Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens: a Brief Overview

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit is my last book to review on my first Classics Club list. I read this in December 2017 and didn’t write a post, mainly because it was during the Christmas/New Year period, a busy time. All I recorded was this: ‘It is long, starts very slowly and then gets more interesting, with great characters and some comic and satirical episodes. It’s a study of selfishness and hypocrisy.’

From the back cover of my paperback copy:

Moving from the sunniest farcicality to the grimmest reaches of criminal psychology, Martin Chuzzlewit is a brilliant study in selfishness and hypocrisy.

The story of an inheritance, it relates the contrasting destinies of the two descendants of the brothers Chuzzlewit, both born and bred to the same heritage of selfishness, showing how one, Martin, by good fortune escapes and how the other, Jonas, does not – only to reap a fatal harvest. Peopled with Dickens immortals as Mrs Gamp, Poll Sweedlepipe, Montague Tiggs, Chevy Slime, it is one of Dickens’ great comic masterpieces.

It was Dickens’ sixth novel, serially published in 1843-44, and was something of a flop, with a dramatic decline in sales, compared to his early books. I can understand that because it’s not one of my favourites of his books. It is too long – over 900 pages in my Penguin Classics edition. I stuck with it as I had previously enjoyed watching the 1994 TV Mini Series with an excellent cast including Paul Schofield, Keith Allen, Julia Sawalha, Ben Walden, and Lynda Bellingham amongst others.

In this case I think the TV adaptation scores over the novel, which dragged in parts for me. It is a satire, a black comedy, a romance of the sickly sentimentality sort, a story of blackmail and murder, that involves hypocrisy, greed and selfishness.

I thought the section set in America where young Martin went to seek his fortune was overdone and it became tedious. It seems that Dickens had not enjoyed his own visit to America in 1842 as in this section he mocks what he disliked about America – the corrupt newspapers, slavery, the violence, obsession with business and money and so on and so forth. I was glad when young Martin returned to England.

But I enjoyed the comic characters – the drunken nurse of sorts, Mrs Gamp and her invisible friend, Mrs Harris, and Sam Pecksmith, the scheming architect. The Pecksmith family’s visit to London is hilarious. These characters saved the book for me. Mrs Gamp is one of the most bizarre characters with her mispronunciations and monologues recounting her conversations with her imaginary friend Mrs Harris. Her speciality lies in the polar extremities of life, birth and death:the lying in and the laying out.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (30 Jan. 1986)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 944 pages
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 3*

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

4*

All I knew about David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) by Charles Dickens is that it is said to be his most autobiographical novel. I think I must have watched a TV serialisation years ago but I remember very little about it. It was first published as a serial in 1849 and 1850, and then as a book in 1850.

It’s a long novel with a multitude of characters, including David’s cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone, the family housekeeper Peggotty, his school friends Steerforth, who he mistakenly idolises and, my favourite character, Tommy Traddles, who has a heart of gold, and a remarkable upstanding head of hair. Then there’s another favourite character, David’s great aunt Betsey Trotwood, who wages war against marriage and donkeys and her companion, the simple-minded Mr Dick; Mr Micawber, always in debt and in and out of the debtor’s prison, and the odious and nauseating Uriah Heep are both memorable characters.

I was totally immersed in their world, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian England, the living conditions of the poor contrasting with the decadent wealth of the rich, and the dramatic intensity of episodes such as the terrible storm at sea off Yarmouth. There’s drama, comedy and tragedy, melodrama and pathos as the story follows David’s life from his birth to his adulthood, covering his childhood, early schooldays, his time as a young boy working in a factory, then as a student in Canterbury where he lodged with the lawyer Mr Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes.

Betsey later established him in London where he worked in the Doctor’s Commons, under the tutelage of Mr Spenlow, whose daughter, the beautiful, frivolous and to my eyes, the utterly pathetic Dora totally captivated him. The sections of the book involving Dora are rather too sentimental for my liking. Then there’s Pegotty’s family – her brother Daniel, a fisherman, their nephew Ham and niece, Little Em’ly who is David’s childhood friend and sweetheart. They live in a converted boat on the beach at Yarmouth. And not forgetting Barkis, who marries Pegotty, after telling David to tell her, ‘Barkis is willing‘. Their sections of the book are the ones I enjoyed the most. I could go on and on, not forgetting David himself as describes the misfortunes and obstacles he met and the friends he makes.

