[This is a journal in ten sections, each covering two of the twenty original instalments. I read two instalments at a time, writing about them before reading on.]
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 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.
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.
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….
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.
26 August 2019
XI and XII – Chapters 32-37
Never far from the action? When I wrote that about Carker I didn’t know the half of it. Somehow, I think I still don’t. I’d assumed him to be a forerunner of Uriah Heep, ‘building up a power-base of his own’ as I wrote a long time back. But things have moved on from then. Or, rather, he was always doing far more than just that, even though we still don’t know the exact nature either of what he’s done or what he still plans to do. He’s becoming a different kind of character altogether. Up to now, Dickens has been working within a moral framework based on a conventional version of Christianity. But what’s happening in these chapters is starting to look like a full-blown confrontation between good and evil. He’s always made free use of the words ‘angel’ and ‘angelic,’ often when describing Florence and her brother. But now the dark side is being foregrounded, and its main acolyte is Carker.
Meanwhile, other characters are confirmed as being either on the side of the angels, or not. The first encounter we have with this more overtly evil Carker is in the first chapter here, and it’s one of the angels who suffers it. The chapter, a long one, is focused on Captain Cuttle and his reaction to the confirmation that Walter’s ship was lost at sea. Despite the chapter title—‘The Wooden Midshipman goes to Pieces’—the tone, at least to begin with, is insistently comic. The brave captain’s mortal fear of Mrs McStinger, his former landlady, is as tiresome as ever—I’ve never been able to enjoy the Captain and his funny old ways—but then, by way of Toots, comes the bad news. Dickens has manoeuvred things so that two clowns share the most distressing episode in the book so far…
…and Reader, it really is moving. What makes it so is love, the key theme in the novel from Chapter 1 onwards. Toots, not having connected the Captain with Walter despite Susan Nipper having told him, is mortified by the effect his news of the loss of the Son and Heir has on him. Toots is there because he knows Florence somehow knew Walter—and the Captain explains that she and Walter ‘were made for one another’ since childhood. Really, of course, this is no more than a cherished fantasy of his (even though, undoubtedly, they really will magically come together before the end). but Toots doesn’t know that. And, astonishingly, he responds with what only the most heroic of romantic lovers would ever say: ‘I’m even more sorry than I was before. You know … I—I positively adore Miss Dombey;—I—I am perfectly sore with loving her; but what would be the good of my regarding her in this manner, if I wasn’t truly sorry for her feeling pain, whatever was the cause of it. Mine ain’t a selfish affection, you know.’
Somehow, these two silly men aren’t silly any more. Before this selfless declaration, we had the Captain’s spontaneous eulogy for ‘Wal’r’. ‘Because it ain’t one loss, but a round dozen. Where’s that there young school-boy with the rosy face and curly hair, that used to be as merry in this here parlour, come round every week, as a piece of music? Gone down with Wal’r. Where’s that there fresh lad, that nothing couldn’t tire nor put out…?’ And so on, in a beautifully formed poetical conceit. For this chapter at least, these two men are the true representatives of all that is loving and good. Which is when the Captain decides to check, with a man he thinks he can trust, the veracity of the bad news. He visits Carker’s office…
…and is appalled by the creature he finds. So are we, because the veneer of friendliness is gone. Carker doesn’t need to string along this sentimental fool any longer, and he starts off with a kind of brusque jauntiness. The newspaper account ‘was accurately stated. The underwriters suffer a considerable loss. We are very sorry. No help! Such is life!’ Then, as he pares his fingernails with a penknife, he makes a big thing of how, unlike many on board, it’s ‘A comfort to reflect that poor Gay had no family, Captain Cuttle!’ The Captain is staring at him, bewildered, and remonstrates with him. Carker mocks his distress—‘Fie, Captain! Sleep, and soda-water, are the best cures for such uneasiness as that’—and the Captain starts to understand something. ‘“My lad,” returned the Captain, slowly, “if you find any pleasure in this here sport, you ain’t the gentleman I took you for.”’
Slowly, without realising it, he begins to piece something together. Walter knew the placement in Barbados was no great honour, and… what? The Captain draws no conclusions, and turns any criticism on himself: ‘if I have chafed again any observation of yours … I ask your pardon.’ Carker is pretending nothing now, and begs a favour of him: ‘To have the goodness to walk off, if you please, and to carry your jargon somewhere else.’ My goodness. ‘Every knob in the Captain’s face turned white with astonishment and indignation…’ and it only gets worse. ‘You hatch nice little plots, and hold nice little councils, and make nice little appointments, and receive nice little visitors, too, Captain, hey?’ It doesn’t matter at all whether Carker believes it—he has a case. But we don’t know until the end of the next instalment his real motive for fabricating it.
Fast forward to that point, beyond the miserable flop of the Dombeys’ celebratory dinner-party. Even Dombey can see that the icy hauteur he admires in Edith is not appropriate among respected business guests, and he tells her so. ‘“I beg to tell you, for your information, Mrs Dombey, that I consider these wealthy and important persons confer a distinction upon me:” and Mr Dombey drew himself up, as having now rendered them of the highest possible importance.’ He has insisted that Carker remain in the room—he is as much a part of Dombey and Son as Dombey himself, so it strikes him as perfectly appropriate that he should be there to hear all this. Carker, more familiar with society’s rules, makes a pantomime of mortification… and loves the power it gives him over Edith.
How much power becomes clear in the next chapter. He calls on her ‘on business’—Florence meets him as she leaves, and he can’t hide ‘a secret sense of power in her shrinking from him.’ Edith is more or less forced to see him… and he’s got her. As ever, she wonders what it is about him that convinces her ‘that every degradation she had suffered in her own eyes was as plain to him as to herself; that he read her life as though it were a vile book.’ We might wonder what kind of sinister creature would be reading the book of her life, but whatever he’s turning into, every moment of the meeting is torture for her. And the ‘business’ makes it worse. He is frank about Dombey’s neglect of Florence, pretending that it has made her careless and prone to fall into low company. He means the Captain, Sol Gills—‘a runaway bankrupt’—and Walter, of course. We know that whilst Edith knows the truth—‘I have heard the circumstances, Sir … and I know that you pervert them’—Dombey will be pleased to believe it. (We have recently seen how a brief moment when a reconciliation seemed possible ends in his irritation at Edith’s open and loving manner when she is alone with Florence, when all he gets from her is frank disdain.)
Carker’s scheme becomes clear. He knows, to Edith’s mortification, that she cares deeply for Florence. If she wishes, he will withhold his so-called proofs against the girl which, he says, ‘would be conclusive with Mr Dombey, already predisposed against her, and would lead him to take some step (I know he has occasionally contemplated it) of separation and alienation of her from his home.’ Carker is making it up about Dombey wanting to rid himself of his daughter, but Edith doesn’t know this. He drops dark hints about the circumstances of the courtship in Leamington, confirming to her that he knows all about her true feelings. She has no choice but to promise that she, and she alone, will be responsible for keeping the supposed conspiracy a secret from Dombey. And, after he has left, a servant is ‘amazed at the beauty of his teeth, and at his brilliant smile.’ Outside, ‘the people took him for a dentist, such was the dazzling show he made.’
Enough of Carker for now? Except, very cleverly, Dickens makes his malign influence felt in every chapter. To rewind to ‘Contrasts’, the chapter that comes after the poor Captain’s interview with him. First we get a look at him in his too showy little house, with something about it ‘as false as the face of the too truly painted portrait hanging yonder, or its original at breakfast in his easy chair.’ There’s a ‘gaudy parrot’ swinging on a hoop ‘like a wedding ring’ in its cage, and portrait Carker has bought of a proud woman with an extraordinary (but accidental, we are assured) resemblance to Edith. He looks at it and offers it ‘a wave of triumph.’ OK.
And then we’re inside his brother’s house, meeting their sister Harriet for the first time. So the first contrast is between the villain and the reformed man. This is a good house, to be compared to the evil, and both its occupants are clearly on the angels’ side—in fact, when she left their brother’s house, he lost the ‘solitary angel’ in his life. The link between Harriet and John is so close that when he mentions going to work via Walter’s house, to pay his silent respects, she says she feels his loss as much as he does. I mentioned Dickens’s reliance on an underlying Christian moral structure in this novel, and this scene becomes a critique of how, in the Dombey universe, redemption is not an option. Dickens makes it explicit a few pages later, when Harriet speaks to another new character, a man who’s only visited once before: ‘Oh sir, if you are in any place of power, and are ever wronged, never, for any wrong, inflict a punishment that cannot be recalled; while there is a God above us to work changes in the hearts He made.’
This new character, unnamed, is the first visitor that day, and he’s the first illustration of the kindness of strangers. Harriet doesn’t know him but, for no reason he cares to explain, he wants to help her and her brother. She is absolutely sure he’s sincere, and has no ulterior motive beyond easing the life of a repentant man and his devoted sister. He makes it clear he has no thought of somehow restoring John to the position he ought to hold, but we know he’ll be important later. OK. And then, after the weather has become stormy, a bedraggled and clearly penniless woman passes by. Like Harriet, she was clearly once a beauty—but, unlike Harriet, she has taken some wrong turnings in her life. Harriet offers her some shelter, binds her bleeding feet, and gives her a few coins to help her on her way. She is back from abroad, having served a sentence for some crime, and is heading towards London to find her mother. (Harriet and John’s house is near the southern end of the Great North Road, less busy now following the rise of the railways.) She is very grateful for the small charity, which Harriet regrets could not be more….
We know before having it confirmed in the next chapter—this is a Dickens novel, after all—that her mother will be Old Mrs Brown from that early chapter. And we find out that the old woman, real name Mrs Marwood, had taken full advantage of her young daughter Alice’s beauty in order to make money from it. Dickens doesn’t make it explicit what Alice was forced to do, but he does the next best thing in the final sentences of the chapter: ‘Allowing for great difference of stuff and texture, was the pattern of this woof repeated among gentle blood at all? / Say, Edith Dombey! And Cleopatra, best of mothers, let us have your testimony!’
But this is only one kind of link, to allow Dickens to insist on the moral equivalence of impoverished lives and supposedly great ones. There are much stronger narrative links too—it turns out that the lives of Alice and her mother are inextricably intertwined with those of characters we already know. The old woman says that she knew perfectly well who Florence was when she abducted her. ‘I have hung about a family…. Years ago, my deary, I came across his little child, by chance.’ She has to make it clear that she doesn’t mean the child was ‘his’—we have to guess who she’s talking about—because he has no children. She means Dombey’s child, and Alice clearly knows who Dombey is. There’s a strong suggestion that the court case that ended in Alice’s conviction was connected with Dombey and Son, and the presence of certain ‘gentlemen’ in the courtroom has been mentioned. But…
…and I’ve just reread the relevant section—it isn’t clear how either of the Carker brothers had been involved. We know, because such a big thing is made of it, all the time, that John Carker did something wrong, but escaped the sort of punishment suffered by Alice Marwood. OK—but how was James Carker involved? And is it as clear-cut as he pretends? We know it’s James they hate, because the mother refers to an incident in one of the Leamington chapters, when she cursed him. We didn’t understand the significance of the curse then, but we do now….
