30 August 2008
The first two monthly instalments. Sometimes – and I suppose it’s part of the skill – Dickens sounds as if he could do all this in his sleep: he’s set the controls to droll and now he’s on autopilot. Or – as Dickens’ own formula goes when he’s being uncharacteristically honest about Pecksniff – so his enemies would say.
The subjects of Dickens’ sardonic humour are the Chuzzlewit family in general and the Pecksniffs in particular. The opening chapter sets the tone: in ringing cadences, the unprepossessing nature of the Chuzzlewits is described as though they are one of the first families of the country. The humour is – what? – broad. After this introduction Dickens uses a natural phenomenon – a strong gust of wind leading to a pratfall – to get us into the company of Pecksniff and his daughters. Fine. So far he’s kept up this tone for five chapters, never referring to the Pecksniffs in any way other than admiring. It comes over as a sort of sarcasm. Pecksniff’s meanness is generosity, his pomposity is Christian feeling… etcetera. But I’m ok with it.
Pecksniff, basically, is a fraud – but it’s as if he’s been one for so long he’s forgotten he is: he believes he and his daughters are the epitome of Christian charity. So when his rich, old, terminally misanthropic cousin Martin Chuzzlewit unexpectedly arrives at the local inn, and all the Chuzzlewits descend on the village to try to inveigle their way into his will, he stays out of it. As if. We see what they‘re like and, obviously, it’s not pretty. They behave as comically venal families are supposed to behave, while Pecksniff – because the source of the comedy surrounding him is his belief in his own benevolence – plays back to them their barefaced malice as if it’s helpful discussion. We know the truth: his constant listening at the old man’s keyhole as he talks to a young female companion he has with him is exactly what the other Chuzzlewits do….
I suppose this is what I meant by the hidden skill. Pecksniff seems to be easy to dismiss – but there’s nothing simple about Dickens’ presentation of him. Unlike his daughters, who are comic grotesques by comparison, there’s something almost heroic about the moral acrobatics he performs daily to keep up the self-deception.
Anyway. We’ve also met Tom Pinch, who has been articled to Pecksniff for years, has learnt nothing useful, and believes every word of Pecksniff’s PR. He’s one of Dickens’ holy fools: naïve to the point of being a danger to himself, but without any malice at all. When he goes to meet the new apprentice – who turns out to be another Martin Chuzzlewit – he is taken in by the latter’s cynical egotism. We see this young Chuzzlewit hogging the fire, sorting out a comfortable ride for himself, taking the best food at the Pecksniffs’…. He’s polite, of course, and he buys his own rounds, but he embodies a kind of fraudulence that isn’t like Pecksniff’s. What’s the opposite of a holy fool? That’s the younger Martin C.
As this section begins we see more of Pecksniff’s fraudulence and get confirmation that young Martin is at least as bad as we thought. With a new pupil to do his work for him Pecksniff takes his daughters away to London for a week (next day). The way he tricks young Martin into looking favourably on the task – designing a grammar school rather than a cow-house or lamp-post – suggests he’s more calculating than I thought: he‘s good at this. Except… he never managed to fool John, the previous dogsbody who we met briefly as he was leaving in Ch 1 or 2; and Martin is no Tom Pinch. And as for Martin: he’s a Chuzzlewit – self-serving, venal, stubborn – and he does what Chuzzlewits always do. He presents himself as the victim of other people’s malice – notably that of his grandfather, old Martin – while Dickens makes fun of his pretensions so broadly, and has him behaving so exactly like the spoilt favourite in the big house, that even Pinch can see through him. Sort of. And there’s the start of another plot complication: young Martin flounced out of his inheritance because he fancied the young woman we met with the old man. And Pinch has seen her too: she often came to listen as he practised on the organ in the church, and he thought she was… well, guess.
There are a couple of comic episodes before we get back to the Pecksniffs, involving the obnoxious Slyme and his verbally creative sidekick Tigg. However… they get Pinch to stand security, on Pecksniff’s behalf, for their bill at the inn (and touch him for the half-sov which is no doubt everything he’s got). That’ll definitely end in tears. And Mark, the pub landlady’s right-hand man who’s so jolly he wants a real challenge – gravedigger? undertaker? – leaves the village, to general lamentation.