I enjoyed reading David Copperfield, which was Dickens’ own personal favourite of all his novels, but it is not mine – it’s a bit too long for me. I think my favourite is Bleak House, which I read after seeing the TV adaptation in 2005 with Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, and Charles Dance. Maybe I’ll read it again to see what I think of it now. These days I prefer shorter books and Bleak House, like David Copperfield is long with many characters and sub-plots.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I read the Wordsworth Classic edition of Little Dorrit with Illustrations by Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) and an Introduction and Notes by Peter Preston, University of Nottingham. As always, I read the Introduction after I’d read the novel. I finished reading it in June and started writing this review. But it is only today that I realised I hadn’t finished it, so, this post is not as detailed as I would like it to be.

Summary from the back cover:

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens’ eleventh book, was published serially from 1855 to 1857 and in book form in 1857. The novel attacks the injustices of the contemporary English legal system, particularly the institution of debtors’ prison. I found it hard going in parts, ponderous, sombre and serious. But as it’s a long book other parts are more lively, comic and far more enjoyable. That said it is also long-winded, far too wordy, melodramatic with a multitude of characters and a long-drawn out and convoluted plot. It is a great sprawling epic of a novel.

It is satire and Dickens spares no one, but it is those sections that hold up the flow of the novel. I found the first rant at the corruption and workings of the government Circumlocution Office, explaining that its purpose is ‘How Not to Get Things Done’, entertaining at first, but eventually repetitive and increasingly incredible. The account of the Barnacle family going round and round in circles, producing nothing but red tape, became excruciatingly boring.

I can’t say that I particularly liked any of the characters, and some of them are merely caricatures. rather than characters. Little Dorrit is so meek and self-effacing and far too good for her own good. Her father, known as the Father of the Marshalsea, is a most annoying character. He is the prison’s longest inhabitant, the longest debtor, the one to whom the other prisoners pay homage which makes him pompous and full of his self-importance. So much so that he fails to realise he is exploiting Little Dorrit.

But it is Dickens’ description of life in the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison, that fascinated me, based on Dickens own father’s imprisonment there. The families could live with the debtors and were free to come and go, until the prison gates were locked at night. It was a separate society that worked on a system of hierarchy, run by the prisoners who had access to a pub, The Snuggery, and a shop, for those who had money. But it carried a terrible stigma of shame and corrupted them all – even Little Dorrit lied to herself about her father’s true situation. Once you were imprisoned there was practically no way you could be freed, unless your debts were paid and that was impossible when you couldn’t earn any money.

There are so many characters and so many sub-plots that I’m not going to attempt to write about them, other than to say at times I was amused and bemused, caught up in the stories, and dismayed at its length and complexity. Although I’ve been critical of some of the novel in this post and I think it could be my least favourite of all of Dickens’ books that I’ve read, overall I did enjoy it enough to give it 3.5 stars on Goodreads.

Throwback Thursday: 5 August 2021

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

This month I’m looking back at my review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens which I first posted on 20 September 2010.

Here’s the first paragraph:

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, his last and unfinished book. I was surprised that it took so long before the mystery actually began to emerge and that it’s more the story of Edwin Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, than it is of Drood himself.   I was also surprised that much of it is written in the present tense, a style that I’m not too keen on. I haven’t read a Dickens novel for a few years and found the difference in style between this and modern mystery novels interesting. The build up to the mystery is so much more leisurely and descriptive than in modern novels, and I had to tone down my impatience for something mysterious to happen. Once I’d passed these hurdles I enjoyed the book immensely, even though I knew that the mystery is left open.

Click here to read my full review

The next Throwback Thursday post is scheduled for 2 September 2021.

The Classics Club Spin Result

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin is number …

which for me is Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by 31 May, 2021.

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit is indisputably one of Dickens’ finest works, written at the height of his powers. George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a masterpiece among masterpieces’, a verdict shared by the novel’s many admirers. (Description from Amazon)

I have started this a few times before, but found the small print in my paperback copy too off putting. I’ll be reading the e-book this time.

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens oliver twist etc

5*

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens was my latest Classics Club Spin book. I finished reading it on 16th January well before the finish date for the Spin, 31st January. It’s a well known story, although I realised that I only knew the beginning – Oliver’s birth in the workhouse and his early years, that famous scene where he has the audacity to ask for more, and then his escape from the workhouse only to end up in Fagin’s clutches – a den of thieves and pickpockets.

Oliver Twist
‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

I don’t intended to go into any more detail about the story, other than to say that whilst out with the Artful Dodger, attempting to steal handkerchiefs Oliver is caught by the police and rescued by Mr Brownlow. After that the story was new to me, although I knew the names of the other main characters, Nancy and the villain Bill Sykes, with his vicious dog, Bull’s Eye. But other characters in the later parts of the book, such as the Maylie family, Rose, adopted by Mrs Maylie, and her son, Harry and the mysterious man, Monks were new to me. 

