Wherein we revisit our first week’s reading of Martin Chuzzlewit (Week 45 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a chapter summary and discussion wrap-up; containing a look-ahead to Week Two.
By the #DickensClub members, edited/compiled by Rach
Friends, this week we have been introduced to one of the great Dickensian characters, Mr. Pecksniff, and other worthies who revolve, in some measure, around the mysterious figure of the elder Martin Chuzzlewit, lately arrived at–and almost as quickly departed from–the Blue Dragon. We’ve also met the kindhearted Tom Pinch, whose view of Pecksniff is altogether too rosy–a perception which Pecksniff uses to his own advantage.
(But doesn’t Chris’s Salisbury image–or the Constable, in the header–make you want to risk all Pecksniffery and just go on the journey with Tom and young Martin?)
But before we get into our summary and discussion, here are some quick links:
- General Mems
- Martin Chuzzlewit, Week One (Chs 1-12): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead to Week Two of Martin Chuzzlewit (15-21 Nov, 2022)
Friends, our friend Deacon Matthew (on his lovely podcast on seminary life, faith, and literature) has posted the second part of the chat with Boze and yours truly, on Oliver Twist! This time we consider the theme of “memory.” Our conversation on Dickens begins at about 12:25. We hope you enjoy it!
If you’re counting, today is day 315 (and week 46) in our #DickensClub! Today we wrap up our first week of Martin Chuzzlewit, our ninth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the second week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. Boze’s introduction to American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit can be found here; Chris’s supplement of Peter Ackroyd’s introductions can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
This might be neither here nor there, but while Dana and I have both created Mastodon accounts in light of all the “comic chaos” going on with twitter, though we don’t intend to leave the latter–it’ll be an additional space for bookish things–Boze kindly referred to yours truly as twitter’s “Marchioness.” How can I possibly leave?
Meanwhile, I think Chris is ready to plan a #DickensClub trip to the Broadstairs Dickens Museum:
Martin Chuzzlewit, Week One (Chs 1-12): A Summary
“On the motionless branches of some trees, autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels; others stripped of all their garniture, stood, each the centre of its little heap of bright red leaves, watching their slow decay…the sunbeams struck out paths of deeper gold; and the red light, mantling in among their swarthy branches, used them as foils to set its brightness off, and aid the lustre of the dying day.
“A moment, and its glory was no more. The sun went down beneath the long dark lines of hill and cloud which piled up in the west an airy city, wall heaped on wall, and battlement on battlement; the light was all withdrawn; the shining church turned cold and dark; the stream forgot to smile; the birds were silent; and the gloom of winter dwelt on everything.”
After our narrator assures us of the long and distinguished lineage of the Chuzzlewit family, we are introduced to the architect—and elevated moral character—Mr. Pecksniff and his two daughters, Mercy and Charity, on a certain blustery day as autumn makes for winter. The wind appears to have taken some offence to him, and knocks that gentleman off his feet as he returns home.
“The brazen plate upon the door (which being Mr Pecksniff’s, could not lie) bore this inscription, ‘PECKSNIFF, ARCHITECT,’ to which Mr Pecksniff, on his cards of business, added, AND LAND SURVEYOR.’ In one sense, and only one, he may be said to have been a Land Surveyor on a pretty large scale, as an extensive prospect lay stretched out before the windows of his house. Of his architectural doings, nothing was clearly known, except that he had never designed or built anything; but it was generally understood that his knowledge of the science was almost awful in its profundity.”
We are also introduced to the faithful all-purpose assistant of Mr. Pecksniff, Tom Pinch, who is hoping for a reconciliation between Pecksniff and his boarder and pupil, John Westlock, who is trying to leave on a peaceable note. Pecksniff, however, will not shake hands with Westlock—all the while giving lip service to his high moral attitude of forgiveness towards that young man—and the latter gentleman leaves the Pecksniff home enraged. (Tom Pinch, we quickly learn, has a high regard for his employer, Mr. Pecksniff, and perhaps assessing Pecksniff simply by his Pinch’s own goodness, cannot see Pecksniff’s hypocrisy, so evident to Westlock and others.)
