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!

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.