Dombey and Son (1846 – 1848)
Wordsworth Classics, 808pp
Dombey and Son was the first novel Charles Dickens mapped out thoroughly in advance. Many of his previous novels had this meandering, picaresque quality – which was fine for The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby. Dombey and Son, a novel in which Dickens conceived of a father who desired a son but is left with just a daughter, and turns wicked because of life’s unjust blows, needed control, a structure to hold it together and through which we could feel the pain of Florence Dombey and this eccentric, brilliant cast of characters.
In his preface of 1867, Dickens has this to say of Paul Dombey: “Mr Dombey undergoes no violent change, either in this book, or in real life. A sense of his injustice is within him, all along. The more he represses it, the more unjust he necessarily is.” This is a marked change in Dickens’s attitude to villainy: in Oliver Twist you had Fagin and Bill Sikes, in Nicholas Nickleby Sir Mulberry Hawk and Wackford Squeers. Choose any Dickens novel before Dombey and Son, and you have villains noted for their villainy. Mr Dombey is human, capable of heart, of love, of feeling pain: there must be humanness in him, for he woos not only Florence’s mother, but Edith Granger, whom willingly marries him. It is because the villainy in Dombey and Son has such a human face that this novel derives its great power.
The novel’s impact upon Dickens whilst writing it was equally powerful. I quote again from his 1867 preface: “I began this book by the Lake of Geneva, and went on with it for some months in France, before pursuing it in England. The association between the writing and the place of writing is so curiously strong in my mind, that at this day, although I know, in my fancy, every stair in the little midshipman’s house, and could swear to every pew in the church in which Florence was married, or to every young gentleman’s bedstead in Doctor Blimber’s establishment, I yet confusedly imagine Captain Cuttle as secluding himself from Mrs MacStinger among the mountains of Switzerland. Similarly, when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris—as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I parted company.” Dombey and Son is the novel that had Thackeray despairing of “Writing against such power as this.” It is a novel whose hold and power over the reader is vice-like, tendentious in its form and motive. Its importance has remained undimmed with age: men like Dombey exist today, and women like Florence are still subjugated the same.
Dickens is often criticized for his sentimentalism, and with echoes of Wilde’s line about needing a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell still in mind, one comes to the first truly sentimental moment in Dombey and Son: the death of the Son. Master Paul Dombey, until his death, has pulled at the heart strings for he is a sickly young boy, devoted to his sister, and who listens to the waves: “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.” His death, inevitable as it is, provokes nothing like the same reaction Little Nell’s does in The Old Curiosity Shop. Master Dombey’s death is a hollowing of the heart, a masterpiece of subtle powerful writing:
“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!
‘Dear me, dear me! To think,’ said Miss Tox, bursting out afresh that night, as if her heart were broken, ‘that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!’”
The death of Master Dombey brings about a change in Mister Dombey, and the monster in him is unleashed through grief. He rejects his daughter and long before we even get there, the end game is set into motion.
Florence Dombey, meanwhile, grieves another way. The loss of her dear brother is softened through her friendship with Walter Gay, a man as dear to her as a brother, and one who rescued her when once she was lost. Dickens is at is cleverest in this plot line: all expect a romance to blossom, for love to prevail in this heartless of worlds, but further tragedy strikes as Walter is lost at sea. Though more literate and savvy readers can deduce the truth of Walter’s fate hundreds of pages before his fate is finally revealed, it is nevertheless a masterstroke of a move: with Walter at her side, Florence can survive, but without him, her life is doomed. As Mister Dombey becomes more withdrawn and violent, and his marriage to Edith crumbles, he strikes Florence. Without Walter, this incident sends her destitute into the streets. At every turn, Dombey and Son surprises you, and what is magisterial about it, is that every turn and machination of plot feels drawn out of the characters, not out of authorial interference. The people in Dombey and Son are people, not puppets.
This is not to say Dombey and Son is without its flaws. Some of the minor characters are little more than funny voices – Dickens truly lets rip with accents and caricatures in these minor figures (though I suppose this has the effect of allowing us to recall with ease who they are, as some do vanish for hundreds of pages) – and the final resolution is a little too neat. But these are minor quibbles in what is clearly Dickens’s finest novel (of those I have read thus far), and pale into complete insignificance when weighed against the rest.
Dombey and Son, then, is a fabulous novel. It is powerful because it is thought through, because its characters live and breathe on the page, but more importantly because the surroundings are right: this is the first of his novels that engages with the wider world. The railways, new to Britain, are spreading quickly, and the construction of stations is changing the face of London. Dickens thought on this modern advancement is spoken in Dombey and Son: “The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.” The railway is a monster, and it is no surprise that the true villain of Dombey and Son, James Carker, a manager in Dombey and Son, rides the train. The coming of the railway reduces Camden Town:
“The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy- turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.
In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.”
It is in this hell of a neighbourhood, that Good Mrs Brown kidnaps Miss Dombey; the railway is home to all undesirables. What Dickens shows is a London undergoing vast change, and a London engaging with the wider world – for the other recurrent motif is water, rivers, seas and oceans. Old Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle and Walter Gay, these men make their money from the sea – their transport is represented as nobler, a way of life. Its marked contrast to the railways is deliberate, though just as quick to take life.
These are just quick jottings of thought about Dombey and Son, and show, I think, the vast scope of this novel, and how Dickens wonderfully explores these themes through the intimate. It is a novel of the world and of a father and daughter; it is a novel of universal themes, and particular grievances. It is everything a novel should be. Dombey and Son is a novel that needs to be read more than once, and I anticipate the day I return to it.
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