And the mother makes it explicit who is who: ‘I know of his brother, Alice, who might have been where you have been—for stealing money—and who lives with his sister, over yonder, by the north road out of London.’ For Alice, the family connection is enough to make her snatch back the money her mother had been quick to take from her, and drag her all the way back to the house. She throws back the money we know was offered in a spirit of genuine charity—and takes back all the grateful things she had said before she knew whose house it was. When she spits out her venom about Harriet and her brother, is she mistaken, and that it’s the other Carker she should blame? That’s what I originally supposed, but now I think it’s simply to do with the family connection. We don’t actually know what the now reformed brother, John, was guilty of. Was it a deliberate crime at all, or was he somehow fooled into it by his scheming brother? And something else. Is there a hint that one of the brothers—I can only believe it was James—was guilty of a terrible betrayal? Is there a breach of promise hidden in there somewhere? It would go some way towards accounting for the passionate loathing Alice shows for every last member of the family.
Whatever. As I said, the narrative comes back to the evil James Carker in every chapter. The final short chapter in the twelfth instalment has Miss Tox rekindling her old acquaintance with Polly and the Toodles family. One of the main sources of the comedy, aside from the antics of the little ones and their doting father, is a quickly resolved argument about Rob’s secret ways. The innocent Mr Toodles had mentioned his hope that Rob had turned his back on such behaviour, it had got back to the boy—and he makes a big thing of how aggrieved he feels to have such a thing even mentioned. The point, of course, is that he is the secret source of all Carker’s trumped-up evidence against Florence. It’s such a hollow little irony it feels almost grubby. Which is exactly how Dickens wants it to feel, I guess.
Enough? For now, whatever I’ve missed out—that gruesome dinner party, for a start—it’s time to read on.
XIII and XIV—Chapters 39-45
This is becoming a quite extraordinary novel. I don’t know what it is about it that I like so much…. Maybe it’s the way that Dickens, sometimes described as a great psychologist, actually invents his own psychologies. His characters behave in ways that feel human, but we’ve never met anybody who’s human in quite these ways. I wonder whether it’s to do with those two elements I’ve already been thinking about, the fairy-tale and the Christian. Fairy tales simply don’t need complex psychologies. It’s far better if characters become set upon a course of action, no questions asked, and the logic of the story takes them wherever they need to go. The wicked witch is a wicked witch, the malevolent imp is a malevolent imp—and true love is true love. Meanwhile the Christian moral structure places far more demands on them—so that their one-dimensionality is subjected to moral and psychological pressures never found in fairy tales. In these instalments Dombey’s monomaniacal pride, Carker’s gleeful cruelty, Florence’s undying capacity for inexplicably unconditional love (among others) lead to a series of brutally forthright set pieces. It’s all remarkable.
Carker, so dominant in the twelfth instalment, recedes in the thirteenth—only to return in the next, in full Prince of Darkness mode. But he’s always somewhere, skulking around behind the scenes. Early on, when Rob hands in his notice to the Captain, the manner of his departure shows how much he has learnt from his boss. Indirectly, he’s learnt from Dombey too, his childhood benefactor. Dickens always calls him Rob the Grinder, to commemorate the school he was sent to all those years ago. All he ever learnt there were underhand ways and the habit of complaining, so that he makes the Captain feel as guilty as possible that he, Rob, is leaving him to fend for himself. We remember his recent snivelling response to his father’s innocent enough hope that he is less secretive than he used to be—and we remember how Carker swore him to secretive ways on pain of something worse than death, a threat he repeats in the next instalment. And it’s no coincidence that as he leaves the shop he behaves so exactly as Carker did on leaving the Dombeys’ that we can’t help but notice. Down the street he goes, ‘grinning triumphantly.’
The rest of the Captain’s chapter moves things on, at the sort of speed we’d expect from anything concerning him. Toots and he become a kind of clownish double-act—Cuttle is always Captain Gills to Toots—but they are both far more considerate of the other’s feelings than we would expect from almost any of the other adults. They are to be ‘acquaintances,’ so long as Toots promises never to mention Florence, Cuttle’s ‘Heart’s Delight’—a stipulation he agrees to, as long as it doesn’t include his not having to think about her…. But there’s serious business too, notably Sol Gills’s sealed will, to be opened a year after his disappearance. Cuttle contacts Bunsby the brain-dead, just back from captaining a voyage. The will is opened, and Bunsby offers his usual sort of advice, impressing the Captain beyond measure. It’s all droll, even when Mrs McStinger arrives unannounced, and the Captain prepares to be taken into her custody. But maybe Bunsby isn’t brain-dead after all—everything’s relative in this story-strand—because he is able to calm her and get her home safely. Lat that night, long after the Captain has given him up for lost, he even manages to return safely to the shop.
That’s enough comedy. The next chapter is at the Dombey house, its no-expense-spared luxury an ever more ironic backdrop for what goes on inside. There’s an extraordinary set piece between Dombey and Edith, in which he seems to step beyond any normal humanity. But, before that, Dickens sets out to portray him, somehow, not as a villain but as a victim of his own pride. What I called monomania Dickens calls his ‘solitary bondage to his one idea,’ which ‘enslaves the breast in which it has its throne.’ Paragraph by paragraph, we are shown how this warped vision of himself in the world mutates. Eventually, it comes back to what has been troubling him for so many years, his mortifying relationship with Florence. It must be her fault, and now this other thing has come up, the embarrassing contrast between Edith’s affection for her and her disdain for him. He allows himself to hate Florence, deciding that she is now a barrier between him and any success he might have in gaining respect from his wife.
It’s an example of that not-quite-human psychology I was mentioning, and it becomes the driver of the next part of the novel, starting with the conversation with Edith. Following her refusal to take any notice of the conversation witnessed by Carker after the failed dinner party, he takes the same line, but more so. From where he’s standing, she has been entirely the gainer in the marriage. She has money—not that Dombey would stoop to thinking twice about the cost of anything—and, far greater than that, she has the undying honour of being connected to him. So far, so Dombey. ‘When had she ever shown him duty and submission?’ Never, obviously… and, as usual, he presses on regardless.
As we know, something has happened to Edith since their previous conversation—Carker making it clear to her what his ‘business’ is about in the previous instalment. So, early in the conversation, she doesn’t look as sure of herself as usual. He interprets it as submission, and he’s quite happy about it, obviously—but ‘he could not know that one word was whispering in the deep recesses of her heart, to keep her quiet; and that the word was Florence.’ So the conversation is skewed, Dombey thinks he’s gaining the upper hand… and it’s disastrous. She understands that they are both morally compromised characters, but he doesn’t. Pressing his supposed advantage, he tells her that she had better toe the line, or she’ll be hearing from him. By way of his ‘confidential agent,’ Carker.
It’s an appalling prospect for Edith, but she’s now strong enough not to give him any satisfaction. Having reminded him of the inexcusable arrogance he shows, both to her and everybody else he meets, she reaches a kind of conclusion. ‘I feel no tenderness towards you; that you know.’ But she is not made of wood like he is, or pretends to be: ‘in the course of time, some friendship, or some fitness for each other, may arise between us. I will try to hope so, if you will make the endeavour too; and I will look forward to a better and a happier use of age than I have made of youth or prime.’ Guess how he responds. ‘I have stated my ultimatum, Madam, and have only to request your very serious attention to it.’ He’s drawn the battle-lines, and she steps up. ‘To see scorn, anger, indignation, and abhorrence starting into sight …! He could not choose but look, although he looked to his dismay.’ Oh dear. But, before the dismal end of the conversation—‘he might as well be ‘an unseen spider on the wall, or beetle on the floor, or … forgotten among the ignominious and dead vermin of the ground’—Edith has given the impression that Dombey might not be beyond the possibility of all redemption. Reader, is she right? Is that tiny sign of something he might have felt for Florence when he first saw her after his return home with Edith—so quickly extinguished, as it transpired—a sign of hope?
Carker had come up in the conversation in relation to the management of Edith’s mother. She’s nearing the end, and is to go to Brighton to be nursed by—guess—Mrs Pipchin. There’s a sort of comedy in her confusion over who Dombey is—he’s Graingeby or Domber by turns—and her undiminished determination to be seen in the most flattering lights. She retains the old pretence of coquetry and charm—but it’s worn so thin now it’s almost distasteful. Bagstock is hanging around, but she’s past pretending that he’s anything other than distasteful to her—‘he says such dreadful words.’ (The only distasteful word he uses, so far as I can tell, is ‘die.’ It’s part of his mock gallantry—he will die if she remains merciless—but perhaps it shows that somehow even she can see the road she’s on. And he’s losing his touch with Dombey, stonily unimpressed by one of Bagstock’s little jokes. I’m wondering if it’s a part of his, Dombey’s painful re-education to become less tied to him. Maybe.)
Only Edith and Florence accompany Mrs Skewton to Brighton—Dombey will make the journey when he’s good and ready—and she pretends she’ll soon be back home. Before the inevitable, which happens in the next chapter, Dickens engineers a set-piece encounter between her, Edith, and the novel’s other problematic mother and daughter. He’s already made a big thing of the similarities an instalment or two ago, and he cements the idea now, when they meet. In her confusion—in fact, driven by an imperative all of Dickens’s own making—Mrs Skewton identifies with th e old woman, sharing with her (and Edith) the idea of mothers unjustly mistreated by their daughters. She gives her money. Meanwhile, in the younger woman, ‘Edith recognised enough that was like herself to strike her with an unusual feeling, not quite free from fear.’ The feeling only grows—’she saw upon her face some traces which she knew were lingering in her own soul … and … she felt a chill creep over her, as if the day were darkening, and the wind were colder.’ We know—don’t we?—that some huge revelation simply has to take place later. And, on cue, Alice mutters a warning as they all part: ‘you’re a proud woman; but pride won’t save us. We had need to know each other when we meet again!’
(And I’ve just realised that this is the second time in this chapter that, in connection with Edith, a character has fast-forwarded to a next time. After her dismissal of him from her ‘luxurious’ room, the one that’s full of all the best jewellery and dresses that money can buy, Dombey carries ‘a vivid picture in his mind of all these things, and a rambling and unaccountable speculation (such as sometimes comes into a man’s head) how they would all look when he saw them next.’ What will have changed at some unknown point in the future? Dickens is almost forcing us to speculate.)
And then, to quote the next chapter’s title, we’re to hear all about the ‘new voices in the waves.’ We know where this is heading even before, three lines in, we’re being reminded of how ‘the white arms beckon, in the moonlight, to the invisible country far away.’ It’s no coincidence that the vision of death that Mrs Skewton keeps seeing is another arm, made of stone, ‘part of a figure of some tomb,’ she thinks. After a vain attempt at a deathbed reconciliation with Edith, it’s soon time. ‘Draw the rose-coloured curtains close!’
