A Glorious Read: Dickens’s “Dombey and Son”

An illustration in “Dombey and Son.”

I went to London (primarily) to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  I came home (primarily) to reread Dickens.  Last month I enjoyed  Great Expectations,  but I have been spellbound by the great Dombey and Son (all 878 pages). 

Many years ago, a friend and I read Dickens and agreed that Dombey and Son was “not bad.”  I loved it and I suspect he did, too, but we tried to be nonchalant:  we never knew when someone would take us down for liking the wrong book.  (This was graduate school.)

My favorite Dickens is Bleak House, with its perfect structure and rich language,  but Dombey and Son is perfect in a different way. The plot may ramble, but the prose is exuberant and vibrant, and every character, even the mere caricatures, are colorful.   I find even the most outrageous comic scenes believable.

One of my favorite characters  is Mr. Toots, a foolish young man who writes letters to himself from famous people and keeps saying to Florence Dombey, his crush, “it’s of no consequence.” I am also enthralled by Mrs. Skewton, the lively, flirtatious elderly woman who dresses in the latest fashion–much too young for her–and becomes Mr. Dombey’s second mother-in-law.

Mr. Toots (right) confides in Captain Cuttle.

H. W. Garrod, who wrote the entertaining introduction to the Oxford Illustrated edition, is not enthusiastic about Dombey and Son.  He finds several characters unbelieveable, and asserts that the book  goes downhill after the death of little Paul.  He writes, “Of the death of little Paul, Anna Marsh-Caldwell (but who now remembers her novels?) said, without much exaggeration, that it threw a whole nation into mourning.”   But then, according to Garrod,  Dickens’s  interest in new characters and subplots takea him away from the original plan of the book.

Oh, well, plans?  It’s Dickens.    

I should say a little about the Dombeys.   Mr. Dombey, proprietor of Dombey and Son, is so  ecstatic to have a son and heir that he does not care about his wife’s death in childbirth.  He ignores his daughter Florence, no use to him because she is a girl; she brings up Paul, with the help of Susan Nipper, her sharp-tongued nurse.  And then they are sent to Brighton to live in Mrs. Pipchin’s strange, surreal, bleak boarding house for children, recommended by Miss Tox,  a friend of Mr. Dombey’s sister.  The sickly Paul dies after being sent, at age 6,  to the school next-door, which force-feeds the classics.  (Mr. Toots, who is grown-up, is apparently doing post-graduate work there.)

And then there’s the language.  Dickens is a master of rhetoric, and an incipient modernist, or post-modernist. Like Lucy Ellman, whose novel Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he makes good use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses or phrases.  Ellman keeps repeating “the fact that,” and Dickens manages to do three pages of the repetition of “of.”

It was a vision of long roads, that stretched away to an horizon, always receding and never gained; of ill-paved towns, up hill and down, where faces came to dark doors and ill-glazed windows, and where rows of mudbespattered cows and oxen were tied up for sale in the long narrow streets, butting and lowing, and receiving blows on their blunt heads from bludgeons that might have beaten them in; of bridges, crosses, churches, postyards, new horses being put in against their wills, and the horses of the last stage reeking, panting, and laying their drooping heads together dolefully at stable doors; of little cemeteries with black crosses settled sideways in the graves, and withered wreaths upon them dropping away; again of long, long roads, dragging themselves out, uphill and down, to the treacherous horizon.

Pretty good, huh?

Dombey and Son is a glorious read!

Buttoned-up: Playing Monopoly with Stanley Middleton

One of my favorite books by Stanley Middleton.

Stanley Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for his novel Holiday.  Nonetheless, his books are not widely-acclaimed in the U.S.  In 1989, a New York Times reviewer called his novel Entry into Jerusalem “buttoned-up.”  In 1992 Kirkus Reviews called his novel Changes and Chances “Vintage workaday Middleton, neither surprising nor spectacular, but carefully built and realized.” 

A couple of years ago, I found a copy of Middleton’s Holiday  in London and wondered, Why haven’t I heard of him before? I went on to read Middleton’s superb Valley of Decision (which I blogged about here) and An After-Dinner’s Sleep (here).  And I found these two novels both “surprising [and] spectacular.”

I recently read an excellent essay in the TLS on Middleton, which centers on several of his books recently reissued by Windmill and a book of his poetry.  And so I went online to check prices for these and several of his out-of-print books.

At Amazon, the cheapest copy of a hardcover of Cold Gradations (1972) is $546.68.  You can get a better deal at Abebooks, where the cheapest price is $126.61.  I don’t know what makes this book so expensive, but am relieved that quite a few of his other books go for $5 (a price that interests me) or $10 (too high for me, but reasonable). 

  What makes Cold Gradations so expensive?

I don’t understand bookselling.  Maybe they played Monopoly for bankruptcy.

