Tuesday, 27 March 2001

Martin Chuzzlewit

Listening to:

Rachmaninoff, piano concerto #2 in C minor, op. 18.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.

This is a big novel, telling the story of a young man trying to find his way in life, and learning in the process about the real nature of selfishness. Supported by a typical Dickensian “cast of thousands”, this novel is entertaining and full of memorable characters and incidents. There’s Mr. Pecksniff, the archetypal self-serving hypocrite, Mrs. Gamp, an alcoholic nurse who is simultaneously revolting and hilarious, Tom Pinch, a trusting soul who is much put upon by those around him, and Mark Tapley who seeks the worst situations to be in because there’s “no credit in being jolly” if life is too easy.

The plot twists and turns as well. There’s an extended and very savage portrait of early 19th century America occasioned by the eponymous (ha!) hero’s trip there, an exciting underworld plot where thieves and brutes fall out, and over it all, the question of just how the rich and obstreporous Chuzzlewit patriarch will deal out his wealth. It really does keep you turning the pages.

It’s not perfect. Ruth Pinch, Tom's sister, will make you want to gag, portrayed as a nauseating, fluttery Victorian girlish ideal. Dickens does this sort of character much better in David Copperfield, where David’s first wife is similarly fluttery but at least revealed to be hopeless in dealing with real life. Merry Pecksniff’s eventual marriage, though very important to the plot, also seems pretty unrealistic. Finally, the trip to America seems to be in the novel mainly so that Dickens can lay into America's faults.

Seven and a half out of ten.

Now reading:

Erich Hoyt, The earth-dwellers. Narrative natural history about ants. More when I finish it next week.