Meanwhile, in the coach to London, we get a proper look at the grotesque father and son we briefly met at the awful family gathering a few chapters back: Anthony Chuzzlewit and his creepy son Jonas – who really is his father’s son. Anthony is fond of cutting through Pecksniff’s humbug by calling a spade a spade; in fact, he offers Pecksniff a perfect critique of his own (the Pecker’s) methods. His son oleaginously butters up the two daughters, particularly Charity. His chat-up lines are all to do with making and saving money, and there’s something red in tooth and claw about his single-mindedness. He’s venality in person, with none of the fancy dress Pecksniff likes so much.
Next: three or four London chapters, starting with a virtuoso introduction to Todger’s and the surrounding district. Think rat-infested maze…. Mrs T is like a mother to a family of overgrown boys and, ok, it doesn’t lead to the greatest comedy in the book – but there‘s affection and innocence among the rivalries. Then we meet a real family, and there’s no affection or innocence at all in it. It’s the rich family where Pinch’s sister is a governess. She’s got Romantic Interest written all over her, and she’s treated like muck by her bosses and their precociously snobbish daughter. (Probable romantic link: Mark, who’s London-bound, looking to work for the most difficult people he can find.) Miss Pinch is everything the Pecksniff girls aren’t – Dickens likes offering these opposites in this novel – so, obviously, they treat her like muck as well when they go to give her a letter from her brother.
And finally in this section: Pecksniff gets a visit from an old gent, who turns out to be… Old Martin. It becomes clear that either the old man has been taken in by Pecksniff – no chance, surely? – or he’s taking Pecksniff for a ride by pretending to make him a kind of family trustee. The power relationship is clear: when Chuzzlewit says he wants Pecksniff to kick young Martin out, Pecksniff offers to go home early to do it…. What’s the old man up to?
The money-grubbing father and son are my favourites in the book so far. While the Pecksniffs are still in London the young one (Jonas) invites the daughters for a cheap tour of London followed by a cheap dinner at their house. Or, rather, at the place where they live – which is also the place where they work. They’ve turned money-saving scams into an art, and Jonas has not let up on his determination to impress Charity with his acuity – which continues to be the major part of his chat-up routine. (I’m assuming that Pecksniff is leaving his daughters alone with this mollusc in case there’s money in it. In other words he’s acting the pimp.)
Most of the rest of instalments 5 and 6 are focused on young Martin. Our first impressions are confirmed, obviously: he continues to treat Pinch as a servant, continues to bemoan his fate and blame his grandfather…. Speaking of whom: Pecksniff gets rid of Martin the grandson, as promised. His method of choice is to simply ignore Martin, to save himself from having to face him out, but he doesn’t save himself from another slapstick humiliation as Martin storms out.
Characters come and go – or come and stay. We see the generosity of John, the previous pupil who has now come into money. Once Martin gets to London, practically destitute, he meets Tigg again as he pawns what he has to try to stave off destitution. It doesn’t work, and he faces penury – but this is Dickens, so he mysteriously receives a £20 note. Then Mark turns up, and quickly realises he’s found his metier at last. Dickens is clever about it, but he leaves us in no doubt that Mark can see what a disaster Martin is – and what a selfish slob – so… he’ll become his manservant. And Mark knows how to get in touch with Mary, the girl Martin left his fortune for, and she turns out to be a good ‘un. Obviously. She’s like the one in Bleak House who ends up marrying Richard, despite him being a loser. Here, Dickens explains things carefully: she’s so good-hearted she doesn’t recognise Martin’s fixation on himself for what it is. Her understanding of self isn’t the same as Martin’s, he tells us. Mark, whistling in the background (studiously observing the London fog, in fact), recognises Martin perfectly for what he is.
Anyway. I read in Wikipedia that the instalments weren’t selling very well, which explains the weird turn that events now take: Martin decides to emigrate to America. Fine. On board, he and Mark behave exactly as you’d expect – Mark really has got to be rewarded with marriage to Pinch’s sister, surely, just as Pinch will surely get Mary in the end. I suppose Dickens’ original readers would assume the same and, like me, wonder how he will bring about these happy events. (And will there be a telling contrast between these marriages and the appalling Jonas’s marriage to one of the Pecksniff girls? He woos the sensible one, but all through Ch 11 it’s pretty, defiant Mercy he keeps noticing….)
