as dark as everything else that’s going on. Florence, who has never met Carker before, is appalled by everything about him, from the moment he greets them in his worst feline manner until the moment he rides off. ‘Florence was seized with such a shudder as he went, that Sir Barnet, adopting the popular superstition, supposed somebody was passing over her grave. Mr Carker turning a corner, on the instant, looked back, and bowed, and disappeared, as if he rode off to the churchyard straight, to do it.’

But the instalment doesn’t end there. Before leaving London, Florence had visited Sol Gills—there’s a lot of comic business to do with Captain Cuttle and his wise friend Bunsby, who seems to be the victim of brain damage presented as a comic sideshow…. But the real darkness in this thread is to do with the Son and Heir, Walter’s ship. It hasn’t been heard of for so long it’s causing serious concern. Sol is beside himself with worry. Always very private, his behaviour nevertheless causes the Captain enough concern to want to call on him next day—but he’s too late. A letter and package are delivered by Carker’s spy, now resident at Sol’s. He’s a good sort really, the Toodles’ son Biler, now known as Rob. He’s the one that Dombey sent to the appalling school, since when he had been mixing in the wrong company until Carker’s intervention. The letter he delivers is Sol’s will, and the package contains the keys to the shop. Sol has disappeared.

You can see what I mean by dark, and the relentlessness of it all. Alongside the tawdry venality of major characters like Carker and minor ones like Sir Barnet, there’s the almost total lack of love in Florence’s life. I’ve mentioned the only joke that made me laugh out loud, and there’s also one tiny comic scene. It has occurred to the hapless Toots that if ever he is to be anybody’s suitor, as he knows is expected of young men about town, then he could do a lot worse than turn his attention towards Florence. His first attempt—beyond his habit of hastily leaving his card having ascertained that Florence is at home—ends in humiliation. Diogenes, the dog Toots himself had brought from Blimber’s to be a comfort to the ailing Paul Dombey, fastens his teeth on Toots’s leg as he kisses Susan Nipper as a kind of wrong-headed preamble. The animal had mistaken her helpless laughter for distress. Not laugh-out-loud, but a tiny moment of relief.

I don’t know if it was fairy-tales that gave Toots the idea of being a suitor, but it would fit in with Dickens’s presentation of Florence. He likens her situation to that of Sleeping Beauty—he uses the two-month gap since the instalment in which we last read of her attempts to make her father notice her to make it feel as though she’s been alone in the gloomy, uncared-for house for a very long time indeed. ‘The spell upon it was more wasting than the spell that used to set enchanted houses sleeping once upon a time, but left their waking freshness unimpaired.’ It would fit in with other fairytale ideas. The hag who kidnapped Florence—and Dickens reminds us about her in these chapters, as Florence envies how the old woman had described how she loved her daughter. At the time, the young Walter had imagined himself as the dragon-killing hero, and the Captain has imagined a Whittingtonian future for him ever since. And…

…and what about Dombey, worse than any evil fairytale step-parent because he behaves as though his daughter is nothing to him? If we had imagined that his attitude to Florence couldn’t get any worse, we were wrong. Embedded in the dark thoughts he has on that ‘Death’-driven journey comes the darkest of all. Whilst many a father might question why he himself couldn’t have died in place of his poor boy, that isn’t how Dombey’s mind works at all. ‘It was a trouble to him to think of … Florence. … the feeling it awakened in him—’ is… Guess. ‘Why was the object of his hope removed instead of her?’

My God. This isn’t only bad because we realise the moral depths that Dombey has sunk to. In the chapter before, we have been seeing how Florence constantly blames herself for her father’s indifference, and imagines that maybe one day she will know how to let him understand how she loves him. It becomes a thread running through both instalments, beginning when she tries to learn from those girls in the house opposite how they achieve such a loving response from their father. Later, when staying with Sir Barnet and his indifferent son, she does the same with another loving family she sees on their walks.

It doesn’t stop there, because Dickens keeps adding to her agony. She overhears an orphaned girl talking to her aunt, who is as loving as a mother to her. That would be bad enough, but the woman is trying to answer her niece’s questions about what is so wrong with Florence’s father that he never comes to see her. ‘Is he ill, Aunt?’ Florence does not reach the obvious conclusion, but the flowers she has picked have gradually fallen unloved to the ground as she has listened. Then she speaks to a loving father, rendered almost unemployable by his need to care for his terribly ill child (who shows only resentful ingratitude in response), and still she can’t make herself see the truth. She believes that she has left it too late, deciding that perhaps it was her own mother’s early death that meant she never learnt how to make her father love her. Memories of her mother make her imagine both her and Paul, together somewhere, and she envies them. It leads her to one last desperate fantasy: if she were dying, perhaps then he would show her the same love for her that she feels for him. As if.