“‘Forgiveness is a high quality; an exalted virtue; far above your control or influence, John. I will forgive you. You cannot move me to remember any wrong you have ever done me, John.’
‘Wrong!’ cried the other, with all the heat and impetuosity of his age. ‘Here’s a pretty fellow! Wrong! Wrong I have done him! He’ll not even remember the five hundred pounds he had with me under false pretences; or the seventy pounds a year for board and lodging that would have been dear at seventeen! Here’s a martyr!’
‘Money, John,’ said Mr Pecksniff, ‘is the root of all evil. I grieve to see that it is already bearing evil fruit in you…'”
Meanwhile, the elder Martin Chuzzlewit, along with his companion Mary Graham—to whom he only pays a work stipend and has vowed not to leave her anything in his will, to ensure her disinterested service—are staying at the Blue Dragon, and that gentleman, taken ill, burns a paper he has just started to write on. Mrs. Lupin, innkeeper of that establishment, is scandalized that this old gentleman allows a young single woman who is unrelated to him to accompany him on his travels. With a concern for his ill state, and unable to get the apothecary, she sends for the moral Mr. Pecksniff, well known in the village, who comes to call on him. We learn that Pecksniff is a cousin to Chuzzlewit—this fact makes the latter gentleman suspicious, as he thinks anyone who surrounds him only cares about him for the money he intends to leave.
Soon after, various Chuzzlewit relations gather at the home of Mr. Pecksniff, trying to discern what to do about Mary Graham. Pecksniff appears all disinterestedness in his attempts to forward the claims of young Martin Chuzzlewit. (Does the knowledge that young Martin is now a pupil and boarder at his home, and might well fall in love with one of his daughters, play no part?) Pecksniff had been informed of the relations’ proximity by Montague Tiggs, assistant and spokesperson for another Chuzzlewit relation by marriage, Chevy Slyme. (Tiggs had discovered Pecksniff spying on old Martin from a keyhole.) However, they soon find out that old Martin and Mary are no longer at the Blue Dragon.
Meanwhile, we journey with Tom Pinch to Salisbury….
“The sheep-bells rang as clearly in the vigorous air, as if they felt its wholesome influence like living creatures; the trees, in lieu of leaves or blossoms, shed upon the ground a frosty rime that sparkled as it fell, and might have been the dust of diamonds. So it was to Tom…The crust of ice on the else rippling brook was so transparent, and so thin in texture, that the lively water might of its own free will have stopped—in Tom’s glad mind it had—to look upon the lovely morning…”
Tom is soon accompanied by Mark Tapley of the Blue Dragon, who wishes that he had some real hardships so that he can prove himself to come out “jolly” under trying conditions. (Therefore he is resisting the attractions of Mrs. Lupin, the widowed owner of the Blue Dragon, with whom everyone thinks Mark will end up.) Mark is to leave the Dragon to find something more miserable with which to test his spirits. Grave-digging? Undertaking?
Upon Tom’s arrival, he meets with young Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Pecksniff’s new pupil, at an inn. They get on well, and Tom shares with Martin his experience of playing the organ at the church, where a beautiful young woman was listening to him attentively.
“‘She came’ said Tom, laying his hand upon the other’s arm, ‘for the first time very early in the morning, when it was hardly light; and when I saw her, over my shoulder, standing just within the porch, I turned quite cold, almost believing her to be a spirit….'”
When they arrive at Pecksniff’s home, everyone feigns to be immensely industrious, and that they hadn’t been expected so soon.