An instalment set in New York, and another one following Jonas and Pecksniff in England. Dickens spends most of the New York chapters being rude about the Americans and their worship of The Dollar. And he has fun with the New Yorkers’ fondness for show. Chancers and slackers go by the names of generals and scholars. No-mark families call themselves the city’s aristocracy…. Dickens starts with a satirical look at their newspapers, which will mercilessly smear, and rake up fictitious scandals about, anybody who doesn’t grease the scandalmongers’ palms. Even Martin is taken aback by the venality and invective. (When he catches up with Mark after having forgotten all about him for their first few hours on land, Mark tells him of another kind of showiness: the man they met who was travelling light managed it by packing only shirt-fronts. Now there’s an iconic image for this book.)
The English chapters are far more entertaining than the clunky New York satire. We spend some time with Jonas, Anthony and their ancient servant Chuffey. Jonas’s thoughts, which he speaks not quite loudly enough for anybody to hear, are all about his father’s perverse insistence on staying alive. We’ve had this in earlier chapters, but there’s a real point to it this time: by the end of the chapter Anthony’s dead – but not before he’s had the chance to taunt Pecksniff again about his hypocrisy. (In fact, Dickens has made the money-obsessed old man and his money-obsessed son the only upholders of the truth in this respect: they tell it as it is while Dickens himself pretends to report Pecksniff’s unimpeachable moral uprightness….)
Dickens makes sure we’re highly suspicious of the circumstances surrounding old Anthony‘s death: Jonas has been checking the will immediately before; he makes sure Pecksniff is there to witness that he is doing everything possible (calling the doctor and so on) to save his father; he warns Pecksniff, or somebody, not to listen to anything old Chuffey might say; and, most suspicious of all, he buys the most expensive funeral available. So, a couple of chapters after we hear about the shirt-fronts, there’s an even starker emblem of show. Blinking heck.
Next: with the old man out of the way Jonas can get on with his next deal. Pecksniff is keen to broker it: it’s marriage to one of his daughters. There’s a wonderful set-piece scene between these two, with Pecksniff keen to pretend it’s all theoretical and respectable and Jonas keen to rub his nose in the reality of it. Particularly, he rubs his nose in the financial side of it: he demands a £4000 dowry, and it’s a sign of Pecksniff’s greed that he agrees – just as he’s agreed to pimp whichever daughter Jonas wants. When, back at the family house, he hears Charity complaining bitterly that Jonas has chosen Mercy – no surprise there, then – we get a great show of anger from him. And guess what? It isn’t anger at the creep for leading on one daughter to get to the other; it’s anger at Charity’s envy. No surprise there either, then. Jonas doesn’t witness this scene. He doesn’t need to: he knows he’s got Pecksniff hooked on his line, so he finalises the deal: that will be five grand, if that’s ok with Pecksniff. Pecksniff, ‘stupefied with wonder and admiration’ at this, agrees.
And then, guess who Pinch has just spoken to in the church? Old Martin, that’s who – and the chapter ends with Pecksniff even more stupefied: Jonas is exactly the person he doesn’t want Martin to see him with, and his daughters have thrown their masks off…. The chapter (and the instalment) ends with a loud knock at the door.
Instalments 9 and 10. That’s half-way through, and… I’m still finding the English sections more interesting than the American ones. Dickens has carried on alternating instalments between the two places. It takes three chapters in America to get Martin swindled out of all his – i.e. Mark Tapley’s – hard-earned savings and stuck, almost literally, in the middle of a fetid wilderness. Inevitably the place is called Eden, and their investment consists of a ramshackle hut and some land that is either sun-scorched trees and or slimy ooze. Other settlers tell them tales of death and woe: anybody who can gets out; anybody who can’t get out… dies. I can’t get a picture of it, but I’m not sure Dickens wants a true picture. It’s hell, and there’s an end of it.
Dickens had to bring Martin to this, I suppose. He makes it perfectly clear to the reader that the man selling the land is a conman, that the elaborate town plan is nothing but a figment, that, well, any money invested will be lost. Mark realises it, but he’s determined to follow Martin to the lowest point even if this means penury for himself. Which is exactly what he’s done. Now, as Mark tries to make the best of it, obviously, Martin sinks into self-pity. He’s convinced he’ll never get out alive.
Are we bothered? We’re half-way through and Martin has never shown anything but selfishness and a complete inability to read other people. I suppose he’s been brought to this nadir so he can start to learn from it. He’s become a kind of cynical, self-serving Candide, and Mark is his Pangloss – except this Pangloss can see things for what they really are. He just pretends it’s the best of all possible worlds as a kind of perverse existential challenge to his own insights. Anyway. I assume the only way is up, and that, surely, Martin is going to start to learn something soon. Unless Dickens kills him off, which would be a relief all round.