I will be looking for a cheap copy of Cold Gradations, so the booksellers may want to drop the price.

Sex in the Sixties: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and the Pill

The PIll in the Sixties

Sex was complicated in the ’60s.  Women wanted to get laid but they didn’t want to get pregnant or the clap.  

Many critics and sociologists believe sex became less complicated for women in the ‘60s.  In Celia Brayfield’s brilliant book,  Rebel Writers:  The Accidental Feminists, she attributes this phenomenon in Britain to two events:  the legal publication in 1960 of the unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (formerly banned) and the introduction of the birth control pill by the NHS in 1961.

I want to add here that many counterculture women in the U.S. did not consider the pill safe, and opted for other methods of birth control—the diaphragm, the IUD, condoms, and tubal ligation.  

Still, I am fascinated by Celia Brayfield’s interpretation.  

In Britain the “age of ignorance” began to fade away in the early sixties, with a loosening of general attitudes towards sex.  In 1960 a pivotal moment arrived when Penguin Books was acquitted of the charge of publishing obscene material in its edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—a book in which the word “fuck” appeared eight times on one page.  In the words of Geoffrey Robertson QC, one of Britain’s leading liberal lawyers, “No other jury verdict has had such a profound social impact.”  A few months later, in 1961, the contraceptive pill, which was almost 100% effective, became available for the first time through the National Health Service, but only to married women, although a very small number of specialist clinics accepted patients without worrying about their marital status.  By 1964, half a million women in Britain were using oral contraception and it was made legally available to women from 1967, although the provision was not widespread and restricted to special clinics for some years afterwards. 

Brayfield delves into social history as well as literary analysis in this fascinating study of seven women writers of the ’60s:  Shelagh Delaney, Edna O’Brien, Lynne Reid-Banks, Charlotte Bingham, Nell Dunn, Virginia Ironside and Margaret Forster.

I strongly recommend Rebel Writers, but I wonder if Lady Chatterley’s Lover had that great an impact on women?  Most of Lawrence’s books are erotic.

But it’s about the censorship, of course.  Attitudes were changing.  The unexpurgated edition of LCL was published by Grove Press in 1959 in the U.S.

It’s not as good as The Rainbow, though.

Yoga Before Dawn & Other Delusions

This morning I had a dramatic thought when I opened my eyes at five o’clock.  I will start a new exercise regimen.  I will do yoga every day, I said to myself peppily.  Doing yoga before dawn would be the equivalent of imbibing a mystical drug that reveals the meaning of life.  And I loved the image of myself as a graceful aging woman who does Sun Salutations.

Alas, I am not delusional.  I will never be that stretchy woman.  I might lift an occasional hefty book over my head, but I have no time for yoga.  As I drank coffee and read my book, I forgot about doing the Downward Dog.

Aging is a long wrangle with flexibility, strength, expensive facial creams, and cardiovascular exercise.  And you learn that you grow older even if you stretch, lift weights, cut carbs, constantly moisturize, run, bicycle, and go to the gym.

Not surprisingly, my  favorite exercise is going to the bookstore. I recently walked there, going the long way, climbing up and down hills.  I wasn’t out of breath, but I was surprisingly tired.  Once there, I sank into a chair exhausted.   The real reason I read the first few chapters of the new novel by Elif Sharak was that I was too tired to go home.

The next day, my hamstrings were ridiculously tight.

This would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.  Strange to say, I was a frenetic exerciser for years.  My hamstrings were never tight, they were loose.  Walking, Dancercise, exercise classes—I was so healthy that my resting pulse was 42.  Once when I was sick, my husband had to explain to a doctor my low pulse was not from incipient heart failure, it was from cardiovascular exercise.  I was so proud of that low pulse–and now I know it was mostly about being young.

And so I need to do yoga, I told myself.  I have to be able to do hills.

Tomorrow, I start.

Tomorrow.

Light Reading: Future Politics on the Planet Earth

Ah, Sunday! My favorite day of the week. Slouching around in L. L. Bean sweatpants, repotting a plant or two. 

And then I sat down to read the newspaper. I am  horrified by reports of the wild fires in California and the power outages for millions of people.  The Democratic race for president is still light reading at this point, because it is so far away, so I focused on that. 

But several bad news items caught my eye.  

For instance, Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke allegedly said that he “was open to allowing people to use assault weapons at gun ranges and hunting clubs.”  In the past he has declared he would ban assault weapons, so my guess is this quote was out of context.  

Then in The New York Times (Oct. 22), I read a depressing article about elite members of the Democratic party turning on their own.   Apparently they are concerned  about whether Joe Biden can beat Trump and are thinking about finding someone new to enter the race.  And they think Elizabeth Warren is too liberal, and that Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, would not get the black vote.  

So whom do they like?

