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*

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?