Then we’re back at Pecksniff’s. He manages to manoeuvre his way out of the potential embarrassment caused by old Martin’s visit, and… we get to the next interesting bit. Martin fancies Pinch as a potential suitor for Mary; she’s there with him, and Martin gets Pinch to light their way back to the inn. But the old man’s cynicism is too far-gone: he concludes Pinch’s ingenuousness to be a fraud. (Too long spent in Pecksniff’s company, I suppose he reasons.) Meanwhile Jonas doesn’t like the fact that Pinch was singled out for favour, so he meets him on the path and… is vicious to him. Pinch, at a loss, tries to get past him and the stick he‘s waving around – and Jonas ends up with an open wound on his forehead. But reader, guess what? Jonas pretends he walked into a tree in the dark. What’s he up to now? (Or is it simply a mark of the cowardice of the bully?)
The next big thing is the impending marriage. Mercy thinks she’ll be able to have as much fun being horrible to Jonas once they’re married as she’s having now. Jonas, privately, lets us see just how much he plans to get his own back. He’s going to make her life wretched. Martin, in a conversation that gives us a more fully rounded view of him than we’ve had before, decides to ask Mercy if she knows what she’s bloody well doing. He can see what Jonas is up to and wonders if she does. Is she being forced into it? She says no – and we realise she has precisely no insight into, well, anything. If Pecksniff’s been the pimp – which he has – she’s the lamb to the slaughter. The lamb is silly and empty-headed, having been given no education of any value by her stupid father – in fact, Pecksniff has got more and more to answer for as the novel carries on – but that doesn’t make Jonas any the less loathsome.
Now, unaccountably (or so it seems) the action returns to Mrs Gamp. She gets a job doing the night shift watching over someone ill with a fever. There’s plenty of comic business between her and Mould, the undertaker, as she tells him about it. He, like everyone else, is in it for what he can get, but pretending something different. And Mrs Gamp, who likes a drink, pretends she rarely takes a drop. I think it was around this point that I started to think, Dickens is Matt Groening a century and a half before The Simpsons: everyone’s a caricature, with one main attribute stretched beyond any realistic portrayal. And, like Springfield, Dickens’ London has a dramatis personae the size of a tiny village, so people’s paths cross and re-cross. Bu..ut we don’t mind that because we can see the satiric point. Anyway. As the invalid cries out in the night it becomes clear that he’s ranting about some sort of dirty deed. ‘You’ll ruin us all,’ he cries out in connection to some draught of sparkling water – but who’s he talking to? Guess. ‘Chuzzlewit!’ he shouts out a few minutes later, then ‘Chuzzlewit! Jonas! No!’ And that’s a lot of exclamation marks. Mrs Gamp keeps this to herself. Until then she’d been happy to praise Jonas for his open-handed attitude to the funeral arrangements, but now…. Hmm.
We briefly meet a barber, who talks to a dandyish footman he knew when he was just the cheeky servant-boy at Mrs Todger’s. He has a fine new job, and likes to walk around showing off his new clothes. He goes with the barber, who is also Mrs Gamp’s landlord, to pick up her things from Jonas’s place. Her day job has involved keeping an eye on Chuffey while the boss was away – but he‘s back now, with his new wife. Todger‘s boy, as was, is shocked by how miserable Mercy looks. She’s Mrs Chuzzlewit now, and if she’s been in any doubt about her welcome in London the dullness of the rooms, and no doubt plenty of things Jonas has been telling her on the way to London, have put her right. The last straw, or the last nail in the coffin, comes from Chuffey. When he hears about the marriage he throws his trembling hands in the air with, ‘Oh woe, woe, woe upon this wicked house!‘ Oh dear.
Six chapters, all of them in England. (We won’t be back in Eden until the next instalment – I already checked – which will have been a four-month gap for Dickens’ original readers. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. Or ooze, or slime.) And blimey. The true evil of Jonas and Pecksniff has come out at last. Dickens has got into the habit of apostrophising various virtues and vices, complete with biblical thee and thou, in order to – what? – to show he means real moral business after the clowning of the first half of the novel.
