“Martin Chuzzlewit”- The Dark Horse of Dickens?

swirl-divider4Described by Dickens as “in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories”, we come to the 7th of his novels, “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Unfortunately, the general public didn’t seem to agree about it being the best, so it has always remained low profile.

You can argue it’s  natural and typical-an author’s pride, joy and dear baby never seems to be appreciated by others quite as much as they themselves do. So we can feel for Dickens.

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Mr Pecksniff and old Mr Chuzzlewit

1) The themes explored in the novel include murder, satire, deception, selfishness, selfishness and more selfishness. (some are not very nice people).

2) The protagonist Martin travels to America to a colony situated in a swamp, he becomes very ill,  is at the brink of death and sinks into a period of ruin and despair. Despite his hardships, he becomes much improved by the time he returns to Britain, with the aid of his very optimistic and jolly friend Mark Tapley.

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3) It illustrates Dickens’s turning point towards the darker threads of human nature and refinement of his writing style, comparing the satire and humour of “Nicholas Nickleby” against his later novels such as “Tale of Two Cities”, “Our Mutual Friend”, “Great Expectations” and “Bleak House”. 

4) Dickens portrays America in a poor light; “deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag, pollute it star by star, and cut our stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier.” Offensive to many of his American readers? It seems the novel and its characters are quite biased in regards to Dickens’s first visit to the country. He must have had a really bad experience….

Our Mentionable Characters:

  • Mr Pecksniff and his hypocrisy. He is a character you are itching to strangle. Even the online dictionary has an entry in his honour. Pecksniffery/Pecksniffian: adj- affecting benevolence or high moral principles.
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Martin, Mr Pecksniff with his two daughters and Tom Pinch

  • The admirable Tom Pinch who puts others needs before his, humble and loyal. Everyone’s friend. You want to wrap him up in cotton wool and keep him safe. But without the juxtaposition of other villains and the unfair trials Tom must bear, his positive qualities cannot shine through.
  •  Martin is not the focus. He is weak minded, sometimes fickle and lacks a commanding personality despite his improvement later in the novel. An interesting question is how he is comparable to Dickens’s other protagonists?? Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, even Nicholas. (yes it has come to a point where I am on a first name basis with him)
  • Mrs Gamp. Described as a “drunken and verbose” nurse, she provides much comedic relief to the story. Honestly, the things she says hardly makes sense, but she is reliable and does her job well. That’s all we need to know.
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Mrs Gamp immortalised on a stamp

5) Perhaps you need to be a die-hard fan to be motivated to finish this novel. It is quite wordy and so dedicated reading is a must, to pick up from where you left off. Maybe one day I will give it another chance from the beginning! Though it took me a lot longer to complete, nevertheless- I did enjoy it and will be sad when my collection of Dickens is finished! I console myself that there is yet “A Tale of Two Cities” to go…

“The Old Curiosity Shop”: A Strange and Moving Tale

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This spiritual tale is Dicken’s 4th after “Nicholas Nickleby”.

“Dark and dream-like, The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with unforgettable, grotesque characters: Quilp, a demonic dwarf who eats eggs in their shells and drinks boiling rum, a loving grandfather with a terrible gambling addiction, frail but loving Nell and her wicked brother Frederick, corrupt, abusive lawyer Sampson Brass and good hearted hero Kit Nubbles. Famously one of Dickens’s most moving tales, The Old Curiosity Shop is also one of his strangest and most memorable.”

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1) I really enjoyed the book, it was partly this edition too (Penguin English Library) that started my more dedicated reading of his lesser known novels.

2) It is a tragic story of young, loving Nell who escapes from the inner city of London with her grandfather to take refuge in the English countryside. There is great juxtaposition between Dickens’s vivid descriptions of  the city versus that of the quiet solitude they experience on the road out of London. It is not hard to understand why the grandfather would develop a paranoia that they are constantly being chased and have to move on, further, quicker to their journey’s end.

3) The reason for their flight is due to- Daniel Quilp. Seen as one of Dickens’s most evil villains- a devilish dwarf who abuses his wife and terrifies everyone around him. He is controlling and takes sadistic pleasure in the suffering of other people. Nell’s grandfather borrows money off him, and naturally Quilp uses this to his advantage. He takes control of the old man’s property (the curiosity shop) upon his illness…in fact, there is nothing Quilp won’t do…as you will find out.