Had she ever heard the voices in the waves? Others certainly do, and they hear different things. All the sights and sounds of Brighton bring Paul to Florence’s mind so that, together with a visit to Blimber’s and conversations with Toots—astonished, of course, to have accidentally been visiting Brighton at the same time as Florence—Dickens turns it into a long reminder of the boy’s final days and her undying love for him. Toots attempts to ask Florence if she could care for him, but she stops him and he’s miserable, until the power of ‘hospitality’—a pleasant meal with the young male teacher at Blimber’s—does its work. Toots will never forget her, and she is determined that they remain friends, but he’s had his answer. (It’s offered less tactfully by Susan Nipper three chapters later when he asks her if he has a chance. ‘“Oh dear no!” returned Susan, shaking her head. “I should say, never. Never!”’)
What other voices are in the waves? For the teacher, hoping to marry Blimber’s bookish daughter and take over the running of the school, it’s the (no doubt vain) promise of a bright future. And at the end, Mrs Skewton’s friends, down for the funeral, ‘are deaf to the waves that are hoarse with repetition of their mystery, and blind to the dust that is piled upon the shore.’ Of course they are. But Edith is the last to listen, as she has been all through her mother’s last days. It’s pretty certain that she hears what Paul Dombey heard, but we can’t be sure. What we do know is that in the final line of the instalment she, down by the sea and ‘listening to its waves, has dank weed cast up at her feet, to strew her path in life withal.’ Ah. She’s had the warning from Alice, and now the waves are warning her—not about death, but about her weed-strewn ‘path of life.’
The next instalment has Carker is at the centre of it. As though to remind us what a lowlife Rob the Grinder is, and what a nasty piece of work Carker is, Dickens gives us a sight of Rob’s first day at Carker’s. Rob is still feeling good about the way he put one over on the Captain, but Carker makes him squirm about thinking about a job with him, as though he hadn’t offered it to him. It’s always about control for him, and we see it in the next big set piece. Dombey has come to his house, and Carker has been duly modest about it and fawning towards Dombey—before he starts to wind him round his little finger, again. Sitting opposite that portrait—Dombey had cast a glance at all the pictures, and noticed nothing about this one—he plays on Dombey’s admitted pride, manipulating him into ever more appalling measures to be taken against Edith. From time to time, Carker casts triumphant looks at it, as he forces Dombey to spell it out. Yes, he wants Edith to stop making her big shows of love towards Florence—and yes, it does make it more satisfying that Edith dislikes Carker. Dombey thinks it will bring her to heel. Carker knows it won’t, but clearly has his own agenda concerning her. I’ll come back to that, and the scene that ends the instalment in which he tells Edith how, for Florence’s own sake, she has no choice but to follow the new instruction.
It isn’t the end of the chapter. Dombey has arrived on horseback—I remember being surprised by this, because the only one we’ve ever seen riding before now is Carker—and, as they ride back to the city it becomes clear what Dickens is up to. Dombey is thrown, receives a nasty kick from his horse—but is saved from probable death by Carker’s skilled intervention. He’s skilled at most things, Carker… and he’s very pleased indeed, beneath the canting words of regret, to be the bearer of bad news. Edith, of course, refuses to see him at first, and when he is eventually given permission, Florence is there to hear what has happened. Florence, all fear and concern, asks questions that Carker is pleased to answer, addressing Edith as though she had asked them. It becomes another part of his game. As is his request to take her hand, which she allows, and kissing it. She is so revolted by the touch that as soon as she is alone she injures the hand by punching a marble fireplace. We’re getting physical extremes to match the emotional.
Luckily, in this universe, beautiful women can go through almost unbearable mental torment and sleepless nights with no alteration to their looks. Edith never looks any different, and we have to be satisfied with Dickens’s occasional comment on the way she composes her face as necessary. Meanwhile Florence, on a meagre emotional diet of whatever crumbs Edith can spare her, is blossoming into the kind of beauty which, I’m tempted to say, this variety of Dickens heroine always becomes. Now—at a cost only to her inner being invisible to any outsider—there are new torments. In a chapter entitled ‘The Watches of the Night,’ she effectively barred from any contact with her bruised and battered father. Just as mortifying, it has occurred to her that her love for him and Edith, offered as equally and impartially as only a Dickens heroine could possibly manage it, could create some difficulties. It has dawned even on her angelic consciousness that they don’t get on, and she realises that Edith’s love for her won’t do either her or Edith any favours with Dombey. She’s right—although at least, as Dickens explicitly reminds us, she doesn’t know what he has told Carker to tell Edith about her obvious shows of affection. Even Edith doesn’t know it yet….
But things are bad enough and, as the chapter title warns, there’s not a lot of sleep going on. The self-righteous, vinegary Pipchin, now installed as housekeeper, prevents Susan Nipper from carrying out Florence’s request for a health bulletin on her father. It’s torture—I was reminded of the Book of Job—and Florence is reminded of those times when she used to keep a lonely vigil outside Dombey’s room before his marriage. She can’t stop herself and… down she creeps, tiptoeing past the dozing Pipchin to his bedside. It’s both a kind of revelation and a sad confirmation together. ‘She had never seen his face in all her life, but there had been upon it—or she fancied so—some disturbing consciousness of her. She had never seen his face in all her life, but hope had sunk within her….’ Not now: ‘she saw it, for the first time, free from the cloud that had darkened her childhood.’
What’s an author to do with such a situation? If the author is Dickens, he’s going to do this: ‘Awake, unkind father! Awake, now, sullen man! The time is flitting by; the hour is coming with an angry tread. Awake!’ Which, of course, is more for the reader’s benefit than for Dombey’s. Edith had hoped for a future time of pleasanter relations between them, a hope that is immediately dashed. Dombey had wondered about the next time he would see inside Edith’s room. Alice had warned of some unknown future in which the differences between her and Edith might not be so wide…. Dombey can’t hear any of Dickens’s apostrophising, but we can. We’ve been given fair warning that something catastrophic is going to happen pretty damned soon.
But not in this chapter, or this instalment. Florence gets some of those crumbs of comfort her mother can offer her. Edith hasn’t slept either, for her own reasons, and she talks to Florence, comforting her. Florence sleeps, eventually, but is still troubled: ‘in her sleep, she tried to reconcile the two together, and to show them that she loved them both, but could not do it, and her waking grief was part of her dreams.’ That’s her torture. Edith’s is different, and is yet to come. We know what she doesn’t, as she looks down: ‘Be near me, Florence. I have no hope but in you!’ Which is how the chapter ends.
Next comes a highly-charged set piece—which, because it involves Susan Nipper in full Spitfire mode, is also laugh-out-loud hilarious. Biding her time next day until Pipchin snoozes, she creeps into Dombey’s room. And she spends several glorious pages telling Dombey what someone ought to have told him—as Susan herself says—a long time ago. Along the way, she goes in for a similar kind of comic hyperbole to Toots. He told the Captain, before the embargo on any mention of her, what pains he would suffer on Florence’s behalf. (I can remember something about clutching a red-hot bar of iron or some such.) Now it’s Susan’s turn: ‘I may not be a Indian widow Sir and I am not and I would not so become but if I once made up my mind to burn myself alive, I’d do it! And I’ve made my mind up to go on.’ Of course, she really is making a sacrifice. The chapter title is ‘A Separation,’ and Dombey’s impotent rage—rendered absurdly comic by his repeated clutching at a non-existent bell-pull—and Pipchin’s character assassination, sends her on her way.
It takes some pages to remove her entirely, and there’s the inevitable moment of horror for Florence –‘My dear girl, my old friend! What shall I do without you!’—but the focus remains on Susan. Toots is hanging around, and Florence asks him to accompany Susan in her cab to wherever she’s going. She has a brother, a farmer, who she can stay with for the time being. Which is lucky. And the Chicken is with Toots, as badly bashed and beaten as Dombey following an unsuccessful fight, so the tone remains light. And, after Toots has offered her dinner at his place—the cook is a respectable woman, so it’s all above board—they take a cab to the coach office. This is when he asks her about her chances with Florence, and she is as honest with him as she had been with Dombey. The chapter ends on his ‘It’s of no consequence!’ Poor lad. But he’ll manage, I bet.
The instalment began with Carker making Dombey dance to his tune, and it ends with him, waiting for Edith in the house—he has almost free access to his ‘master’ during his recuperation—when she returns from a day out. We had seen him winding Dombey up to a state of open antipathy towards Edith, and now he has some more winding-up to do. He had forced Dombey to spell out not only the conditions he wants him to convey to Edith, in all their vindictiveness, but also the exact state of relations in the marriage. And whereas at home, he had cast a triumphant glance at the portrait whenever he had succeeded in wringing some new atrocity from Dombey’s lips, here he has her before him, in the flesh. Like Dombey, she is trammelled by her own pride, so any thought of submission would be anathema. He knows this about both of them, and it gives him huge power. He uses it to bring Edith face-to-face with the impossibility of her own situation.
All the time, of course, he is all politeness. ‘I do not recall all this to widen the breach between yourself and Mr Dombey, Madam—Heaven forbid! what would it profit me?—but as an example of the hopelessness of impressing Mr Dombey with a sense that anybody is to be considered when he is in question.’ So in apologising for his frankness, he lays it out in all its horror. As for that little aside—what would it profit him, indeed?—we don’t actually know. Straight after the accident, he is ‘animated by the craft and cruelty of thoughts within him, suggestions of remote possibility rather than of design or plot.’ But he’s clearly been biding his time, and seems to have something very cruel in mind now.
Dickens loves props and leitmotifs with regard to Carker—his teeth, the portrait he looks at triumphantly—and now he comes back to an old one. In a much earlier chapter, Carker had been musing on his own position. ‘Coiled up snugly at certain feet, he was ready for a spring, or for a tear, or for a scratch.’ Now, as he painstakingly details Dombey’s conditions one by one, he unfolds ‘one more ring of the coil into which he had gathered himself.’ It’s that cat again—or is there something more snake-like now? As he makes to deliver the coup de grâce, the stipulation concerning Edith’s dealings with Florence, he’s definitely a serpent: ‘And now to unwind the last ring of the coil!’
But it’s the theme of his his cat-like predatoriness that runs right through the chapter. In that first chapter of the instalment, on his way to tell Edith of Dombey’s accident, his thoughts about what is to come ‘made him ride as if he hunted men and women.’ Now, he speaks to Edith in her evening robe and, for all her stately pride, its ‘delicate white down’ trembles as she hears him. She has a fan made of the ‘plumage of [a] beautiful bird,’ which she tears at in her distraction—cats can make a terrible mess of their prey. After he has done his worst with Edith, he goes home ‘thinking, with a dainty pleasure, how imperious her passion was … how the white down had fluttered; how the bird’s feathers had been strewn upon the ground.’ And this, with more than feathers strewn on the ground—I’m reminded of the weed-strewn path of her life— is how the instalment ends.
XV and XVI—Chapters 46-51
Two interconnected story arcs reach crucial points, one in the fifteenth instalment, the other in the sixteenth. The one based in and around the Dombey household is more harrowing than ever, with the now frankly evil Carker as its driving force, and is as melodramatic as anything we’ve seen so far. The one based in the ‘Wooden Midshipman’ is its exact opposite, with Cuttle the holy innocent stage-managing a coup de theatre which, if anything, outdoes the catastrophe at the Dombeys’ for melodrama. Present at both of them—a signal from Dickens, surely, that her time has come to be centre-stage—is Florence.