Instalment 11 is London-based, and is mainly about Jonas. Dickens takes his time – no change there then – establishing an old friend as a huckster with even more barefaced cheek than the American who conned Martin and Mark. The old friend is Montague Tigg, now T. Montague, chief of an imaginary company specialising in looking splendid (it’s where Bailey, the former Todger’s boy, now works) and taking people’s money. Most of (I think) Chapter 27 consists of the preposterous show Tigg and his cronies put on: plush offices, company coach, high-profile directors who have nothing to do but do lunch.
And guess what? Tigg hooks Jonas. He does it by telling him the truth – up to a point: the company is a sham, investors will get nothing…. Does Jonas want to come in as a partner? Of course he does, although it takes a lavish meal with fake aristos in tow to convince him. When Bailey takes him home drunk he hears the truth of Jonas’s relationship with Mercy. He really is getting his own back ‘a hundred-fold’, as he tells her, for the way she treated him before. And reader: Bailey can hear that he sinks so low as to hit her…. He’s no comic turn any more. It was bad enough when he was trying to bully Tom Pinch in the previous instalment. Now he’s in a place so far beyond redemption we just know he’ll come to an appalling end.
In the next instalment Pecksniff follows him there. Dickens continues to make him ridiculous – in a key set-piece scene he’s a kind of Stan Laurel, contorting himself into clownish positions to listen in on a conversation – but he’s no clown now. He’s listening to Mary spilling the beans to Tom Pinch about Pecksniff’s odious scheme to practically blackmail her into marrying him. The scene she’s reporting, which we saw in the previous chapter, was bad enough – he’s as repulsive to her as Carker is to Mrs Dombey in Dombey and Son – but what comes next is worse. The Pecker knows the only way he can get out of this is to accuse Tom of doing what he did, and disown him. So he does it. Tom is confirmed in his realisation that the Peckniff he thought he knew (cue capitals) Never Was. Gulp.
Dickens is obviously finding the American adventure as boring as the rest of us are, so he gets Mark and Martin out of it and back to London. But before all that he has to give Martin a good moral seeing-to. It takes months – but, thank God, Dickens gets it over with in a few paragraphs. Having been nursed back to health by Mark, well, he has to do the same in return when Mark spends a while kicking his heels around death‘s door. And, guess what: he begins to realise that he’s been a twat. More specifically, he realises that there’s a reason why people like Mark so much compared to him: Mark is helpful, doesn’t think about himself all the time. For the second time (or maybe more – how should I know?) Dickens holds up Self (capital S) for us to have a little look at, just as he did when Mary was talking to Martin. Then, she couldn’t see his selfishness because of her own lack of it. Now… what? Martin resolves to be better – not to make a song and dance of it, you understand, but to, well, not be so crap.
So the redemption has started, I suppose. For half a novel we’ve had to put up with the tiresome old-style Martin, but now he’s going to try to be better. When Mark begins to recover, he notices it and… and it’s time to get them home. They get money from the only genuine friend they made in America, meet some more American fraudsters and, virtue being its own reward, obviously, Mark gets a cook’s job on board the ship they sailed out in. (The virtue was Mark’s selfless insistence on doing so much cooking for his fellow-passengers before: even the captain’s heard how good he became at rustling up meals from unpromising ingredients….)
We’re still a long way from the end, but in London there’s a sense of things coming together for a big showdown. Or series of showdowns. First, Mark and Martin happen to be present as Pecksniff is guest of honour at the laying of a foundation-stone of a new building. It is exactly no surprise at all that the design is the one Martin drew before Pecksiff kicked him out. Plenty of future opportunities, then, for the tying up of threads: the simultaneous demolition of one reputation and the creation of another…. Then, in the next instalment, Tom Pinch arrives in London. He meets John, who wants to help him, and rescues his sister from the tyrannical family she’s been incarcerated with. He also meets, by accident, the Pecksniff girls. He’s appalled by Mercy’s misery – but she’s not beyond redemption either: she never complains openly about Jonas. (In a comic subplot Charity is half-forcing Moddle, the young gent at Todger’s who took a shine to Mercy, to go out with her. He’s hating it – and, when Jonas is out of the way, he’ll be back in with a chance. And like Martin, Mercy finds hardship is working wonders on her thoughtless character….)
Then, Jonas’s past begins to catch up with him, although so far the only people who know about his dirty deeds are Tigg Montague and his loyal spy Nadgett: Tigg uses the information to blackmail Jonas into pouring good money after bad into his imaginary company – and to suggest that old Martin would be a good one to get involved as well….