Oliver Twist was first published as a serial from 1837-1839, under Charles Dickens’ pseudonym, ‘Boz’. It was his second novel, published in three volumes in November 1839. It’s full of terrific descriptions of the state of society at the time – the grim conditions that the poor suffered, the shocking revelations of what went on in the workhouse, and the depiction of the criminal underworld – the contrast of good and evil. Despite everything that happens to Oliver he remains a good boy, pure and innocent, whereas the villains are evil personified; whilst living with Fagin and his gang he existed in a state of both fascination and terror. Dickens was merciless in the satire he used in this book.

And yet in the middle of the book there is a romantic interlude full of sentimentality and melodrama. Rose Maylie is really a very pale character, being both virtuous and self-sacrificing but she contrasts well with the prostitute Nancy, who pities Oliver and tries to protect him from Fagin and Sykes. As the mystery surrounding Monks’ identity is revealed, Oliver is in more danger than anything he has faced before in his life.

My copy also contains Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (both of which I read as a teenager) and was a birthday present as long ago as 1981, so this is one of my TBRs as well as a Classics Club Spin book. In the introduction to this volume Oliver Twist is described as follows:

The story of Oliver … has become an immortal one. Hitherto Dickens had been content to entertain … with Oliver he tried to reach the deeper passions of his audience, rouse their indignation at the harsh injustice of the Poor Law and open their eyes to the horror of the London slums, while at the same time show that there is  a certain innocence in humanity (personified by Oliver) that can never be sullied. There have been some critics who have found that the two themes make uneasy bedfellows and certain contemporaries of Dickens complained that he was being purely sensational in his horrific descriptions of life in the criminal underworld. Most of his readership, however, have been both fascinated and moved.

And I can say that I too found it shocking, fascinating and moving.

The Classics Club Spin Result

Classics Club
The spin number in The Classics Club Spin was announced yesterday. It’s number … 13

which for me is Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by January 31, 2020.

Charles Dickens oliver twist etc

I’m delighted with this as I’ve been meaning to read it for years and never got round to it.

The story of the orphan Oliver, who runs away from the workhouse to be taken in by a den of thieves, shocked readers with its depiction of a dark criminal underworld peopled by vivid and memorable characters – the arch-villain Fagin, the artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy. Combining elements of Gothic romance, the Newgate novel and popular melodrama, Oliver Twist created an entirely new kind of fiction, scathing in its indictment of a cruel society and pervaded by an unforgettable sense of threat and mystery.

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

This is my last post until after Christmas, so I’m wishing you all a very …

Christmas bells

Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

The Classics Club Spin Result

Classics Club

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin was announced yesterday. It’s number …

3

which for me is Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by April 30, 2018.

Little Dorritt

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As it’s on my list I do want to read it – sometime – maybe not right now.

I know very little about Little Dorrit, just that it’s long and my copy is one of the Wordsworth Classics in a very small font. I stopped watching the TV adaptation with Tom Courtney as William Dorrit – such a dark and dreary production with him in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The blurb on the back cover says that Dickens’ working title for the book was Nobody’s Fault. Well, it’s his fault for writing it – and mine for for putting it on the Spin List – oh, yes and the Spin God for spitting out number 3.

I just hope I enjoy it!

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit is indisputably one of Dickens’ finest works, written at the height of his powers. George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a masterpiece among masterpieces’, a verdict shared by the novel’s many admirers.

A ‘masterpiece‘ – that makes it sound OK – doesn’t it?

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

The Classics Club Spin Result

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin was announced yesterday. It’s number …

4

which for me is Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by December 31, 2017.

I’m pleased with the result as I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw a TV version. I’ve just checked and it was shown in 1994 with Paul Scholfield as Old Martin Chuzzlewit – that’s 23 years ago! It really is time I read it.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

While writing Martin Chuzzlewit – his sixth novel – Dickens declared it ‘immeasurably the best of my stories.’ He was already famous as the author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist . Set partly in America, which Dickens had visited in 1842, the novel includes a searing satire on the United States. Martin Chuzzlewit is the story of two Chuzzlewits, Martin and Jonas, who have inherited the characteristic Chuzzlewit selfishness. It contrasts their diverse fates of moral redemption and worldly success for one, with increasingly desperate crime for the other. This powerful black comedy involves hypocrisy, greed and blackmail, as well as the most famous of Dickens’s grotesques, Mrs Gamp. 

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?