Did we always know what Carker was after? Some of it, maybe, but it’s only now that we understand the extraordinary scope and cynicism of his project. At his first appearance in the fourth instalment, he’s clearly the one who runs the company, and Dickens makes it easy for us to see that Dombey is a fool to trust him. And with Dombey there looking blandly on, we see what a truly nasty piece of work he is. We see his goading of his brother, with Walter suffering collateral damage at his side. But this early on, it isn’t clear that he will become the monster we see now. Just as when we see him pursuing Florence, delighting in the revulsion she clearly feels for him, we don’t realise how easy it will be for him to switch target. He really did have designs on her, but times change, and she isn’t the one he’s been entrapping for several instalments now.
At first, even after he’s had Edith in his sights for some time—along with a portrait that’s a good enough likeness for his purposes—there’s a suggestion that he doesn’t quite know how it will all pan out. On his way to Dombey’s house after the riding accident, his face is ‘animated by the craft and cruelty of thoughts within him, suggestions of remote possibility rather than of design or plot.’ Well, maybe. Maybe, at that point, he’s most interested in the sadistic pleasure he gets in showing Edith how much power he has. But, only two instalments later, it has led to the single most shocking event in the novel so far, in which his monster status is confirmed. I’ll come to that, because the crescendo of atrocities leading up to it is extraordinary.
As the fifteenth instalment opens, something new is happening. Carker is staying in the office far into the night, and it’s impossible to tell whether he is simply calculating and somehow separating out what the company owes him—though not a Dombey and therefore not a partner, he is entitled to a percentage of the profits—or whether he is using his own special knowledge to commit some kind of fraud. Dickens doesn’t suggest the latter, but we know Carker is the brains behind the company, and could probably do it irreparable damage for his own gain if he chose. What we don’t know is that in the next chapter, he is going to let Dombey know exactly what he thinks of his ‘confidential agent’ role.
We see him again later in this chapter, as he reaches the outside of the Dombeys’. It’s a motif in this novel for a character to look up to a window and muse about the special person in the room behind. Florence and Paul, Toots and Florence—there might be others—but this time, because it’s Carker, there’s a twist. First he looks up to the dark window he knows to be Florence’s. But ‘he seemed to leave that object superciliously behind. “Time was,” he said, “when it was well to watch even your rising little star…. But a planet has arisen, and you are lost in its light.”’ Sure enough, he goes round to seek out ‘one shining window from among those at the back of the house. Associated with it was a certain stately presence, a gloved hand, the remembrance how the feathers of a beautiful bird’s wing had been showered down upon the floor….’ It’s the biggest hint we could possibly get of what is to come in the next chapter.
(Between these two appearances of Carker’s, Mrs Brown and Alice see him approaching his lodgings on horseback. Mrs Brown, knowing it isn’t going to happen, tries to goad Alice on to confronting him and demanding something from him. But most of this scene is taken up with a conversation Mrs Brown then has with Rob the Grinder as he leads the horse to the stable. What do we need to know? a) Rob spent a lot of his Grinder years in her company, helping her out in some of her activities. b) He has a terror of Carker, seeming to imagine he has supernatural powers enough to detect any comment either of them might make—even where the spot where Mrs Brown touches the horse. It’s a bit of comedy, obviously, but it keeps the idea of Carker’s powers being beyond human, and not in a good way. c) Mrs Brown’s threatening, blackmailing ways, disguised as friendliness, show her to be a gutter-level version of another blackmailing crook we know. Rob is putty in her hands, too.)
It’s time for the final ‘Thunderbolt’, as the title of the next chapter has it, but not straight away. It opens with a thumbnail description of six months in a marriage that has become ‘a road of ashes’—then Dickens heads in a different direction. He offers a kind of apologia for Dombey: ‘But let us be just to him.’ Is Dombey’s behaviour, based on the ‘master-vice’ of his pride, an ‘unnatural characteristic’? I can imagine critics would have had plenty to say along these lines during recent instalments, and here, over more than two pages, we get a kind of riposte. His opening gambit sounds a little convoluted: ‘It might be worthwhile, sometimes, to inquire what Nature is, and how men work to change her, and whether, in the enforced distortions so produced, it is not natural to be unnatural.’ We are to imagine the young Dombey, imprisoned in a cage of ‘servile worship’: ‘Coop any son or daughter … within narrow range, and bind the prisoner to one idea, and foster it.… what is Nature to the willing captive who has never risen up upon the wings of a free mind—drooping and useless soon!’
Dickens hasn’t finished yet. He goes on to critique glib ideas of what ‘Nature’ is, insisting there’s no point listening to ‘the magistrate or judge admonish the unnatural outcasts of society.’ We should ask someone who knows, ‘the good clergyman or doctor, who … goes down into their dens…. Look round upon the world of odious sights—millions of immortal creatures have no other world on earth—’ but ‘dainty delicacy living in the next street, stops her ears, and lisps “I don’t believe it!”’ The behaviour of people from these backgrounds is a perfectly natural outcome, he suggests—and such ‘unnatural’-seeming surroundings, as he has already implied, aren’t confined to the ‘dens’ of the poor. ‘Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off … and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel….’ He goes on in this vein but, basically, he’s warning us not to tell him about what is and isn’t natural. Fine, the great social reformer is entitled to question society’s definitions of what is and isn’t natural… but it doesn’t make me believe in Dombey’s psychology any more than I did before.
Next come a sequence of events and directives from Dombey, that greatly affect the life of Florence. Edith, on pain of making things worse for Florence, must not indulge in any public shows of affection whatever. It becomes almost impossible for them both, although Edith does snatch the occasion stolen moment to show Florence what she’s already told her: this isn’t what she wants. It contributes, far more than Dombey realises, to the crisis that is about to take place. The supposed bone of contention is a dinner-party Dombey wants to hold next day, and Edith’s refusal not to change her own plans in order to attend. That section about Dombey’s immovable pride has also mentioned Edith’s, its equal in strength and obduracy, so we know this isn’t going to end well. Dombey, having got nowhere with instructions in the form of irresistible fiats, attempts to speak through Carker—‘tell Mrs Dombey’—but that gets nowhere either. She reminds him that his daughter is present, and his response is curt. ‘My daughter will remain present.’ It goes on, while Edith’s constant response is that she is deaf to his warnings of consequences because she has no self-respect left, no interest any more in anything. ‘I would not rise and go away, and save you the utterance of one word, if the room were burning.’
Such hyperbole is all well and good but she keeps it simple when she finally drops her bombshell: ‘“Tell him,” said Edith, addressing her proud face to Carker, “that I wish for a separation between us.”’ Dombey reacts ‘with supreme amazement,’ unsurprisingly, but carries on talking as though he imagines this to be merely a continuation of what has gone before. And, as though to prepare us for the worst concerning Edith, Dickens gives a dire warning. ‘She had better have been dead than laugh as she did, in reply, with her intent look fixed upon him. He had better have been dead, than sitting there, in his magnificence, to hear her.’ They are both doing exactly what will bring about the worst outcome for them, Dombey perfectly unable to stop simply reiterating the instructions any other man would know to be useless. He turns to Carker, ‘as I was about to say to you—’
But something is different. ‘Mr Carker, who had sat and listened all this time, now raised his eyes, in which there was a bright unusual light.’ He lets Dombey talk on, making his demands, for another dozen lines—which include the idea that he is not above blaming Florence for some of Edith’s behaviour—and then he speaks. Carker retains his usual deferential manner but, after a dozen lines of his own, he asks Dombey to consider Edith. ‘Does this not seem like—I do not say it is—sacrificing Mrs Dombey to the preservation of your preeminent and unassailable position?’
It’s the way he looks at Edith, now with an ‘extraordinary and awful smile upon her face,’ that tells us something is up. Dombey is slow to catch on, but when Carker next speaks there is an ‘indefinable taunt in his air.’ Soon, his mockery is transparent: ‘with an air of deference that accorded ill with his words,’ he pretends to apologise. ‘Being an inferior person, for the humiliation of Mrs Dombey. I forgot. Oh, yes, it was expressly understood! I beg your pardon!’ Dickens’s next warning about Edith is even more more extreme: ‘She had better have turned hideous and dropped dead, than have stood up with such a smile upon her face, in such a fallen spirit’s majesty of scorn and beauty.’ Interesting word, ‘fallen.’ Her spirit isn’t broken but, like Satan’s—it really is becoming as cosmic as that—has fallen from what it had once been. And, in the description of a woman, the use of the word is charged with another meaning. We don’t know it yet but, according to the conventional morality of the time, she has given up. She’s given up every conventional measure of achievement too. She pulls off her jewellery, flings it down, and tramples on it as she leaves the room.
The effect of all this on Florence is galvanising. At the table, after Dombey has insisted that she remain, she is left ‘hiding her face in her hands, and trembling.’ Even before this, during the six months while she’s been tiptoeing around the dysfunctionality of her relationship with her father, and the enforced dysfunctionality of her relationship with Edith, she’s starting to realise a few things about Dombey. ‘Florence loved him still’—that’s a given, even now—‘but, by degrees, had come to love him rather as some dear one who had been….’ In a long paragraph, there’s a key idea: ‘Whether it was that he was dead to her… she could not have told; but the father whom she loved began to be a vague and dreamy idea to her.’ She knows he’s forcing Edith to be a stranger to her, but she retains this kind of abstracted affection for the father he might have been. OK…
…but then comes the mortifying scene at the dinner-table, in which she is forced to be a participant, and her mother’s extraordinary departure. Florence looks for her, can’t find her, sees a male figure upstairs that she takes to be her father. ‘But it was Mr Carker coming down alone … and no servant was in attendance.’ And the next 24 hours are chaotic. She has a disturbed night’s sleep and, all the next day, can’t bring herself to invade the private space where Edith has shut herself away. She seizes her chance as her mother leaves in the evening—but no. ‘What was Florence’s affright and wonder when, at sight of her, with her tearful face, and outstretched arms, Edith recoiled and shrieked! “Don’t come near me! Keep away! Let me go by!”’ The effect on Florence is unimaginable. ‘Mama!’ she says, but Edith appears to believe she carries the contagion that has been a constant worry to her. ‘“Don’t call me by that name! Don’t speak to me! Don’t look at me!—Florence!” shrinking back, as Florence moved a step towards her, “don’t touch me!”’
It gets worse. Florence counts the striking of the church clocks through the night, because Edith never comes home. As the day dawns, so does the truth. It’s Dombey who discovers that she has left her rooms, strewn with every single item of clothing and jewellery she has bought since the marriage, and we remember that time when he wondered when he would next see this room, the scene then of an earlier humiliation. And guess what? She has sent the carriage away from where she has been driven to—Carker’s lodgings. So now we know the extent of Edith’s ‘sacrifice’: loathing Carker, and knowing that he knows it and that he triumphs in bringing her down—he’s even guessed why she had to wear that glove after he had touched her hand—she has been brought to such a state that the only option for her is to leave Dombey and go to him. It’s a kind of apotheosis of self-loathing.
