Martin Chuzzlewit: book by Charles Dickens. Do older men reap what they sow?

I surprised myself by choosing a Dickens novel for my recent holiday reading.  He’s not even in my top ten novelists, and I haven’t read any Dickens for years, but I enjoyed this book.

Martin Chuzzlewit has qualities I expected from Dickens, plus some pleasant surprises.  It has plenty of over the top, entertaining Dickensian characters, strong story lines, and exuberant narrative style.  It also has some piercing social observations and opinions, and I’ve learned that Dickens visited the USA, and set part of this novel over there.

Many of the key characters are of the Chuzzlewit family, whose two elders are both grasping, mercenary, sceptical men, who suffer because their sons and grandsons grow up with these same qualities, which poison the relationships within the family.

As the rich head of the family, Martin Chuzzlewit senior, puts it: The curse of our house, said the old man…”has ever been the love of self.  How often have I said so, when I never knew that I had wrought it upon others.”  At least one of the family learns his lesson and mends his ways.

One reason I love a lot of Victorian novels is the social history they provide, of a century which laid foundations for modern society, like a shift to the predominance of cities, industry and trade over rural life, aristocracy, and barter.  His descriptions of nineteenth century London are gripping.

His views of the US are even more striking.  I’d guess he’s describing the 1850s: it’s a time when there are railroads, when slavery is still widely supported, and when Atlantic crossings are still under sail, not steam.  Dickens’ hero, arrived in New York, has these kind of observations: ”All their cares, hopes, joys, affections…seemed to be melted down into dollars…The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard…the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars.” 

“He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency.”

“There seemed to be no man there without a title: for those who had not attained military honours were either doctors, professors, or reverends.”

Dickens presents us a vivid picture of a young, raw country in which the founding fathers’ ideals have been swept aside, and where even the authority figures are usually fronting a money-making scam.  We’ve surely progressed since then, but how much?  Bring on the elders!

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