Pecksniff and his daughters are to be in London for a week, during which time Martin is to try his hand at drafting his conception of a grammar school. During this time, Martin and Tom grow confidential, and Martin reveals that he is in love with his grandfather’s young companion, Mary Graham, and young Martin was disinherited for it and must renounce her before getting back into his grandfather’s good graces—and his will. Hence, his attempt to become an architect under Mr. Pecksniff’s tutelage. He also reveals to Tom that the young woman who was watching him play the organ was certainly Mary Graham herself. Montague Tigg, representative for the Chuzzlewit relation Chevy Slyme, comes in claiming that he is owed money by Pecksniff, and needs it to pay off his debt of three pounds at the Blue Dragon. Mark Tapley is waiting outside to be paid, distrusting Tigg. Neither Tom nor Martin can pay it, but, in effort to get rid of Tigg, they ask whether their word is sufficient for Mrs. Lupin that they will be paid. Tom ends up giving Tigg a little money, and Tigg promises that he will be paid back by Saturday.
Meanwhile, Mark, who is determined to find a more distressing work situation to prove his mettle, is to leave for London. Mark and Mrs. Lupin have a tender moment; he reveals that he would prefer to have her, but fears that she’ll always wonder whether he would rather leave, restless and determined upon adventure as he is. They part in wistful friendship…
On the way to London, Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters meet with Anthony Chuzzlewit (brother to old Martin), and his son, Jonas, who is a nasty piece of work and hungry for Anthony’s death so that he can inherit. Jonas flirts with Mercy and Charity. In London, Pecksniff begs that their old friend Mrs. Todgers, who only takes in gentlemen lodgers, would be willing to allow his daughters to stay with her in her quarters for the trip, and she agrees. (There they meet the sassy child Bailey, and several gentlemen-lodgers, including Mr. Jinkins, who dotes upon the Pecksniff daughters.) Mrs. Todgers is to accompany the Pecksniffs on their trip to meet with Ruth Pinch, governess and sister to Tom, to check in on her and deliver a letter which Tom had given them for her. Mercy and Charity cruelly imagine that she must be quite ugly, to be Tom’s sister, and that they won’t know how to keep from laughing. Ruth comes off very well in the interview, but their attitude towards her remains haughty condescension, and they end up interacting more with one of Ruth’s pupils. The Pecksniffs are dismissed by the family, and the girls blame Ruth for their rude dismissal.
Later, when the Pecksniff young ladies are allowed to join in a dinner with the gentleman lodgers, all hearts seem to be breaking over Mercy. Meanwhile, Pecksniff has too much to drink, and becomes quite maudlin, flirtatious, and verbose with Mrs. Todgers.
“‘I am a man, my dear madam,’ said Mr Pecksniff, shedding tears and speaking with an imperfect articulation, ‘but I am also a father. I am also a widower. My feelings, Mrs Todgers, will not consent to be entirely smothered, like the young children in the Tower. They are grown up, and the more I press the bolster on them, the more they look round the corner of it.’
He suddenly became conscious of the bit of muffin, and stared at it intently; shaking his head the while, in a forlorn and imbecile manner, as if he regarded it as his evil genius, and mildly reproached it.”
At one point, as Pecksniff falls towards the fireplace, the young men must help bring him to his room, but he keeps getting out to spew tidbits of morality towards them, until they finally resort to locking him in, with Bailey standing guard.
The Pecksniffs receive an unexpected visitor: old Martin Chuzzlewit. Chuzzlewit expresses regret at his previous suspicion about Pecksniff, and says that he—Pecksniff—was the only one to take a disinterested stance in the discussion with the relatives, and he wishes to be an ally with Pecksniff as the only trustworthy one among them. Pecksniff is utterly delighted and obsequious. Chuzzlewit meets the daughters. He then warns Pecksniff that he has been deceived in young Martin, and that he would wish Pecksniff to dismiss Martin immediately, which Pecksniff agrees to do upon their return. They receive money from Chuzzlewit for their lodgings, and the assurance that he will be in touch.
Meanwhile, Jonas Chuzzlewit visits the Pecksniffs, ostensibly to see Charity, but he continues to inquire about “the other one” (Mercy). He gives both sisters a tour of some of the sites in town. They end at the home of Anthony and Jonas, where they’re introduced to Anthony’s old clerk, Mr. Chuffey, who only seems to respond to the master to whom he’s devoted. Jonas ridicules him.