Dombey, in his way, is as traumatised as Florence, and she can’t help herself trying to offer him some comfort. ‘She hastened towards him unchecked, with her arms stretched out, and crying “Oh dear, dear Papa!” as if she would have clasped him round the neck.’ And what does he do? ‘In his frenzy, he lifted up his cruel arm, and struck her, crosswise, with that heaviness, that she tottered on the marble floor.’ It can’t get any worse… except it can: ‘as he dealt the blow, he told her what Edith was, and bade her follow her, since they had always been in league.’
After that, it’s no surprise that as this most hectic chapter comes to an end, even the syntax breaks down. A paragraph ends—‘She saw she had no father upon earth, and ran out, orphaned, from his house.’ And the next, final paragraph begins: ‘Ran out of the house.’ It ends with Florence in an ‘agony of tears,’ then ‘in the streets.’ It doesn’t get any better as the new chapter opens. There are ‘her sorrow, shame, and terror,’ there’s ‘the deep wound in her breast;’ she ‘fled without a thought, without a hope, without a purpose, but to fly somewhere, anywhere.’
Except, except. There’s light—entirely obscured for now, but it’s there: ‘the forlorn girl hurried through the sunshine of a bright morning, as if it were the darkness of a winter night.’ There are plenty of reasons why Dickens might mention the brightness of the day, including the antipathetic fallacy of some 1960s pop songs. It’s raining in Florence’s heart, for certain. But… that ‘somewhere, anywhere’ she needs to fly to exists, in a way that it didn’t when she was lost for the first time as a young child. Then, it was the fairytale witch, Mrs Brown, whose influence she came under. This time, it’s the fairytale hero she thinks of. ‘She thought of the only other time she had been lost in the wild wilderness of London … and went that way. To the home of Walter’s Uncle.’
It’s an extraordinary transition from the horror of her recent experience. Captain Cuttle’s welcome isn’t merely courteous, it’s courtly. She has always been his Heart’s Delight, but he can’t keep calling her that. He does, three times in succession, and another three times after that. But he lands on a different title, lady lass, ‘hastily deciding in his own mind upon the superior elegance of that form of address, as the most courtly he could think of.’ It’s a little bit silly, but it’s charming and friendly. Which is exactly what Florence needs. She needs a lot of other things too, but it’s a start—and Diogenes the dog had joined her even before she reached the Captain’s.
Where will it all end? With another friendly face, when it turns out that Toots was the invisible presence Diogenes was barking at? No, it won’t end there. Toots wants to talk about nothing but how his tailor has to keep taking in his clothes because of the terrible effects of his unrequited love on his appetite. He’s almost forgotten the commission he’s been given, to tell the Captain that there’s some news for him at the broker’s around the corner. The Captain goes, leaving Toots looking after the shop and knowing nothing of who is sleeping upstairs…
…and then he comes back, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. What has he heard? Not, surely, the impossible news we’ve all been waiting for since about eight instalments back? I couldn’t possibly comment, because that’s where the instalment ends. Except, in case we’re all becoming too complacent, the final paragraph reminds us of the bitter truth of Florence’s ‘homelessness and orphanage.’ As the Captain watches, ‘A louder sob or moan than usual, brought him sometimes to her door….’ But, as though preparing them, and us, for better things: ‘by degrees she slept more peacefully, and the Captain’s watch was undisturbed.’
What to say about the next instalment? Early on, as the Captain decides Florence needs to find something to wear beyond the clothes she arrived in, Dickens reminds us we’re not in the dark world of Dombey and Carker any more. He compares the old sailor and the seventeen-year-old girl: ‘in simple innocence of the world’s ways and the world’s perplexities and dangers, they were nearly on a level. No child could have surpassed Captain Cuttle in inexperience of everything but wind and weather; in simplicity, credulity, and generous trustfulness.’ Yep, that’s the Captain. Did we need to be prepared so thoroughly for his solemn attempt to improve the impact of the news he has? As he tries to get her to eat, he reminds her of the first time they were all there in the shop. ‘Well, well! If our poor Wal’r was here, my lady lass—or if he could be—for he’s drownded, ain’t he?’ And, over the next 24 hours or so, I think it’s something like ten more times he insists on variations of the same refrain. ‘Drownded, ain’t he?’
It would be cruel if anybody else were to keep banging on about the death of the dearest person in a person’s life. At one point, he’s even cooing it through her keyhole…. But this is the Captain, and Florence is simply bemused. Meanwhile the reader got it the first time he said it, and we’re waiting for Dickens to cut to the chase. Which he does, eventually. In the parlour, after the Captain has warned Florence about a dozen times not to look in a certain direction, guess what. ‘There was the shadow of a man upon the wall close to her. She started up, looked round, and with a piercing cry, saw Walter Gay behind her!’ Which is great for everybody, and we await the story of how this miracle has happened. But first Dickens needs to remind us of something, which he does three times in the next sentence: ‘She had no thought of him but as a brother, a brother rescued from the grave; a shipwrecked brother saved and at her side; and rushed into his arms.’ Got that?
From now on, there’s approximately a chapter’s worth of mild jeopardy, during which the Captain is crestfallen not so much about Florence’s innocent sisterly feelings for Walter, but about Walter’s insistence that nothing in the world could induce him to pursue her with any other relationship in mind. He, Walter, begins to avoid her, to the extent that she thinks he doesn’t care for her. The , one Sunday afternoon—it only becomes clear later why Dickens is so specific—she decides it’s time to clear the air. Almost immediately, it’s clear that there’s been a misunderstanding, Of course there has. Walter had been astonished by how much she had ‘changed’ in the years since they had last met, and had said so. The innocent Florence couldn’t imagine what a red-blooded young man might possibly mean by such a thing….
Are we nearly there yet? After a page or so of awkwardness, it’s finally Walter who raises the stakes: ‘I owe it to a heart so trusting, pure, and good, even to tear myself from it, though I rend my own. How dare I say it is my sister’s!’ This isn’t clear enough and, as I read it, I was dreading one of those ridiculous situations you can get in Dickens when a misunderstanding about something that’s blindingly obvious stalls what should be a foregone conclusion. There seems to be no stopping Walter now: ‘I am hurried on to say, what I thought, but a few moments ago, nothing could have forced from my lips.’ Yes? Yes? What? We’ll have to be patient. 135 words later, using the most courteous circumlocutions possible, he has made it clear that if he were not a poor man he would love to be more than a brother to her. But it can’t be, obviously, he has to go away—he’s a sailor now—so: ‘One last time let me call you by your own dear name, and touch this gentle hand in token of your sisterly forgetfulness of what I have said.’
Enough. Even Dickens can’t keep this up forever, because soon even Florence finally cottons on to what he means. ‘If you will take me for your wife, Walter, I will love you dearly. If you will let me go with you, Walter, I will go to the world’s end without fear.’ He has no fortune to offer her, but she has nothing either, she insists…. Of course, there are still four instalments remaining, and fortunes can go down as well as up, but we know it’s going to be all right. The Captain knows it too. Walter had told him he could never be anything but a brother to Florence, and now the Captain makes a joke of it, ‘which he repeated at least forty times during tea.’ Yep.
I ought to mention Toots. He’s been given minor tasks to perform while the real story-thread has been carrying on over three chapters, and the latest errand has taken him out of the picture. We know nothing about his trip, except that the Chicken has been helping him to locate where Susan Nipper might have gone to. The farm run by her brother is somewhere in Essex, but Toots only knew the destination of the coach she was on. He’s been gone for some days, and we’re bound to wonder about loose ends that need tying. But surely not? Except… nothing can be any less likely than the cock-and-bull—sorry, Son and Heir—story of Walter’s escape on a piece of flotsam, his wanderings with no contact whatever with home over some years, and his return to London on the same day as Florence’s arrival at the Captain’s…. So anything’s possible.
There’s a short chapter remaining, ‘Mr Dombey and the World’. Basically, Dombey carries on as you would expect. The flight of Edith has become common knowledge, the employees of the firm speculate on how well Carker must have done for himself, Dombey’s sister arrives to offer no comfort whatsoever—she’s still smarting that she wasn’t invited to the only high-profile dinner party her brother ever held while married to Edith—and Dombey is clearly not going to alter his course for a moment. Edith? Nope. Florence? Nope. ‘Louisa! silence! Not another word of this!’ This is early on in the chapter. By the end of it, the servants are gossiping freely about all of it, as is everybody: ‘Everything that is said and done about it, except by Mr Dombey, is done in chorus. Mr Dombey and the world are alone together.’
XVII and XVIII—Chapters 52-57
Plenty happens, although the pace is mostly steady. In every chapter but one, Dickens keeps the action mainly in one location, and establishes one central thing, be it an event, a revelation, or a key idea. Even the one chapter that covers hundreds of miles, picking up such vertiginous speed it ends in a fatal smash, is one long variation on a single, unrelenting narrative idea. That chapter is a kind of flowing back of the rush of events in the Thunderbolt chapter in the fifteenth instalment. Otherwise, in these two instalments, it’s as though Dickens feels he can slow things down and let them unfold at their own inevitable pace.
It was already happening in the sixteenth instalment and, mostly, it’s happening now. Long before the end of the eighteenth, there’s a sense, to quote Jane Austen, that we readers ‘see … that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.’ After this, with Walter and Florence already married and Sol back in the bosom of the Wooden Midshipman, there’s only the short double final instalment remaining, for tying up those loose ends. What is going to happen to Dombey and Son after a certain Mr Morfin’s worrying assessment of the state of the company’s investments? Can the ‘junior’ Mr Carker, now sacked from the company, achieve some kind of redemption? What is the story of Alice and the other Carker? And how can Florence, on board a ship to China with Walter, ever be reconciled with her father?
I’m jumping the gun. Instalment XVII opens in ‘good Mrs Brown’s’ slummy rooms, with her and Alice waiting for Dombey to arrive. And, when he gets there, we understand what was being set up when Mrs Brown forced Rob the Grinder, on pain of something painful, to promise to come and see her. Somebody, she tells Dombey, will have some information—but he will need to hear it for himself. Cue cloaks and daggers or, at least, hiding behind a half-closed door. Dickens sets it up like a grim little stage set: Dombey half-hidden, the Grinder at the table, facing the old woman and Alice, his back to Dombey—and Alice staring straight past Rob into Dombey’s face. There’s even a Phiz illustration of exactly this. And Dickens provides the dialogue, including the usual mix of squalor and gruesome comedy that there always is when Mrs Brown is around.
Rob, for whom we have absolutely no sympathy—and I’m wondering if there’s ever to be any redemption for the snivelling, self-pitying son of the lovely Polly, who makes her re-entry in the next instalment—is no match for the old woman. And luckily for all of them, the information they want had been written on a piece of paper, a fragment of which Rob was able to salvage. He can’t pronounce the name, but Mrs Brown spells it out as she forces him to write it: D-I-J-O-N. Ah. He accompanied Edith to Southampton, he’s already admitted, he supposes Carker will join her… and that’s all he knows.