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4) This illustration pretty much sums it all up. Quilp cackling away in a corner, delighting in terrifying people while Nell’s grandfather hides his head in despair; while poor, loving Nell comforts him.

5) When you read the novel, you have a feeling the end will be tragic. It is believed the inspiration of little Nelly Trent is from Dickens’ sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. When she died in 1837 at the age of 17 he was heartbroken. He wore a ring of Mary’s the rest of his life, and wanted to be buried in the same grave as her upon his death.

6) “Then, on it came again, silent and stealthy as before, and replacing the garments it had taken from the bedside, dropped upon its hands and knees, and crawled away. How slowly it seemed to move, now that she could hear but not see it, creeping along the floor! It reached the door at last, and stood upon its feet. The steps creaked beneath its noiseless tread, and it was gone.” – This has to be one of the most nightmarish images in a Dickens book. I could just imagine a hunchbacked creature with spindly legs stealthily crawling about my room at night – right out of a horror film. Of course what makes it worse is this ‘creature’ Nell sees stealing money from her room is no other than her own grandfather.

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Kit is taught by Nell in the old curiosity shop

7) The character of loyal and endearing Kit Nubbles creates a contrast against Quilp and the scheming lawyer Sampson Brass.  He is dedicated to the well being of his family and loves little Nell dearly. Quilp hates him with a passion, resenting his dedication to the family, taking great pains to destroy the boy. He even has a wooden figure head put up in his home to represent Kit, which he defaces and attacks at every given chance. Poor Kit!

8) The novel is definitely dreamy and dark, and as the summary makes reference to, is no doubt one of Dicken’s strangest and most memorable novels. It exists in a little sphere of its own – existing in a snow globe.

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Nell takes comfort among the tombstones

9) Nell’s innocence is corrupted by her grandfather’s gambling addiction…weeks of weary travel and they are reduced to beggars. This no doubt affects her health.  She is often described as an angel, a little girl who takes comfort among the tombstones, appreciating the stillness and the quietude of the nature around her. Strangely her character is not as well developed as you might hope , and does not appear too often as the main protagonist.

10) I’m a big fan of illustrations in Dickens. There are great illustration per chapter in this edition which really brings the narrative to life.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and one of the first I finished before I began the idea of writing a review on Dickens. I really recommend “The Old Curiosity Shop” for those who are just starting on Dickens and want one of his lighter books to read. It is a touching story and one that you will remember for a long time afterwards…

“Nicholas Nickleby”: A Tale of Satire

swirl-divider4“I shall never regret doing as I have—never, if I starve or beg in consequence.”

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens is a story critics have until recently, found fault in. But it has remained one of the general public’s favourite. Why?

Sure it has aspects of the theatrical and flamboyant. Though critics have found the characters “one dimensional and the plot too episodic”, it had immediate success upon publication. There is something about Nicholas that makes him worthy as Dickens’s male protagonist. He has a mixture of naivety, innocence, optimism and youthful gallantry- the people’s champion through his indignation towards injustice.

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Let’s look at a summary: “One of Dickens’s most flamboyant and theatrical novels, Nicholas Nickleby is the story of an impulsive young man who, forced to make his way in the world encounters human life in all its variety: the tyrannical headmaster Wackford Squeers, the tragic orphan Smike, the  ridiculous Mantalinis, the hilarious thespians Mr and Mrs Crummles and their daughter, ‘the infant phenomenon’. Nicholas Nickleby is fired by outrage at cruelty and injustice, but is above all a work filled with riotous, life- affirming comedy.”

Wow. So all that said and done, what did I think after reading it?

1. Sticking to this ‘outrage at cruelty and injustice’, the best example of this is through his punishment of the tyrannical Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. Taking up a situation as mentor/teacher without real knowledge of his situation, Nicholas witnesses the unjust treatment, starvation, illness, violent beatings and the shoddy education the headmaster preaches. In fact, Dotheboys Hall is not a real hall at all but a house with a sort of farm shed used for teaching the boys. Dickens portrays the horrors of many Yorkshire boarding schools for unwanted children (we are also brought to the attention the cruelty of “evil step parents” who sent their kids to boarding school to get them out of their lives)

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The thrashing of Wackford Squeers, immortalised on a Royal Mail stamp

2. What makes Nicholas’s punishment of Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall so satisfying is that he is not under obligation to Squeers. Nicholas is old enough to take matters into his own hands and make his mark in the world- if he chooses to. He can be impulsive and rash, but essentially he represents the voice and mind of the reader through his indignation of injustice and in this- he never fails.