Enough of Florence for now. Enough of Carker, too? Beyond the fact that he’s so totally ruthless that Dickens sometimes presents his actions as though performed by his grinning teeth alone? Possibly… Except a couple of things. There are people who are taken in by him, and there are people who aren’t. Sir Barnet finds him engaging while Florence squirms but, much more telling, is how there seems to be a bond of obtuseness between Dombey and Captain Cuttle. Dombey is no more perceptive of human nature than the Captain—and not only in the way Carker takes them both in. They are both taken in by other people too, the Captain in a comically trusting way by the almost brain-dead Bunsby, and Dombey more seriously by the self-serving self-propagandist Bagstock. The Major is mutating, in that way Dickens’s comic grotesques often do, into a dark presence, a sinister influence on the impressionable Dombey. And if we needed any hints about his moral calibre, his treatment of his dark-skinned manservant has worsened noticeably in these chapters. It was never funny, although Dickens always presents it as though it is, and now it’s frankly cruel.

It’s through Bagstock that Dickens is able to manoeuvre Dombey effortlessly to the next plot complication. I’ve mentioned the ‘Cleopatra’ that Bagstock introduces him to at Leamington. She reclines in her carriage-like wheelchair, for no good reason beyond the flattering way she imagines it presents her to the admiring glances of the world. There is nothing natural about her, from her hair and the colour in her cheeks to her coquettish manner. As a woman in her seventies she dresses, somehow inevitably, in fashions that would suit a woman in her twenties. But there’s also a new love interest, the woman’s widowed daughter Edith, a bored beauty of 30 whom Dombey finds fascinating. She appears to hold her own beauty and accomplishments in very low regard, but nonetheless seems aloof to the point of arctic coldness. Is she as calculating as everybody else who has dealings with Dombey?  It’s hard to be sure yet, but whatever her motives, Dombey is very interested, stands by her as she plays the harp for them—at his request—and admires her drawing skills. She passes it all off as trifling and, of course, Dombey is charmed by her modesty. Oh dear.

I wouldn’t put it past the Major to have engineered this meeting, although I can’t see what’s in it for him… except, now I think about it, he’s been warning Dombey off Miss Tox—because, we know, he is interested in her for himself. It’s like taking candy from a baby—a few well-chosen criticisms of Miss Tox from Bagstock while they’re still in London, and Dombey is glancing at her window with distaste. As far as the plot is concerned, of course, it will be interesting to see what Carker will do about this threat to his dynastic ambitions if Dombey decides to take things further with Edith. The possibility of another son and heir would be a worry….

20 July
IX and X—Chapters 26-31
Worse and worse in the ninth instalment—although Edith the ice-cold beauty turns out not to be calculating after all, which leads to the only tiny hopeful sign in either instalment. What we had been witnessing before is her utter disgust—because her mother has spent years trying to marry her off, for the second time. All pretence dropped (along with her mother’s carefully composed carapace of clothes, wigs and pancake makeup—she’s Mrs Skewton now, no longer Cleopatra) we hear the sorry tale of the ten years since Edith was widowed. Her new husband was dead before he came into his inheritance, not that there was any love lost for Edith. But ever since, her mother has been parading her around from spa to fashionable resort in order to find another right match. It’s Edith reminding her mother of this—Dickens has her speak the word ‘Mother’ with a kind of sarcastic emphasis—as the inevitable has been unfolding: Dombey has made his appointment to seal the marriage deal the very next day. She’s managed to freeze out all previous suitors with her own carapace, one of impenetrable hauteur, but Dombey is taken with it. The day before the wedding, he’s looking forward to the way she will soon be terrifying every visitor with a proud frigidity to match his own. As for the sign of hope… I’ll come to that.

There’s none of it in the first two chapters, ‘Shadows of the Past and Future’ and ‘Deeper Shadows.’ They take place in Leamington, and become a dance of deception and lies performed for Dombey’s benefit. Or whatever the opposite of benefit might be. We don’t understand at first—at least, I didn’t—that when Edith performs whatever is asked of her without the merest flicker of enthusiasm, she is simply trying not to play their game. When we overhear that conversation with her mother later, we realise that she must have been trying to alienate Dombey—and we have to assume that it has worked with all the others, because she is so mortified that it has ended in failure this time. His complete inability to read human behaviour means he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get anything, because his complacency is unshakeable. Everybody with them in Leamington—Bagstock, Carker, Mrs Skewton—plies him with flattery of such bare-faced hyperbole that the reader can only marvel at their cheek. And he soaks it all up as no more than his due. Edith, equally bare-faced, has picked the wrong man. Her parody of submissiveness—she’ll play only what he specifically asks for, sketches only from the viewpoint he chooses—is precisely what he expects of a prospective wife. Oh dear.