After Dombey has left with his ‘secret intelligence,’ we are told of how the common knowledge of his plight has ‘roused his passion, stung his pride, twisted the one idea of his life into a new shape.… All the stubbornness and implacability of his nature’—and another four of his grim-faced attributes that Dickens lists—‘set this way like many streams united into one, and bore him on upon their tide.’ But does he now have enough information? We guess that has, and we’re right. But we don’t find that out yet, because the next chapter takes place in John and Harriet Carker’s house…
…where first Mr Perch arrives, to tell John Carker he’s been sacked, followed by the stranger who has been keeping an eye on the downtrodden brother and sister’s affairs. He’s kept up his discreet little weekly check—Harriet assures John it’s quite above board, and we know that of course it is–but he knows this is a moment of crisis. John recognises him as Morfin, the clerk who, until the day before, occupied the next room to him at Dombey’s. Morfin explains—he, and Dickens, seem to feel that quite a lot of explanation is necessary—how it’s only been fairly recently that he’s realised with horror what James Carker has been putting his brother through. He’d kind of taken it for granted for years—he’s fond of the idea that we all conduct our lives according to thoughtless habit, and uses the word nine times in about two minutes—but, some time ago, he decided he wasn’t happy with this, and thought John might need a bit of moral support. And now he is able to explain to John, and to the reader, how Carker has left Dombey and Son overstretched, but not fatally so if somebody takes things in hand. It’s pretty clear from what Morfin says that there isn’t anybody in the company, least of all Dombey in his current state, who will be able to undo what Carker has set up.
That, it turns out, isn’t he only thing in this chapter. Alice, as though in anticipation of at least some kind of redemption before the end, comes back to visit Harriet. She doesn’t apologise for her previous behaviour, but goes some way towards explaining it. She was punished harshly for a crime committed while James Carker, for reasons we can guess at, should have been her protector. Without anything being spelled out, obviously, it’s made fairly clear she was his mistress. And where did it get her? But… never mind that. Her real motive in coming is to warn Harriet and John that they need to know that she has been party to the information about their brother that was given to Dombey. Before she leaves hurriedly, she issues a warning: ‘He is at Dijon…. Warn him that the man he has made his enemy is in a frenzy, and that he doesn’t know him if he makes light of his approach. Tell him that he is on the road—I know he is!—and hurrying on. Urge him to get away while there is time—if there is time….’
The next chapter, set in a hotel in Dijon, lets us know that there was never going to be enough time. This only becomes clear at the very end of the chapter, because before this we’ve been watching Edith reduce Carker’s schemes to ashes. In this particular dimension of the Dickens universe—or whichever circle of Hell we are in during this instalment—women have an overwhelming, debilitating effect on men when they so choose. We saw it when Mrs Brown reduced the Grinder to a snivelling wretch in her hands—her pincer-like hands had a lot to do with his craven response, now I think about it—and now we see it with Edith. She has been at the hotel for some time, awaiting Carker’s arrival around midnight. There’s some comic business with the over-fussy French gastronomes who deliver a sumptuous dinner Carker has ordered, received by Edith with exactly the sort of withering indifference you would expect. And…
…this sets the tone for what happens once Carker has arrived and the maître d has left. He goes into romantic lover mode, which would be comic were it not so preposterous. ‘How strange to come here by yourself, my love!’ Her response is one word. ‘What?’ And then Dickens pictures it for us: ‘Her tone was so harsh; the quick turn of her head so fierce; her attitude so repellent; and her frown so black; that he stood, with the lamp in his hand, looking at her, as if she had struck him motionless.’ And it all goes downhill from there. At first he tries to keep up the act, ignoring her tone and look and carrying on regardless. Using ‘his most courtly smile,’ he attempts to clarify what he meant—she ought to have brought a serving-woman—and ploughs on while her eyes ‘gleamed strangely on him.’ ‘I have never seen you look so handsome, as you do to-night. Even the picture I have carried in my mind during this cruel probation, and which I have contemplated night and day, is exceeded by the reality.’
Oh God…. However. Carker, one of the most astute and manipulative of operators, has seen Edith’s stonewalling before, and has seen how pointless it is to ignore her. Dombey tried, and Carker seems to think that if, unlike him, he says the flattering things Dombey wasn’t capable of, she’ll fall into his arms. How can we be expected to believe it? This isn’t the Carker we know, the one who understands exactly how desperate Edith must be to run away with a man she loathes. It seems to me that the only way we can give Dickens the benefit of the doubt is to imagine that Carker’s mistake must be that he assumed Edith to be as cynical and self-serving as he is, that she is gleefully on his side in putting one over on Dombey—and that he doesn’t get that she finds him repellent. How else can we explain it? Perhaps I was wrong when I thought he had guessed correctly why Edith wore that glove. Does he believe she was preserving his kiss, rather than covering up an injury? If he believed that, he deserves everything that’s coming.
And it’s coming. The remainder of this chapter unfolds with her showing him exactly how desperate she is, holding a knife to her own heart. If, during the ‘Thunderbolt’ scene, he imagined her self-loathing to be no more than a pretence, he quickly realises now. If she has to, she will use that knife either on him or on herself, and he is powerless under that gaze of hers. There’s another timely Phiz illustration, ‘Mr Carker in his hour of triumph,’ in fact showing him pinned to his chair by her basilisk gaze, ‘with a baffled, irresolute, impatient air, he was unable to conceal; and biting his nail nervously.’ This is just the start. Soon, she puts him out of all doubt: ‘Wretch! We meet tonight, and part tonight. For not one moment after I have ceased to speak, will I stay here!’ That’s told him. As readers, of course, we’re loving this We’ve waited a long time, and now Dickens is being as generous to us as we could have hoped. And Carker’s seen nothing yet…
…because Dickens takes the melodrama up a notch. Edith has some unpleasant news for her would-be lover. ‘You have been betrayed, as all betrayers are. It has been made known that you are in this place, or were to be, or have been. If I live, I saw my husband in a carriage in the street to-night!’ Carker doesn’t believe her—‘Strumpet, it’s false!’—but, immediately, there goes the bell. It’s somehow all too straightforward, but we don’t care, and other things fall into place. Earlier, Dickens had shown us Edith unlocking an extra door leading to some back stairs, carefully placing the key in the outside of the lock. Carker has locked the apartment’s main door, but she’s off and away while he thinks she must be in another room. He searches for her, the bell ringing all the time, and eventually finds the door, locked. Her veil has been caught in it, and he looks through a window to the courtyard below. No good: ‘it was a high leap, and the stones were pitiless.’
The final paragraph of the chapter sets up the next. ‘The ringing and knocking still continuing—his panic too—he went back to the door … and with some new efforts, each more stubborn than the last, wrenched it open.’ He makes his escape, but knows that his pursuer will never be far behind. The instalment ends…
…and the next opens as Carker makes his way from the hotel through the back gate. Which leaves Dickens the task of bringing this to a happy resolution. Happy for the reader, I mean, not Carker. We know, and Dickens has had Alice confirm it for us, that Dombey would not be responsible for his actions if he caught him. Carker needs no such warning, and this chapter is taken up entirely with his headlong attempt to get away. Dickens needs his villain to get what he deserves, but he doesn’t need Dombey to have blood on his hands. And Carker has been careful, as Morfin has explained, not to have done anything illegal. What to do…? The answer is hinted at in the first couple of sentences: ‘In the fever of his mortification and unavailing rage, the panic that had seized upon him mastered him completely.’ And for the whole of the rest of the chapter Dickens offers variations on the theme of panic. It’s extraordinary. Certain phrases, and one in particular, are repeated as though to echo the thrashing of a mind in a panic so raw it becomes life-threatening.
But that’s yet to come. As soon as he’s out of the hotel, almost in a frenzy, Carker hires an open carriage drawn by four horses. But he isn’t hanging around for it to be got ready. On foot, ‘he stole away again, beyond the town, past the old ramparts, out on the open road’ until the driver can catch up with him. But there’s to be no respite, because it’s in the carriage that his waking nightmare begins. ‘Nothing clear without, and nothing clear within…’ or ‘Shadows of familiar people, stooping at their desks … strange apparitions of the man whom he was flying from, or of Edith; repetitions in the ringing bells and rolling wheels, of words that had been spoken….’
It’s all like this for a few paragraphs, random-seeming and disjointed, until Carker, so confused by the real sounds merging with the imagined, insists that they stop to listen. But there is nothing. As the day begins to break, new rhythms are set up. ‘It was a vision of long roads, that stretched away … of ill-paved towns’ and so on, and on—and now paragraphs open with variations on the visions—‘a troubled vision,’ ‘a vision of change upon change,’ alternating with others beginning with a different set of variations: ‘Of morning, noon, and sunset…’ ‘Of never sleeping…’ ‘Of rolling on and on…’ Within these, an even more disturbing phrase has been set up in counterpoint. It follows on from that vision of ‘change upon change,’ and it’s terrible: ‘the same monotony of bells and wheels, and horses’ feet, and no rest.’
This is the phrase that carries on after the others have fallen away. It’s fiercely insistent at first—it’s repeated in the next sentence, and twice more in in the next two restless paragraphs—but then it appears slightly less often, as though the energy of it is running out. Of course it is, as Carker is driven to a port, boards a ship, arrives in England and boards a train to a little place he is sure he won’t be found, finds a tavern and rents a pair of rooms. ‘His object was to rest’—you bet—but he has no chance. It’s as though ‘there were a curse upon him that he should never rest again,’ and that phrase comes to haunt him even now, in this place of safety. He has lost all track of time—a waiter has to tell him what day it is—and when he goes to bed it’s useless. ‘No oblivion, and no rest.’ I can’t think of a better description of insomnia far beyond the point of total desperation.
We don’t hear that phrase again, about the bells and the wheels and whatever because, way back at the beginning of the chapter, Dickens set up an even more unnerving threat, with its own even more unnerving rhythm. ‘Some other terror came … suddenly, like an electric shock. … Some visionary terror, unintelligible and inexplicable, associated with a trembling of the ground,—a rush and sweep of something through the air, like Death upon the wing. He shrunk, as if to let the thing go by. It was not gone, it never had been there, yet what a startling horror it had left behind.’ With hindsight, after having reached the end of the chapter, we can tell exactly what this means. We can’t possibly know, in the heart of pre-industrial France, either now in Dijon or when it returns as he stands terrified in the carriage—‘again that flight of Death came rushing up, again went on, impetuous and resistless, again was nothing but a horror in his mind’—how this prefigures the dreadful denouement.