I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m sticking with my idea of Dickens’ London being the Simpsons’ Springfield. I think it was when I read Bleak House a year or so ago that I was struck not so much by the unfeasibility of the way paths cross, as by our willingness to accept this. So, Mark and Martin happening to notice Pecksniff outside their window on his way to be acclaimed for his prize-winning design: fine. Tom Pinch bumping into Charity and Mrs Todger by the Monument: no problem. Why don’t we judge Dickens as we would any other novelist? Maybe because he isn’t pretending it’s true. We simply come to expect it: it’s a convention we’re happy to accept and we welcome the return of familiar faces. (Something else Simpsons-like: the unstinting gullibility of the public. The cheering to the sky of Pecksniff is like Springfielders’ response to the opening of a crappy mall or… or, well, several scams per season. In this respect the British public are just as bad as the American audiences for all those snake-oil merchants Dickens presents them with.)
And we are pretty sure that, somehow, the characters we like will form a happy band to bring down the bad guys. Or failing that, the bad guys will simply bring each other down and the good guys will reap the benefits. We know this – it’s another of those conventions – it’s just that we don’t know how Dickens will make it happen. Time to read on.
Two more instalments, the first of which follows the (gently rising) fortunes of Tom Pinch and his sister, until a little narrative nodule – it seems wrong to call it a series of coincidences – lets Dickens change horses and follow Jonas and Montague for a while. For a good while, in fact: the crooks are in the frame for most of the next instalment as well.
Tom and his sister find somewhere to live, and we follow the over-sweetened paean to domesticity that forms most of Chapter 39. And, guess what? John likes the look of Ruth when he’s invited for the perfect beef pudding she cooks. And guess what? Tom gets a job, a kind of sinecure paid for by some mysterious benefactor. Who can it be? (No, really, we don’t know.) And is it the same person who sent Martin the lifesaving £20 when it was just about all up with him?
Anyway. There’s nothing they like more than an early-morning stroll to see the passenger-boats – and guess who they see trying to make a secret Channel crossing? Jonas and Mercy. And guess who is asked to present a short note to Jonas that stops him in his tracks (and who is hated by him thereafter, as we find out in the next few chapters)? It’s Tom, of course – because his landlord is also at the quayside and asks him to. As you would. Unknown to Tom – and to us for quite a while – the landlord is Nadgett. Oh, and while we’re talking about happy meetings: they meet Mrs Gamp, there to – what? – to be there, I suppose.
The next chapter, and the next instalment, are about the power-game Montague Tigg plays with Jonas – and the upshot of it. Which is… they’re going to fleece Pecksniff. They go all the way to his village overnight, which gives Dickens a chance to do his pathetic fallacy thing with a lot of knobs on: the journey through a thunderstorm is the polar opposite of Tom Pinch’s idyllic journey to London. It’s a strobe-lit nightmare and, for Montague Tigg, the evil spirit at the centre of it is Jonas. In fact, Jonas is becoming almost a pantomime villain now, not only unsavoury but downright murderous. We’ve seen him quizzing the company’s doctor about scalpel blades and cutting throats – and in the coach Tigg sees an ‘optical illusion’ in a lightning flash which seems to reveal Jonas about to kill him. How ridiculous – until the speeding coach overturns and we see Jonas trying to get the panicking horses to trample Tigg’s head….
But they arrive in Wiltshire and… do the deed. Pecksniff, of course, pretends not to understand how the company gets its money – as Jonas knew he would – and sinks everything he’s got into it. As Jonas knew he would. (Of course, as Dickens reminds us, Pecksniff also expects an inheritance from old Martin. But only Pecksniff thinks that’s safe.) So it looks like part 1 of Pecksniff’s downfall – his financial ruin – is wound up and ready to go.
How’s Dickens going to manage part 2, the disgrace? Obviously Martin’s going to be involved, so he has to be got to Pecksniff’s house. He’s there to plead for a meeting with old Martin, who lives there now – but the Pecker won’t hear of such a thing, of course. But he and Mark lever themselves in and Martin talks to his grandfather. Ok. Now, either old Martin has succumbed to the infirmities of age and is in a kind of thrall to Pecksniff – he lets the great humbug do all the speaking for him – or… he’s playing a long game. He lets Pecksniff dismiss Martin, only overriding him in one minor way: he pays off the debt to the American benefactor. But there’s another hint of the old man’s independence: Mary has a few minutes with Martin and tells him about Pecksniff’s advances – and that old Martin, understanding that it wasn’t what she wanted, has told Pecksniff to back off.