But those other three. Bagstock has the simplest needs and, therefore, does least harm. He’s a clownish version of the other two—grotesque, but still clownish—saying whatever he needs to say in order to live well off Dombey and bask in reflected glory. We see how outclassed he is by Carker when they first meet. Bagstock tries to impress Carker with the same nonsense that Dombey laps up: ‘“He strengthens and invigorates a man, Sir, does Dombey, in his moral nature.” / Mr Carker snapped at the expression. In his moral nature. Exactly. The very words he had been on the point of suggesting. / “But when my friend Dombey, Sir … talks to you of Major Bagstock, I must crave leave to set him and you right. He means plain Joe, Sir—Joey B.—Josh. Bagstock—Joseph—rough and tough Old J., Sir. At your service.” / Mr Carker’s excessively friendly inclinations towards the Major, and Mr Carker’s admiration of his roughness, toughness, and plainness, gleamed out of every tooth in Mr Carker’s head.’

We know all about the real Carker, of course, the hideous way he reveals his true nature when it suits, and the ‘webs’ he weaves around innocent people. (Dickens has used the word at least twice now.) Dickens doesn’t need to tell us how Carker sees right through the simple nonsense because, well, who wouldn’t? But by not spelling out what thoughts he is having behind the teeth, Dickens is flattering us. Carker is clever but, Dickens implies, so are we. It’s obvious enough, and authors had been doing it for a long time before Dickens came along, but… in this novel there’s another layer too. Any character who sees through the hypocrites gains our trust—or, as with Florence when she first met Carker, has our trust and affection confirmed. The only one to see through Carker in Leamington is Edith—but why, we wonder, does his frank scrutiny of her make her so uneasy? It’s only later that we get it: he sees that she’s putting on a public show as easily as she sees that he’s doing the same. He’s not the kind of man you’d want to have sticking his nose into your affairs. Or his teeth.

Otherwise, what we see these games-players doing in Leamington, and in the silly excursion to Warwick Castle that nobody is interested in, is trying to outmanoeuvre one another. The first encounter between Bagstock and Carker is just an opener, to establish that Carker is in a league of his own. And that Bagstock doesn’t get it—he is highly impressed by Carker’s show of constant self-abasement in Dombey’s presence. The rest of this chapter and the next contains other conversations in which almost nothing can be taken at face value. The banter between the Major and Mrs Skewton in Cleopatra mode is a grotesque pastiche of Regency gallantry and coquetry—but at least they both understand the rules…. The effect, in its cringeworthy way, is comical. But, meanwhile…

…Carker’s toothy hypocrisies aren’t comical at all because, in stark contrast with the clowns, he’s clever, and very dangerous. He knows he can drop some terrible things into conversations with Dombey, because he can precisely gauge what is acceptable to his boss. (When he had repeated Bagstock’s phrase about Dombey’s ‘moral nature,’ we can imagine the glee: he knows the limits of that nature perfectly.) Dombey, in an earlier instalment, had been expressing some regret that Walter had been sent away. He comes back to the idea after Carker confirms that the ship is almost certainly lost. ‘“I wish … he had never gone on board that ship. I wish he had never been sent out.” / “It is a pity you didn’t say so, in good time, is it not?’ retorted Carker, coolly.’ This is bad enough, but what comes next is straightforwardly vicious: ‘However, I think it’s all for the best. I really, think it’s all for the best.’

He’s talking about the loss of a ship and all its crew here, and we might expect even Dombey to make some objection. But in Carker we’re seeing a master at work. He focuses right in on two of Dombey’s weaknesses, his snobbery and his vanity. And we realise he belongs in the same line of lying villains as Iago, and Blifil in Fielding’s Tom Jones. Like them, he pretends that certain unpleasant truths are very difficult to tell. In Carker’s case, he doesn’t need to drip the poison into Dombey’s ear about Walter. He is so discreet, Dombey thinks he knows exactly what he isn’t saying. Carker has told the straightforward lie that he is in Florence’s confidence, and—how does it go?—he, ‘with his eyelids slightly raised, affected to be glancing at his figures, and to await the leisure of his principal. He showed that he affected this, as if from great delicacy, and with a design to spare Mr Dombey’s feelings; and the latter, as he looked at him, was cognizant of his intended consideration, and felt that but for it, this confidential Carker would have said a great deal more, which he, Mr Dombey, was too proud to ask for.’ Job done. Dombey has worked out for himself that Walter is a cynical opportunist and, as Carker has suggested, his disappearance is for the best.