3. Nicholas Nickleby is Dickens’s third novel after “Oliver Twist”. There are comparisons that can be made in his writing style and focus at the time of publication, to his later works.

4. Nicholas befriends a poor orphan named Smike- a truly tragic and heart breaking character who becomes his fast friend, escaping with him from the boarding school. Smike follows him on his journey throughout the novel.

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The internal economy of Dotheboys Hall

5. Like many protagonists, Nicholas is under obligation to someone or another (may it be morally or financially). After his father’s death he becomes “the man of the family”, yet as a country boy in a large city and still ignorant of the ways of the world, must rely on the goodwill of others. Upon his arrival, he and his small family (consisting of mother and sister) are under obligation to his uncle. Well, we can guess how that turns out….

6. The villains in the novel are as bad as those iconic of Dickens. The cynical, miserable Uncle Ralph takes a disliking to his nephew and schemes to undermine and break him- even using his sister Kate as bait. Ralph Nickleby is a man consumed and destroyed by revenge, in which nothing can appease him.

7. The other notable character is Wackford Squeers himself. He is a deplorable and morally perverse character but the reader is often disappointed at how little he appears. The novel naturally follows Nicholas and save from various chapters where the narrative of Ralph takes over, Squeers fades into the background.

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8. It has become a part of course really, the more I read of Dickens, for the summary to refer to each “book in question” to be the most SATIRICAL and contain Dickens’s MOST realised and comical characters. Each book claims this and well, there is truth in it. It just wouldn’t be a Dickens without them. As a writer, I only wish I could have even half the range of character development as he does…

9. Halfway through the book, Nicholas’s luck changes and so does the pace and structure of the narrative. You are still anxious for Nicholas as his enemies try to outwit and close in on him at every corner, but I found it harder to commit myself, and it took me longer to get through the book.

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9. I found myself getting bored with some of the events (his pursuit of Madeline Bray). In my opinion, there were characters and events taking place in “Our Mutual Friend” that kept the plot going far quicker. I can’t say I was disappointed exactly, because I was still satisfied with the ending, and how events turned out. However, some of the things in Nicholas Nickleby seemed a bit superfluous and failed to grab me like some of the other books.

10. I saw the BBC series of Nicholas Nickleby once upon a time, and it did influence my image of Nicholas, (softly spoken, tall, gentlemanly) so this was going round in my mind while I was reading the book. Dickens doesn’t actually describe his physical appearance or even his character in detail, so it is up to us; the reader to form our own opinions. But this does not desist from the point that it is almost impossible not to love such a, dare I say it; faultless character. He will remain in the vault, as one of Dickens’s most memorable protagonists to date.

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Nicholas Nickleby 2002 film adaptation

“Barnaby Rudge”: A tale of violence

swirl-divider4Dicken’s review number 2, comes “Barnaby Rudge“. It is not as famous as his other novels, and quite understated. To give you an idea of what it’s about if you haven’t read it, firstly, here is a SUMMARY:

“Dicken’s first historical novel is filled with violence, looting and the terrible deaths of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots that swept London in 1780. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ tells the story of Barnaby, a simple boy caught up in the riots, and the friends and family who are themselves affected by the strange events in Barnaby’s life, including kind- hearted locksmith Gabriel Varden, dim-witted and egotistic landlord John Willet and the brilliantly villainous Sir John Chester. This is an unforgettable novel of conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and Gothic melodrama.”

gordon-riots-newgate-prisonHere are some bite sized facts:

1. This is the 5th book Dickens wrote, after “The Old Curiosity Shop”. 

2. Like the rest of his works, it explores the inequality between social class. Ordinary citizens are seen to rise up and loot, steal, burn down houses and prisons; a total anarchy where they themselves perished- the poor, vagrants who have nothing to lose. (Those who are forerunners of the riots seem not to have a purpose for following the cause, in the case of Hugh and the hangman Dennis)

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“The Gordon Riots” by John Seymour Lucas

4. It is comparable to his later novel “A Tale of Two Cities” detailing the tumultuous period of the French Revolution and the danger of a disruptive society and mob behaviour.

5. You feel for Barnaby, a simple boy who takes comfort, joy and happiness in his surroundings. His loyalty and kind heartedness makes him a target. He follows his ‘assumed’ friend and does all he is bidden without question, hoping it will bring his mother and himself into the path of riches, and ultimately, a better life for them both. The story of Barnaby is very touching, and emphasises on how innocence can be corrupted by those with their own agenda.