There‘s obviously more to it than that. The change that magically came over old Martin when he had his meeting with Pecksniff early on in the book was entirely out of character. Sceptics like the Chuzzlewits don’t suddenly pull the wool over their own eyes like that – as Dickens deliberately shows us with Jonas’s continuing cynicism…. I’m assuming that old Martin is putting his wayward grandson through some sort of test. He wants to see what young Martin can do for himself – and he’s already passed several hurdles. The character-building American adventure: survived, with character suitably built. Ability to behave in a civilised, adult way instead of like a spoilt child: definitely achieved, as proved by the way he speaks at Pecksniff’s. Genuine affection for Mary: not in any doubt. But…. Ability to make something of himself? Not proven. Which, I suppose, is why the old man is happy to have Pecksniff send him away. With about less than a quarter of the novel yet to run, and the secret of Pecksniff’s high-profile success waiting to be blown, we gleefully wait for the explosion. We don’t know how, but we do know it’s going to happen.
Just one instalment, but it’s the best one yet, with some sensational set pieces focusing on Jonas. First, however… there’s some necessary housekeeping to get out of the way. Chapter 43 starts with a deliberate/accidental meeting: John Westlock and Ruth Pinch near the fountain where she always goes to meet Tom after work. Dickens gives us what we want: an uncomplicated bringing together of two likeable (if bland) characters. They all go to see Charity and thence to see Mercy and… there’s more talk of dark deeds from poor Chuffey. He can’t get the idea of the dead Anthony out of his head – to the extent that Mrs Gamp – Dickens is including most of the usual suspects – later tells Jonas about it. Jonas: he’s rushed back from Salisbury (for reasons which will become clear) and shoos everyone out except Mercy and Mrs G. So now Dickens can get on with it.
He spins a story to Mercy that he’s going to sleep off his exhaustion in a disused spare room at the back of the house, and… cue set piece No. 1: the tomb-like room, with its earthy, dank smells. Jonas’s lets himself out – which must have been the model for Mr Hyde’s secret comings and goings 40 years later through a different mouldering door – and goes off in disguise. So, another journey west, another mood – murderous – until Jonas reaches a point where Tigg is due to walk past…. Cue set piece No 2: the road through the woods made beautiful by the setting sun, with Tigg entering it… dot dot dot. The deed’s done, and cue set piece No. 3: the workings of the murderer’s conscience, if that’s what it is. I thought of Poe’s ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ – and have since found out that Poe admired a story that Dickens wrote a couple of years before. Poe’s tale and this instalment of Martin Chuzzlewit were both written in the same year, 1843.
Anyway. Jonas obsesses about Tigg, half-expecting – more than half – to find Tigg somehow there to meet him in the tomb-like room. Once in the room he waits for the knock at the door. Which doesn’t come, obviously, but from now on Jonas can never stop listening, listening. The last one-word paragraph of the instalment is the same as one we got when Jonas was off on his secret mission: ‘Hush!’
…aka instalment 18. Which means there’s nothing left to come but the final (double) instalment. And I’ve just found out what an idiot I’ve been. Just before the end of this instalment Tom’s employer arrives, and it’s the only person who it could ever have been, hale and strong – not at all decrepit and apparently in his dotage as when we last saw him. And, obviously, it was also old Martin who sent the lifesaving £20 to his grandson when he was still testing him out centuries ago….
But I got a couple of things right. As expected (starting eight chapters ago – nearly three instalments), a kind of Fellowship of the Ring forms itself from the group of good guys: Martin, Mark, Tom and John. Dickens has two jobs for them: find out if there’s any truth in the story told by the man who was raving while in Mrs Gamp’s supposed care half a book ago; and expose Pecksniff as a fraud. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a Gandalf leading the crew, as determined as any of them to turn the cosmic zapper on evil in all its forms. Ok, old Martin’s real interest is in Pecksniff. But when he finds out, as he will, what his nephew Jonas has been up to… well. Things are nicely set up for the last double dose.