Several high-profile politicians say they’ve been approached and would stomp out of their dusty stables and run for president if they thought they could win, but they doubt there will be an opening.  Among them are Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.  That’s all we need:  a rerun of politicians past.  I voted for them both, but they have had their turn. 

Then there are the obscure guys who campaigned last spring and dropped out because they didn’t have the support.   If you recognize the names Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, and  Sherrod Brown, a senator from Ohio, you are ahead of me.  Who?  Why?

Let us pray that no more Democrats enter the race.  The field is too crowded.

But if they can get Oprah, she could beat anyone.  Celebrity vs. celebrity.

Are You Pretentious? Cicero’s Book Signing & Other Encounters

“Cicero Denouncing Catiline,” The Comic History of Rome.

Have you ever met one of your favorite writers?  Was he/she glazed after lecturing to 100 people and giving autographs to the whole audience? Did he/she get your name wrong?  You will hilariously show everyone the signed title page, “Best wishes to Carrie (from illegible).”  (Your name is Mary, or perhaps Kelly.)

That writer may not have been at the peak of his/her charm at the event. And the less you expect, the better.  Some writers are amiable and make an effort (you have bought their book, after all), others are too busy craning their neck at the editor in the back of the room.

One guesses that Cicero was too busy networking to chat with fans.  This, however, would not have bothered Dickens’s Mrs. Blimber, an eccentric character in Dickens’s Dombey and Son.  She  would make the best of any encounter—because she says she wishes she could have met Cicero.

Mrs. Blimber has not read Cicero, but she is married to one of Dickens’s most rigid classical headmaster/teachers, Doctor Blimber.

Mrs. Blimber…was not learned herself, but she pretended to be, and that did quite as well.  She said at evening parties, that if she could have known Cicero, she thought she could have died contented. It was the steady joy of her life to see the Doctor’s young gentlemen go out walking, in the largest possible shirt-collars, and the stiffest possilbe cravats.  It was so classical, she said.

She is eloquent about the classics after Mr. Dombey enrolls his  six-year-old son Paul at the school. She gushes that she envies Paul.

“Like a bee, Sir,” said Mrs. Blimber, with uplifted eyes, “about to plunge into a garden of the choicest flowers, and sip the sweets for the first time.  Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Plautus, Cicero.  What a world of honey have we here.”

Back to writers:  have you met a favorite writer?  Was it inspiring, or a let-down?  

Tell all, please!  I used to go to a lot of readings.  Nowadays I stay home and read the book.

NOTE:  I may or may not have a signed copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  First I asked his brother, who looked just like him.  Then Ken Kesey himself (I think) doodled a flower on the title page.  I treasure this book.  Signed or not, it’s a good story.

Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield”

Will they get off the phone to read David Copperfield?

The other day I blogged about a teacher who claimed in a post at a Millennial blog that she hates the classics.  Not only does she loathe Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte, but she believes that Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the seventeenth century.  

I wish I hadn’t read this woman’s boastful declaration of ignorance.  Why ? Because I do not want to be the kind of person who despises the younger generation. 

“This is the end,” my husband said, laughing.

 It is, though we laugh.  We dismiss this problem from our mind, because it is not our line of work.

This problem of barely literate, proud, classics-bashing students is becoming the norm, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. We have all read about students who demand “trigger warnings” and decline to read books on the syllabus that may trigger bad memories.  (That makes for a lighter reading load, doesn’t it?)   And if I may interject something  controversial, we all have been (choose one or more) cyber-bullied, sexually harasssed, threatened, beaten, mugged, raped, or traumatized by war.  Reading great disturbing literature  can even be therapeutic.

There is now a glut of articles about falling enrollment in the humanities. The digital age has changed the ball game: YouTube, Twitter, and other social media are now frantically integrated in some classes to engage students.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,  believes attention spans have shortened since he published his book in 2009.  His thesis  is “that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance.” 

Nowadays, it is worse, he says.  Instead of just making phone calls, students write 3,500 texts a month and take countless selfies.  He says, “ I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.”

In The American Scholar, Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel  University, writes about  teaching a 10-week one-credit course on Dickens’s David Copperfield.  Most of the students read very little, but committing to one long book  a semester gets them to engage with a classic.  She is proud of the success of this program and has expanded it.  She wrote in 2016,  “A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Again, sounds like a light load, doesn’t it?  But many students admitted to Cohen that they thought David Copperfield was the magician! Now they’ve read the book.

Bravo!  Whatever works.

N.B.  There have always been mediocre, even bad, teachers. I do not mean to idealize the teachers of my generation.  During my teaching days,  I once sat in on a college composition class in which the students were asked to do two things:  free writing for fifteen minutes (most spent it surfing on the net on their computers) and then the teacher went around the class and asked each student to identify the beginning and end of a paragraph in an essay.  No discussion of the essay, mind.  Just look at the indentations. Surely we weren’t first-grade prodigies, but we learned about paragraphs  from the Dick and Jane basal reader!