Because, Reader, at the sleepy halt on the railway line he is no nearer to safety after all. Carker, having slept not at all, buys a ticket and is told his train will follow the express that will soon pass through. He paces up and down when, ‘turning in his walk … he saw the man from whom he had fled, emerging from the door by which he himself had entered. And their eyes met.’ These are the days before raised platforms and, in his chaotic state of mind, Carker brings upon himself a moment of sheer horror. ‘he stepped back a pace or two upon that road, to interpose some wider space between them, and looked at his pursuer … saw the face change from its vindictive passion to a faint sickness and terror—felt the earth tremble—knew in a moment that the rush was come—uttered a shriek—looked round—saw the red eyes, bleared and dim, in the daylight, close upon him—was beaten down, caught up, and whirled away upon a jagged mill….’
What more is to be said? The impact is powerful enough to ‘cast his mutilated fragments in the air,’ and Carker is no more.
Follow that, Charles Dickens. He does, of course, with two chapters that couldn’t be more different from the gratifying tour de force of Carker’s end. We’re back at the Wooden Midshipman—which means that by the end of the eighteenth instalment, five out of ten chapters will have taken place mainly there. It feels appropriate. It’s hard to think of a cosier, more life-affirming location in any Dickens novel, let alone just this one. It’s no accident that aside from brief appearances by Mrs McStinger and the Game Chicken—neither of whom appear in it now—it only ever accommodates the kind of wholesomely good people found in no serious fiction outside Dickens novels. Cuttle, Sol Gills, Walter, Florence, Diogenes the dog… and soon, Toots has returned in triumph with Susan Nipper…. So Cuttle, the one-man rattle-bag of half-remembered lore, is joined by the (accidental) masters of comic hyperbole. Let joy be unconfined. Which it is.
The first of these two chapters opens with Dickens in hilarity mode. Toots and Susan Nipper have just arrived and, in their different ways, they both speak with a kind of comic maladroitness. The Nipper’s opener: ‘Oh my own pretty darling sweet Miss Floy! … to think that it should come to this and I should find you here my own dear dove with nobody to wait upon you and no home to call your own but never never will I go away again Miss Floy for though I may not gather moss I’m not a rolling stone nor is my heart a stone or else it wouldn’t bust as it is busting now oh dear oh dear!’ Dickens’s own appraisal of this, and the short conversation following it, speaks volumes about his presentation of female characters who are on the side of the angels. ‘The mixture of compassion, pleasure, tenderness, protection, and regret … was as womanly and good a thing, in its way, as ever was seen in the world.’
Toots doesn’t get a look-in at first—he is waiting patiently, away from this happy scene of reunion. When he does speak, what we get is a kind of comically nervous real-time redrafting of everything he says. As with Susan’s unstoppable torrent, we know this of old. He’s always been hyper-conscious of his own failings but, in the Midshipman in its current role as the seat of all happiness, his speech takes on its own kind of endearingly helpless charm. His opener: ‘Miss Dombey…. To be again permitted to—to—gaze—at least, not to gaze, but—I don’t exactly know what I was going to say, but it’s of no consequence.’ Then, after her fulsome praise of him: ‘Miss Dombey… if it was possible that you could, consistently with your angelic nature, curse me, you would—if I may be allowed to say so—floor me infinitely less, than by these undeserved expressions of kindness. Their effect upon me—is—but, this is a digression, and of no consequence at all.’ You’ve got to love him. And you’ve got to love the syntactical gymnastics this self-styled empty vessel is capable of. It’s all part of the hilarity.
Something else is happening. Toots and Susan have spent a lot of time together, and Susan shows a lot of affection for him. As Florence draws her out, we get a picture of the journey back from Essex. ‘I-I-I never did see such a creetur as that Toots … in all my born days never! … And so comic! … The way he’s been going on inside with me with that disrespectable Chicken on the box! … about Lieutenant Walters, and Captain Gills, and you my dear Miss Floy, and the silent tomb….’ There is a real connection between her and Toots, so that by the end of the instalment it’s the most natural thing in the world that they should go out together and buy what is needed for a breakfast to cheer up Sol and the Captain after the departure of Walter and Florence. I’ll come back to that…
…because there are other happy things to be spoken of. Before anything else major happens in terms of the plot, the Midshipman has become a little heaven on earth. A typical evening consists of Walter and Florence together in the background, making their plans and presenting the ideal of young, eternal love for us all to see. Dickens does this, and… what? We can all dream, I suppose. Meanwhile the Captain plays cribbage with Toots, who is helped by Susan sitting behind him, and Diogenes the dog behaves himself. The Captain is far more than a comic turn—he oversees the joy. He’s been there for Florence since her flight from her father’s house, and he’s been there to guide her and Walter into one another’s arms. He always knew they were made for each other, and knew long before Walter that marriage was the right outcome in every way.
And now, the Captain also provides total support for Toots as he gives Florence up forever. In his previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens couldn’t find true happiness for a character in the identical situation—he has to be content with being the favourite uncle. What he does with Toots, aside from what we suspect is going to happen with Susan, is make it comical. We’ve seen this all along, but now he moves on from his comedy version of the unrequited swain. His studied neglect of himself, that nobody else notices, is to come to an end. He tells Florence—as haltingly and comically as always—and she is mystified. And he asks the Captain to cover for him whenever he has to leave the room when her happiness with ‘Lieutenant Walters’ becomes too much. He is happy for her, even goes to the dilapidated little church for the final reading of the banns—supported, of course, by Susan. And there’s the Captain again, unexpectedly present in the gallery.
What could be more agreeable? I mentioned things happening in terms of the plot, and the first is the unexpected return of Sol Gills. His name gives Toots some trouble, until ‘Mr—Mr Sols, said Toots, hitting on that name in the inspiration of a bright idea.’ And, in keeping with the mood of hilarity, Dickens offers a farcical explanation for the apparent impossibility of his reappearance. Sol had been sending letters to Mrs McStinger’s, and the Captain suddenly gets it: ‘She wouldn’t take in any letter, bless you, under them circumstances! Why, you could hardly make it worth a man’s while to be the postman!’ This might be a little demoralising—she’s caused them all ‘no small anxiety,’ as Walter puts it. And, in fact, the poor Captain ‘remained under a cloud for nearly five minutes—an extraordinary period for him when that sun, his face, broke out once more, shining on all beholders with extraordinary brilliancy.’ That’s his role now, to provide the brightness.
The other big thing, obviously, is the wedding, the opposite in every way of the lavish affair we witnessed earlier in the novel—and which Dickens refers to more than once. (He also describes another wedding, about to take place at that same church, which Florence and Walter visit before their own in order to pay their respects to young Paul’s memorial. A very rich, very old man is about to be married to a young and beautiful wife, and Dickens is highly satirical about all of it.) The marriage takes place on the very morning of their going on board ship. Walter had made such a good impression on the master of the ship that had picked him up—did I mention any of that?—that when its ‘supercargo’ fortunately dies, he gets the job. Now the company have found another ship for him, and he has made his quarters into ‘a picter,’ according to the Captain, ‘to surprise his little wife,’ according to Dickens’s narration. ‘A admiral’s cabin, mind you, ain’t more trim.’ And that’s it for the instalment. Almost…
…because after Florence and Walter have gone on board, the Midshipman is going to seem empty for a while. This is when Susan and Toots go out to buy breakfast. Nobody is in the mood for it—we’ve seen Susan and the Captain’s determined chase the carriage to call out happy goodbyes, but they are tearful now—but with this shared hospitality, Toots and Susan are doing their best to put things right. By supper-time, there’s still a subdued atmosphere. Sol has read aloud the letter Walter has written to Dombey, to be sent in three weeks’ time, robustly justifying his decision to marry Florence. It’s brave, and it feels almost like closure. But not quite. When they debate whether to drink that last bottle of madeira, they decide not. ‘After a silence they all sit down to supper, and drink to the young husband and wife in something else; and the last bottle of the old Madeira still remains among its dust and cobwebs, undisturbed.’ We know that, one day, there will be a more auspicious moment.
It isn’t quite the end of the instalment because Dickens takes us somewhere else for the last half-page. ‘A few days have elapsed, and a stately ship is out at sea, spreading its white wings to the favouring wind.’ We get a few lines of loving description—I’ll spare you—but then a new take on a long-running motif. Florence muses about how the sea makes her think, and Walter assumes it’s about Paul. It is, but the narrator takes over. ‘Of Paul and Walter. And the voices in the waves are always whispering to Florence, in their ceaseless murmuring, of love—of love, eternal and illimitable, not bounded by the confines of this world, or by the end of time, but ranging still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away!’
What will remain of us is—well, Florence knows.
XIX and XX—Chapters 58-62
The Chapter titles give a lot of it away. ‘After a Lapse, Retribution, Chiefly Matrimonial, Relenting, Final.’ The Lapse is of just under a year; the Retribution is the World’s revenge on the failed Dombey; the Matrimonial is—guess; the Relenting is inevitable, this being a Dickens novel—and, in part, it’s what we’ve been waiting for since Chapter 1; and Final is final, with everything neatly tied up so that even any unattractive characters who get away with it don’t really. Mrs Pipchin in her pomp? She’s welcome to it.
Any surprises? Not if we’ve been paying attention—although the two remaining Carkers behave so implausibly nobly that you’d only guess if you’ve managed to get deep inside the Dickens psychology mindset. I.e. it’s human psychology, but not of a kind that’s familiar in any universe other than Dickens’s own. Which goes for Florence and her father too but, in his case at least, that’s a little more complicated. Florence we know about, and we’re not a bit surprised both that she returns to the echoing and almost emptied-out family house so she can seek forgiveness from Dombey for her neglect of him—exasperation, maybe, but not surprise—and that she arrives in the nick of time to save him from suicide. As I’ve said before, you couldn’t make it up…
…but, seasoned travelling-companions that we are, we know how this universe works. I’ve mentioned fairy-tales nearly as often as Dickens has referenced them, or relied on their tropes—and yes, I know it’s more complicated than that—and the kind of impossible coming-together of all that is right and good is the norm. When, in these final chapters, he hints at the existence of lives less blessed, he’ll wrap them up in farce or acerbic humour. (Farce: the marriage of Mrs McStinger to the bewildered Bunsby, white-faced with shock as he is marched to the chapel by her close family and other relatives. Acerbity: Mrs Pipchin, with ‘a snaky gleam in her hard grey eye, as of anticipated … worryings and quellings of young children, sharp snappings at poor Berry, and all the other delights of her Ogress’s castle.’ The final nail in this piece of character-destruction comes in the next paragraph. All chapter long, as the house has been reduced to a shell, Dickens has been telling us that ‘the rats fly from it.’ Now, after Mrs P has left, ‘the rats have fled, and there is not one left.’ Thanks, Dickens. Got it, again.)
I’ve only read one other novel this year that is the equal of this one in its density, and that’s Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. It’s different from Dombey and Son in every other way, but with both of them I’ve found myself ramping up the word-count in an attempt to keep track. Will I have to do that with these final chapters? Almost all the important things have been resolved by the time Walter and Florence sail off on their wedding-day, but the exception—aside, that is, from the decision as to whether it’s finally time to open the last bottle of Madeira—is a big one. Can Dombey be redeemed?