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The rise and revolt of the people

 

6. Though”Barnaby Rudge” took me longer to read than “Our Mutual Friend” (and this can be due to other contributory factors)- I enjoyed it a lot.The beginning was quite captivating and portrays a ‘different’Dickens, a step away from the frivolity, and often comical vanity of the upper class. It creates a comparison between the peaceful, pastoral life versus that of the bloodshed in the streets of the city, sparked by the 1780 anti-catholic uprising. This was led by Lord George Gordon, leader of the Protestant Association of London. The riots were a wave that swept over London- the power of persuasion and word of mouth, growing out of proportion to make law abiding citizens rise up and revolt. The novel depicts violence fuelled by poverty and the influence of those in position who abuse their power.

7. Yet aside from all the violence and turmoil of the riots,this is a Dickens book like all the others,and his characters are no less developed. You come across characters like Sir John Chester who you really hate and whom you hope gets dealt the justice he deserves (but of course, this is a Dickens so ultimately, good always triumphs over evil) and relationships that always undergo a long, painful trial before the ‘light of happiness’ is finally revealed.

All in all, “Barnaby Rudge” is another satisfying Dicken’s novel, and the 5th one… that I have binge read over the summer!

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“Our Mutual Friend” Dickens


Finally, I have found time for a Dickens Review! I put these in small bite 20140804_144457sized chunks, for easy viewing…so here begins;

  • Summary as taken from the blurb of Our Mutual Friend: “Dicken’s last completed novel and one of the greatest books about London, ‘Our Mutual Friend‘ is a dark, enigmatic portrayal of a city corrupted by money.When a body is pulled out of the Thames, it is presumed to be John Harmon, drowned under suspicious circumstances before he could claim the fortune his father made from rubbish heaps. This mystery impinges on the lives of the naiive, hardworking Boffins, the riverside scavenger Gaffer Hexam, his beautiful daughter Lizzie, the mercenary Bella Wilfer and the doll’s dressmaker Jenny Wren, in a story of greed, death and renewal.”16

1. A dark story, it is considered one of Dicken’s most “sophisticated works”, though perhaps, one of his least well known.

2. The novel has a vast array of memorable characters which, through his wit and humour; you soon grow attached to.Though the language is less straight forward compared to his earlier novels, don’t be put off. The narrative is very well thought out and incredibly complex with intricate and unexpected plot lines. Compare the layers to an onion…

3. Death, intrigue, mystery, romance – it has everything. You are fooled along with a great number of characters along the twists and turns of a very complex narrative.Very satisfying as characters get their just rewards and no evil deed goes unnoticed, or unpunished. For me, the reading experience has to hold a variety of things, just like my favourite films. Action adventure mixed with fantasy and a bit of romance. It’s great how though Dickens manages to portray the worst of human nature in squalid London and the boundaries of social class- there is a particularly heart warming scene between John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer that I always find myself going back to and just melts my heart (yup, I’ve bookmarked the pages)

OMF-Lodger-and-Daughter4.Like each of his books, there are some great characters- no matter what shape or form they take, from the devilish and hideous dwarf Quilp in “The Old Curiosity Shop” who delights in playing tricks on others and getting the better of them, to the one legged and villainous Silas Wegg who circulates the pages of “Our Mutual Friend.”

5.However one thing about Dickens most people notice, is that his female characters are often under developed. They either hold supporting roles, as spinsters, the frugal or the vain and frivolous, or proud mothers. Young females are all dignified, elegant, pretty who undergo some tragedy or suffering which make them all the more beautiful and heroic; sought after and admired by men of all ages.

6. The illustrations are wonderfully detailed. They really bring the characters to life and gives that something bit extra to your reading experience.

177.The novel exemplifies on the corruption money can bring, the greed it excites, and how it effects the lives of those it touches.

8.After finishing the book, I thought up a hierarchy of wealth of all of the characters in the novel, taking into consideration their fluctuating social position. This may seem a bit time consuming and superfluous, but the story made me think long after I had closed its pages,(often as I was lying awake at night) and it was my way of sorting through the vast array of characters in the novel. I don’t want to give away spoilers by laying it out in all its glory. So I will let you read it first…

(Follow for more bite sized reviews on “Barnaby Rudge”, “Nicholas Nickleby” and other Charles Dickens novels.)