Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

It was the best of Dickens, it was the worst of Dickens

As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it is undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve.

Charles Dickens is not often compared to Jane Austen, but the echo, intended or otherwise, of the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice in the first sentence of Martin Chuzzlewit prompts the comparison. Dickens uses the elegant prose of his time for his own purposes. He maintains, in the second sentence, the same style with the same straight face and the same ironic intention.

If it should ever be urged by grudging and malicious persons, that a Chuzzlewit, in any period of the family history, displayed an overweening amount of family pride, surely the weakness will be considered not only pardonable but laudable, when the immense superiority of the house to the rest of mankind, in respect of this its ancient origin, is taken into account.

In his opening paragraph, Dickens gives us the plot and theme of the novel in a nutshell. The theme is pride, the plot is contrived to show that social good and individual happiness are to be achieved only through self-sacrifice, not through self-love. Dickens parodies the prose of the time, literally the prose of The Times, for comic effect, but inherits his themes and his plots from earlier times.

His place in the picaresque tradition of story-telling, through Tom Jones and Humphry Clinker to Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, is well known. But there is a tradition of moralism in English literature to which he also belongs. The narrative of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, also picaresque in that it is about a journey, gives that journey a moral purpose. It continues a tradition which began with the morality plays of the late middle ages. The cast list of Everyman consists, not of people, but of moral qualities, such as Fellowship, Beauty and Discretion. Discretion makes an appearance in Pilgrim’s Progress too, along with Faithful and Talkative, as well as Mr Great-heart, Old Honest and Worldly Wiseman.

It would not be difficult to put the cast lists of Pilgrim’s Progress and Martin Chuzzlewit (or any of Dickens’s other novels) alongside each other and match them up: Mr Great-heart and Mark Tapley, Old Honest and Tom Pinch, Worldly Wiseman and Chevy Slyme. What Bunyan began, by making a more human drama out of the old morality plays, Dickens finished. Pecksniff is one of the many inspired names that Dickens gave to his characters, but his real name is Pride.

Martin Chuzzlewit ends when old Martin contrives to bring all his self-obsessed relatives together to see Pecksniff get his come-uppance, which Martin himself delivers.

As he came smiling on, and got within his reach, old Martin, with his burning indignation crowded into one vehement burst, and flashing out of every line and wrinkle in his face, rose up, and struck him down upon the ground.

It is a familiar scene in Dickens’s novels, as in melodramas of all kinds on stage and screen. The difference in Martin Chuzzlewit is that we learn at the same time that old Martin was never really in Pecksniff’s power at all. He was only pretending, putting Pecksniff to the test. Now, Pecksniff having failed the test, old Martin throws off his disguise and appears in the character of Justice.

‘I have summoned you here to witness it, because I know it will be gall and wormwood to you! I have summoned you here to witness it, because I know the sight of everybody here must be a dagger in your mean, false heart! What! do you know me as I am, at last!’

It is a highly theatrical moment which recalls another.

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and Time
Goes upright with his carriage.

Prospero, however, does not deliver justice in quite the same way that old Martin does.

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault.

In later novels, Dickens made his way to themes and plots that brought him closer to Shakespeare than to Bunyan, closer too in a way to Fielding and Smollett, whose observation of people in their social setting was less constrained by morality. His characters in Martin Chuzzlewit, which comes at a turning point in his career, are either good, bad or funny. What makes Mrs Gamp so memorable is that she is all three. She is a new kind of Dickensian character who is not drawn only as a caricature, but as a real person too. Her imaginary friend, Mrs Harris, to whom she continually refers, makes Mrs Gamp more real, especially near the end when the fiction is disbelieved by Mrs Prig.

     ‘Bother Mrs Harris!’ said Betsy Prig.
     Mrs Gamp looked at her with amazement, incredulity, and indignation; when Mrs Prig, shutting her eye still closer, and folding her arms still tighter, uttered these memorable and tremendous words:
     ‘I don’t believe there’s no sich a person!’

In the same way that Mrs Gamp begins to emerge from her comedy chrysalis to become a person in whom we can believe, so does Jonas Chuzzlewit begin to be more than Bunyan’s Envy or Mr Brisk. He does so, not by gaining our sympathy, but by losing it when we see him beating his wife. It happens, as it were, after the curtain has fallen, but it happens and from now on we have to take Jonas seriously.

    She went up to him, as it seemed, and spoke lovingly: saying that she would defer to him in everything, and would consult his wishes and obey them, and they might be very happy if he would be gentle with her. He answered with an imprecation, and –
    Not with a blow? Yes. Stern truth against the base-souled villain: with a blow.
    No angry cries; no loud reproaches. Even her weeping and her sobs were stifled by her clinging round him. She only said, repeating it in agony of heart, How could he, could he, could he! And lost utterance in tears.

Dickens ends the chapter with a return to the manner of the old Morality Play, intruding on the scene, as we would see it, with a little speech of his own.

Oh woman, God beloved in old Jerusalem! The best among us need deal lightly with thy faults, if only for the punishment thy nature will endure, in bearing heavy evidence against us on the Day of Judgment!

This, we might say, is the worst of Dickens. We don’t like our novelists to tell us what to think and, by and large, they don’t. (Though some of them are prone to do it on social media, so who knows whether there might not be a revival of Dickensian pontificating in the modern novel?) But when Dickens was writing, moral judgments were expected. Why mince your words? We might ask why we like Dickens for his outspoken criticism of social policy and capitalism, but find his moralising sentimental and embarrassing.

A more legitimate criticism of Martin Chuzzlewit would be for some of its structural weaknesses, notably in the American episodes, when young Martin goes to the USA, mainly to give Dickens an opportunity to paint some unflattering portraits of Americans on the basis of what he had seen on his first American tour. They were so personal and so harsh that he wrote an apology and promised to include it in every future edition of the book.

Until recently, his portrayal of America and Americans might have seemed to be largely of historical interest, but in the light of recent events it has acquired a new relevance. Among the names he made up for his self-important, greedy, bullying, ignorant American characters – Jefferson Brick, Cyrus Choke, Hannibal Chollop, Zephaniah Scanner – a real one from the 21st century would not look out of place.

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2018 by in Fiction, Literature and tagged , , .
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