First comes the crash we’d been expecting since Morfin explained to the non-villainous Carkers how overstretched their brother had left the firm. Cue vignettes of all the people who say they saw it coming—particularly Perch, who dines (or drinks) out on the pretext of sharing insider knowledge he never came close to—and a much longer scene downstairs in Dombey’s house, with the servants who think everything will be fine until they get a series of rude awakenings. The rudest is administered by Mrs Pipchin, who loves to be the bringer of bad news. Bad? If Mr Dombey had tried his luck in the Peruvian mines, then he might know about bad news.
Meanwhile, throughout, Dombey is offstage. Even as every carpet, rug and stick of furniture is sold, he keeps to his room, which Dickens doesn’t take us inside once. The house is empty, the servants are gone—and, as in the early chapters, it’s down to Miss Tox to come to the rescue. She’s been close to the Toodles family since the twelfth instalment, so she is able to enlist Polly as a temporary housekeeper. Her main duty is to make sure that a meal is left outside Dombey’s room, which nobody is ever around to see him take inside….
It’s a clever sleight of hand to keep Dombey, who will be absolutely central to the book’s final chapters, both ever-present and out of sight for so long. For the whole of Chapter 58 and most of 59 he’s definitely there, but he isn’t there…. It’s the perfect metaphor of Dombey as he has always been—and, more useful than that for an author who needs a seismic upheaval in a character’s nature, it avoids a lot of scrutiny of the process until Dickens is good and ready. And when it does start, the turnaround has already happened, leaving Dickens—partly by making the timing of it so ambiguous—to make it all seem plausible.
It starts six or seven pages from the end of the chapter that has seen everything in Dombey’s possession taken away. ‘And the ruined man. How does he pass the hours, alone?’ This question, in its own paragraph, is answered by a crushing echo of one of those warnings of the past. ‘“Let him remember it in that room, years to come!” He did remember it. It was heavy on his mind now; heavier than all the rest.’ And if you can’t remember how far back in the past that was—I wrongly assumed it was at the time he lashed out at Florence after Edith’s departure—it’s actually in the sixth instalment. It was the time when, following Paul’s death, he repulsed all her efforts to comfort him. What he’s remembering isn’t his most recent act of brutality, but his frankly unforgivable rejection of his surviving child. The echo of the warning is repeated another couple of times before we begin to realise that yes, Dombey really has come to understand what he has lost.
When did it happen? Hard to say, exactly. At one point, not straight away, we are told that it started some time ago. ‘It began, beyond all doubt (however slow it advanced for some time), in the receipt of her young husband’s letter, and the certainty that she was gone.’ But it’s directly after the repeated warning to ‘remember’ that we understand just how the memory has come crashing down on him. ‘He did remember it. In the miserable night he thought of it; in the dreary day, the wretched dawn, the ghostly, memory-haunted twilight. He did remember it. In agony, in sorrow, in remorse, in despair! “Papa! Papa! Speak to me, dear Papa!” He heard the words again, and saw the face. He saw it fall upon the trembling hands, and heard the one prolonged low cry go upward.’
This paragraph, early on, is only the beginning. He’s a ‘ruined man’, but things need to get worse for him—which they do, in stages that Dickens carefully sets out for us. At first—and we come to realise that Dickens has rewound the time-line by many days, or even weeks—he has understood his mistake but it isn’t doing him any good: ‘so proud he was in his ruin, or so reminiscent of her only as something that might have been his, but was lost beyond redemption … that if he could have heard her voice in an adjoining room, he would not have gone to her. If he could have seen her in the street … he would have passed on with his old cold unforgiving face, and not addressed her.’ In fact, the process in on different time-scales, one of them going back a very long way: ‘one by one, they fell away before his mind—his baby—hope, his wife, his friend, his fortune—oh how the mist, through which he had seen her, cleared, and showed him her true self!’
But for Dickens’s immediate purposes, the most significant timeline is the one that began when he closed himself away. Dickens makes it explicit that ‘he was proud yet—he let the world go from him freely. As it fell away, he shook it off. Whether he imagined its face as expressing pity for him, or indifference to him, he shunned it alike.’ At first he is still too much the same as he ever was—being ‘ruined’ doesn’t even dent his pride and arrogance. But then his self-imposed—or pride-imposed—solitary confinement begins to work on him. The memories come, and not only of that night when he rejected her following Paul’s death—although now he is already gaining new insights: ‘He knew, now, what it was to be rejected and deserted.’ Other memories come, each adding something to his understanding, like Florence ‘as she had been that night when he and his bride came home.’
And the first thing he understands is that ‘she alone had never changed. His boy had faded into dust, his proud wife had sunk into a polluted creature, his flatterer and friend had been transformed into the worst of villains, his riches had melted away, the very walls that sheltered him looked on him as a stranger; she alone had turned the same mild gentle look upon him always. Yes, to the latest and the last. She had never changed to him—nor had he ever changed to her—and she was lost.’ It’s an important first step, because it’s to do with what he never understood before, unconditional love. But it isn’t enough, because the focus is still all on him. Her loyalty, her love—a word he never uses—for him. What has got to happen—and it’s only by re-reading the chapter that I’ve come to realise this—is that he’s got to learn how to reciprocate it. The question is, how can that be achieved plausibly?
Answer: through a combination of further memories, and new insights gained as he stalks the echoing, empty house. Everything becomes more real there because that’s where it all happened. Like, most importantly, Florence’s unconditional love for the very person who blocked her from Dombey’s sight. As he wanders through the emptied-out house, only ever at night, its bare floors are covered in footprints: ‘foot treading foot out, and upward track and downward jostling one another…. He thought, besides, oh was there, somewhere in the world, a light footstep that might have worn out in a moment half those marks!—and bent his head, and wept as he went up.’ Which is when he sees that ‘a figure, childish itself, but carrying a child, and singing as it went, seemed to be there again. Anon, it was the same figure, alone, stopping for an instant, with suspended breath; the bright hair clustering loosely round its tearful face; and looking back at him….’
As we read, it isn’t at all obvious how many different elements Dickens is adding to the mix. Step by step, he is taking us inside Dombey’s mind in a way he never has before. We might have seen things from Dombey’s point of view sometimes, but it’s rare and, whenever it has happened before, it’s alienating. His train journey to Leamington, seen through his eyes, turns into one long memento mori, an eruption of self-destructive obsession, not something we can particularly sympathise with. Now, in his ‘cell’—Dickens calls it that—or wandering the house after dark, Dombey is going through something we can understand. He is becoming a human being in a way he never has been before. Until now, he’s got every single social interaction wrong, and we’ve become very tired of him. Now, however…. We can’t help but sympathise with a man in torment, even though he’s still so proud that he can only weep openly when he has given himself permission. In Paul’s old room, he ‘had shed so many tears here, long ago, that he was less ashamed of his weakness in this place than in any other—perhaps, with that consciousness, had made excuses to himself for coming here.’ Only now can he ‘throw himself down, on the floor, against the wall, poor broken man.’ Broken man. It had to come to this.
It’s been a hard road but, at last, he realises that Florence was always as much his child as Paul was, as worthy of affection and everything else a parent owes. He ponders on ‘the loss of his two children. It was one child no more. He reunited them in his thoughts, and they were never asunder.’ Ah. But Dickens hasn’t finished with him yet. Dombey is completely certain that his loss of Florence is more complete than it would have been if she had died and, day after day, is tormented by the knowledge. ‘He would go to-morrow. To-morrow came. He would go to-morrow. Every night, within the knowledge of no human creature, he came forth, and wandered through the despoiled house like a ghost.’
Now, the auctioneers and furniture-movers gone, he reaches what seems to be the final crisis. There is nothing left for him to do except—what? Dickens doesn’t name it, but it’s clear: he—never Dombey, always ‘he’—could ‘only sever the tie between him and the ruined house, by severing that other link….’ And then he isn’t even ‘he’. Extraordinarily, in this novel in which image is so important, it isn’t Dombey who contemplates ending it all, but the ‘spectral, haggard, wasted likeness of himself’ he sees in the mirror. ‘It was thinking that if blood were to trickle that way, and to leak out into the hall, it must be a long time going so far.’ It isn’t Dombey working out the logistics, it’s this likeness, this ‘it.’ And he has the means to do it, clutched to his chest.
We can be sure he would have done it. But having brought him this far, it’s time for Dickens to bring about the only outcome that would be right for Florence. Luckily for everybody, she arrives at the very moment of crisis, the spectre in the glass about to do its worst. ‘Suddenly it rose, with a terrible face, and that guilty hand grasping what was in its breast. Then it was arrested by a cry—a wild, loud, piercing, loving, rapturous cry—and he only saw his own reflection in the glass, and at his knees, his daughter!’ Her presence, and nothing else, has returned him to himself. The reflection in the mirror is ‘his own.’
Marvellous. There might be three chapters remaining, but the two pages remaining in this one offer all the satisfying fulfilment we might have doubted could ever come about. It isn’t the time to think about the man who stood by as Carker submitted his brother to a life of humiliation, about the man who was incapable of the most basic level of parental duty, never mind care or affection. It’s time, Dickens insists, to remember again how he was the product of his upbringing, and how his face, forever now, ‘bears heavy marks of care and suffering.’ Well, maybe. The point is, Florence has brought about what she came back across the world to do. As soon as she had borne a child of her own—did I mention that?—she understood all about the strength of the parental tie. ‘When it was born, and when I knew how much I loved it, I knew what I had done in leaving you. Forgive me, dear Papa!’
Enough of that. Enough of all of it, almost. Toots and Susan Nipper are married by the time we next see them together, and another happy marriage is Morfin’s to Harriet Carker—who, with John, insists that the bulk of the legacy from their dead brother should go into trust for the otherwise destitute Dombey. Edith, staying with Feenix, allows Florence to tell Dombey enough of the truth to satisfy everybody—except the world, for whom she no longer exists. She’ll go to live in Italy. Meanwhile Alice, dying somewhere close enough for Harriet Carker to visit, can do it calmly…. Miss Tox has her own rewards, the affectionate respect of the Toodles family, Rob the grinder as her new servant, and the opportunity to show Dombey as much love as she ever did in the past, ‘platonic, but not weakened in the least.’ Mrs Chick, meanwhile, carries on living in the same stupid bubble she always lived in. But all’s well at the Wooden Midshipman, where Captain Cuttle remains as the living embodiment of everything wholesome. ‘To Wal’r and his wife! Hooroar!’
But that isn’t how the novel ends. Dombey, as soon as he first holds the child, is able to give the new baby Paul the straightforward, unconstrained affection he could never give to his son. And when Little Paul has a sister, Florence, Dombey has other opportunities to get things right the second time around. ‘Dear grandpapa, why do you cry when you kiss me?’ she asks him. ‘He only answers, “Little Florence! little Florence!” and smooths away the curls that shade her earnest eyes.’ This comes just before the final short paragraphs, which are about the love that Dombey had never understood before. They are in Brighton now, and so are the waves, but it isn’t his grandchildren they speak of. ‘They speak to him of Florence and his altered heart; of Florence and their ceaseless murmuring to her of the love, eternal and illimitable, extending still, beyond the sea, beyond the sky, to the invisible country far away.’
The end? Near enough.