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 two instalments.]

1 July 2015
I and II – Chapters 1-7
In some ways, 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 five-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 steely 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.