Anything else? We get some broad comedy between the two comic frauds Mrs Gamp and Mrs, er, Thingy. The set piece is the description of Mrs G’s room, as chaotic and all over the place as she is herself (and how often does Dickens do that kind of person/place match in this novel?); and the row between her and her sometime colleague. It’s, well, broad – but it’s a breather before some tricky stuff to come. Which takes the form of young Martin terminating his friendship with Tom. We know this is only going to be a temporary thing, leading to professions of greater friendship than ever, but it serves another purpose: Tom assumes Martin has discovered his unspoken love for Mary, and this allows Dickens to have Tom tell Ruth how he knows that such a love could never be returned…. And it allows him a metafictional joke as well: Tom reminds Ruth that he’s not a character in a book: in reality you don’t always get the thing you want however right it might seem. ‘But there is a much higher justice than poetical justice, my dear,’ he tells Ruth, and Dickens can offer him a reward in heaven if not in this world. Good old Dickens. Bring on the last four chapters.
The final double instalment. Chapter 51 is all about Jonas – or about how the Fellowship (or whatever) aren’t going to put up with him. He squirms in discomfort until he’s finally skewered by old Martin and arrested. Disgust and horror suitably elicited, Dickens has him poison himself to get him out of the way for the main business. That’s ok, although I’m disappointed that Mercy doesn’t get a proper look in. she doesn’t entirely disappear, but we don’t see as much of a redemption as I would have liked – even though old Martin, our MC in the redemption show that these chapters become, has an important conversation with her. She somehow seems to have been invalided out of the action, marginalised by the black comedy of Charity’s wedding in the very final chapter….
But Dickens has had a lot of other threads to tie up before that. Which, naturally, he is happy to do because that’s what we’re happy to read about. It’s the opposite of the experience of reading almost any other novel except, perhaps a whodunnit. We crave the poetic justice that Tom said we can’t always have, although I don’t know where it comes from that as soon as we get into a Dickens novel we instantly understand that it’s part of the deal.
After Jonas, it’s Pecksniff’s turn in the next chapter. It goes as well as we’ve been hoping – and the contrast between his expectations when he arrives and the treatment he gets is exactly as great as the contrast between the way he presents himself to the world and the seedy reality. Blimey, If that isn’t poetic justice, what is? Dickens finds it convenient to have put old Martin through at least two kinds of transformation. One is the throwing off of the disguise he kept up for all the months when he pretended to be in thrall to Pecksniff. That one was expected, although it turns out it was Pecksniff he was testing at least as much as young Martin. The other transformation is more weird: the old man is suddenly the great moral arbiter, passing judgment on Pecksniff and, in less courtroom-like contexts, the other characters. Dickens puts into Martin’s mouth words that you might expect God to speak on the Day of Judgment – or words that Dickens himself simply wants to have said. You can’t argue with any of it, or at least not as you read it. Pecksniff is incorrigible, so he carries on being oleaginously the same even when all his secrets are out. Do we rejoice in it? I suppose we do. Justified Schadenfreude: what could be more agreeable?
Tom, of course, gets all the happiness in the world. Ok, he doesn’t get the girl, but in the heaven on earth Dickens describes him living in at the end who needs the girl anyway? It’s part of the asexuality of a character like Tom that fulfilment of such a kind simply doesn’t figure. For God’s sake, he and his sister at least as much mutual affection as any married couple in the book: the highly sexual Dickens isn’t going to let any such concerns into the moral universe of this novel – in which the emotionally illiterate Tom, shocked into stupefaction by the fact that his sister and friend might be attracted to one another, is regarded by one and all as the pinnacle of generosity and goodness.
The last chapter is like a Shakespearian final scene, all happy marriages and the tying up of loose ends. And, because this kind of storytelling’s been going on longer than our super-sophisticated qualms, we love it. Just as we love the discomfiture of the irredeemable Charity, jilted by poor Moddle who decides that a life in Australia is preferable to what she was offering. As old Martin bleats on about the evil byways people are led into by Self, we hear about Self personified and his daughter living a threadbare and unhappy life bleating on about injustice. Bless.
Did I love it? Well, yes, despite everything. With a character like Tom you can understand why people hate Dickens: there’s no psychological truth in a character who seems too unworldly to have survived five minutes in the world – and yet ends up a kind of icon. In a novel swinging so many heavy moral hammers you expect a bit more than Sunday school homilies…. And yet. The set pieces, especially in the last quarter or third of the book, are stupendous. It’s worth reading for Peckniff’s attempted interference in the scene between the two Martins; for almost any scene in which Jonas appears; for those journeys between Wiltshire and London; for the uncompromising, unapologetic insistence on the pathetic fallacy that the internal and external worlds are one and the same. As I said before, we realise what the deal is as soon as Dickens gets started, and we’re fine with it. Clever bastard.