There’s another outcome: ‘angry thoughts in reference to poor Florence brooded and bred in Mr Dombey’s breast, usurping the place of the cold dislike that generally reigned there.’ Not good. And, meanwhile, what of Carker’s designs on her? He makes no attempt to stop Dombey’s marriage to Edith, which takes place at the end of the tenth instalment. Long before this, it’s clear that his predatory moves on Florence, if they ever had anything to do with his ambitions in the company, are now more repulsively straightforward. Of course, it would still be good to have a connection to the company through marriage, but he knows that if there’s another son, Florence would get no share of it. It’s becoming clear that what he’s mainly interested in now with respect to her—to put it as delicately as I can—is getting her into his bed…

…because meanwhile, business can take care of itself. We can gauge this in that same conversation in Leamington, when Dickens makes it explicit that Carker’s ‘delicacy’ isn’t confined to personal matters: ‘It was his way in business, often.’ In other words, Carker can wind Dombey round his little finger in business too—and we’ve been hearing Bagstock telling everybody he knows that Carker is the one who really runs the office. We don’t know how he’s going to do it, but we can have little doubt that Carker is manoeuvring himself into getting a pretty big slice of the company cake. Florence will just be the icing on it.

There’s another superb set-piece scene before we leave Leamington. It’s the one in which we find out about Edith’s disgust, both with her mother and with herself, because of how she was groomed from the start to be offered for sale: ‘when was I a child? What childhood did you ever leave to me? I was a woman—artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men—before I knew myself, or you, or even understood the base and wretched aim of every new display I learnt. You gave birth to a woman. Look upon her. She is in her pride tonight.’ Edith isn’t speaking to Cleopatra now, because her mother’s daytime persona has been taken away only moments before this. Dickens revels in describing her maid at work: ‘her touch was as the touch of Death. The painted object shrivelled underneath her hand; the form collapsed, the hair dropped off, the arched dark eyebrows changed to scanty tufts of grey; the pale lips shrunk, the skin became cadaverous and loose; an old, worn, yellow, nodding woman, with red eyes, alone remained in Cleopatra’s place, huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown.’ Cruel, but we’re OK with it because she obviously deserves it.

The final chapter of the ninth instalment is about Florence. She has been receiving attentions from two men at Sir Barnet’s riverside home, the innocently sincere (and inept) Toots, and guess who—the opposite in every way—who has found reason to visit three times. Carker had briefly encountered Toots after the misunderstanding with Diogenes ages ago, and now the contrast couldn’t be more stark. Carker works alone, of course, as functioning sociopaths always do, whereas Toots has enlisted the help of the Game Chicken, boxer turned toff-minder. It’s all ridiculous, obviously. When, eventually, it’s time for her to go home—to the chagrin of Sir Barnet, whose son is as uninterested as ever—she and Susan Nipper can’t see the house at first. They’re astonished by the way it’s been rendered unrecognisable by scaffolding and all the renovations that are taking place. Indoors, Dombey is as thrilled by Florence’s arrival as you would expect—and the bride-to-be Florence knew nothing of, visiting with her mother, notices his coldness and her anxiety.

And it’s through Edith that we get that first sign of hope. The others move to a different room, and… and what? Florence’s new mother-to-be—she immediately calls her Mama—is everything a lonely and emotionally starved girl could wish for. OK, she isn’t her real mother back from the dead—Dickens is explicit about this, and about how Florence’s heart can accommodate them both—but my goodness. When Dombey calls for the woman always referred to as ‘the beautiful lady,’ she ‘released her hold of Florence, and pressing her lips once more upon her face, withdrew hurriedly, and joined them. Florence remained standing in the same place: happy, sorry, joyful, and in tears, she knew not how, or how long, but all at once: when her new Mama came back, and took her in her arms again.’

Is it too good to be true? No it isn’t, not if the next instalment is anything to go by. There’s a long way to go, of course, before any happy endings—with this tenth instalment we’ve only reached the half-way point—and, surely, it isn’t going to be a stepmother who will rescue the princess from the ‘enchanted,’ sequestered life she returns to at the end of the instalment. But, here and now, we see Edith fighting for Florence all the way. Before the wedding, which takes place in the final chapter, she has promised her that she can have her brother’s old room—we haven’t heard Dombey’s opinion of that decision yet—and, at much more cost to herself, she has vetoed a plan of her mother’s. Cleopatra has magnanimously invited Florence to stay at the house she’s borrowing from her preposterous Cousin Feenix, and has put it about that she would like her to stay after Edith’s departure following the wedding. Edith will have none of it.

It’s another set piece to match the one in Leamington, and Edith has enough bargaining chips for her to win the argument. This time it isn’t about her own lost life, it’s about what her mother would do to Florence if she got her hands on her. When Mrs Skewton begins to ‘whine’ about her daughter’s lack of love for her—she’s never Cleopatra when these two are alone—Edith is implacable. ‘She is so much to me, that rather than communicate, or suffer to be communicated to her, one grain of the evil that is in my breast, mother, I would renounce you, as I would (if you gave me cause) renounce him in the church to-morrow. … Leave her alone. She shall not, while I can interpose, be tampered with and tainted by the lessons I have learned. This is no hard condition on this bitter night.’ Her mother has already admitted defeat: ‘Let her go.’

Edith’s departing words are bitter. ‘Take your own way, mother; share as you please in what you have gained; spend, enjoy, make much of it; and be as happy as you will. … I forgive you your part in to-morrow’s wickedness. May God forgive my own!’ Perhaps God will forgive, but she can’t forgive herself. She spends a sleepless night, only gaining a crumb of comfort in Florence’s room. Tearless until then, she isn’t for much longer: ‘she pressed her lips to the gentle hand that lay outside the bed, and put it softly to her neck. Its touch was like the prophet’s rod of old upon the rock. Her tears sprung forth beneath it, as she sunk upon her knees, and laid her aching head and streaming hair upon the pillow by its side.’

The chapters before and after this one are social satire at its most bitter. Dickens wants us to know what Edith knows about the society she is marrying into, and he starts in Chapter 29, ‘The Opening of the Eyes of Mrs Chick.’ This is a deeply ironic title, because what the chapter is really about is how Dombey’s loving sister goes about dropping her good friend Miss Tox from her social circle. She pretends that this truth only occurs to her as she talks to her husband afterwards: ‘“with Lucretia Tox I have done. It is better as it is,” said Mrs Chick, piously; “much better. … I really don’t know, as Paul is going to be very grand, and these are people of condition, that she would have been quite presentable, and might not have compromised myself. There’s a providence in everything; everything works for the best.”’

Providence, of course, has nothing to do with it. She has spoken of Miss Tox’s ‘deceit,’ that she had accidentally revealed her ambition to marry Dombey through her tearful reception of the news of his wedding plans. Mr Chick might remind her of the truth if he likes—‘you had gone on the same tack yourself, all along, until this morning; and had thought it would be a convenient thing enough, if it could have been brought about’—but she isn’t having any of this. ‘Mrs Chick instantly burst into tears, and told Mr Chick that if he wished to trample upon her with his boots, he had better do it.’ She has a story that works for her, and she’s sticking to it. But you’ve got to love Mr Chick.

Fast-forward past the events in Cousin Feenix’s house—including Florence’s growing trust in Edith—to the wedding-day. What it’s all about, of course, is show. Cleopatra is more grotesque than ever, having decided on a gown recommended for one of the youngest women there. Dombey is dressed like a dandy, his hair curled in the same manner as Cousin Feenix and the Major. Florence, finally, has been encouraged to cast off her mourning dress, and Edith…. We don’t hear a lot about her. But, in the church, something catches her eye. ‘The sun is shining down, upon the golden letters of the ten commandments. Why does the Bride’s eye read them, one by one? Which one of all the ten appears the plainest to her in the glare of light? False Gods; murder; theft; the honour that she owes her mother;—which is it that appears to leave the wall, and printing itself in glowing letters, on her book!’ Well, if we don’t know, contemporary readers would—of those he hasn’t mentioned, the one about adultery is the obvious one. And I’m thinking, Dickens is going to make her pay for this. He tends not to let female sexual victims get away scot-free.

The rest of it is either preposterous—Toots’s bird’s-eye-view of Florence from the gallery, Cousin Feenix’s speech, the hired servants’ own version of the celebrations upstairs—or mercenary—the beadle and pew-opener’s counting of their takings—or cynical. It ends with the same sun rising on another day, and guess what: ‘again this man taketh this woman, and this woman taketh this man, on the solemn terms: “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do them part.” / The very words that Mr Carker rides into town repeating, with his mouth stretched to the utmost, as he picks his dainty way.’ Never far from the action, Carker.

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