The Pecksniffs leave the following day for home.
Meanwhile, young Martin dreams of being Tom’s benefactor one day, and of how well Tom would make Martin appear. Tom says that his friend Tom Westlock has inherited property, and Westlock has invited both Tom and Martin out to eat. At one point during the dinner, while Pinch is out of earshot, Martin tells John that Tom had leant Tigg some money. Upon Tom’s return, he declares himself unable to listen to negative talk about Mr. Pecksniff, and John apologizes. John, in an act of kindness towards Pinch, returns to Pinch the money that he loaned to Tigg, saying that it was from Tigg.
Upon the return of Tom and Martin to the Pecksniff home, Martin finds himself utterly ignored by the Pecksniffs—until finally the latter gentleman calls Martin a deceiver, and Martin leaves abruptly. Tom chases after him, and gives him a book with a page turned down.
From American Notes to Martin Chuzzlewit: “The Transactional Nature of Much of Our Social Life“
Daniel started the week’s discussion off beautifully, discussing the podcast with Deacon Matthew, Boze, and myself, but he pulled together a lot of elements of last week’s discussion as we finished off American Notes in anticipation of Chuzzlewit:
And Lenny really brings into focus one of the key statements here:
“This is such a loaded and prescient statement of yours: ‘“’…and the transactional nature of much our social life.’ I say this not only because of its broad application to AMERICAN NOTES but, more specifically, to the opening chapters of MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. So far, virtually everything that has happened in our ‘new’ novel involves either ‘transactional’ fraud (Pecksniff as teacher) or various and nefarious ‘transactions’ planned by the huge assembly of so-called ‘relations’ around old Mr. Chuzzlewit–all wanting to curry favor with their wealthy family member for a chunk of his wealth.
And we’re not even in America, yet….”
~Lenny H. comment
It will be fascinating to see how the “transactional nature” of too much of human interaction plays out in Chuzzlewit as we move forward.
What We Loved
Our marvelous actor-narrator, Rob G, is so enjoying Chuzzlewit that he’s very tempted to start working on an audiobook reading of it! (YES!!!)
The Stationmaster drew our attention to a fabulous line from the eccentric Montague Tigg:
And I loved (as did Chris, below) the opening descriptive passages of Chapter 2 as the autumn turns into winter–its atmosphere and foreboding. I also loved Tom and Mark, naturally, and the drunken-Pecksniffery going on at Mrs. Todgers’:
Also, friends, I’m so thrilled to be welcoming Rob G. to our discussion here!
I will place the rest of the fabulous comment below, under our discussion of Martin Chuzzlewit as a “Problem Novel”…
Martin Chuzzlewit as a “Problem Novel”? Tom as “barometer” and various Dickensian “Toms”; Pecksniffery, Edginess, and “Comic Chaos”
Though it has been a long time since I’d read Chuzzlewit, I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “problem play,” Measure for Measure, particularly the manipulation of the Duke. Not wanting to give anything away, however, I just brought it up here as something to consider as we move forward.
In addition, I considered how the way in which people respond to, and treat, Tom Pinch seems a pretty accurate gauge of their character. Young Martin, on the other hand, is a problematic “hero,” with a trait–selfishness–not easy to overlook, especially if it isn’t offset by other enigmatic, intriguing, secretly-heroic or better-than-he-lets-on traits. Will Dickens pull it off–will we ultimately root for him?
The Stationmaster is really intrigued by the comparison of Martin Chuzzlewit to a Shakespearean problem play, and hopes that we continue the thread:
Lenny asks whether we can indeed call Martin Chuzzlewit a “problem novel,” though, as he writes, “maybe most ‘great’ novels are filled with problems and irritations that just won’t go away no matter how many times one reads them.” He considers this new “edgy” quality in Dickens as he reads Chuzzlewit, and also that Tom Pinch really is, perhaps, “the touchstone by which other characters are being measured.” Lenny brings up the feeling of “strangeness” that he is getting while reading about the characters so far, and how, were he directing a film, it would be filled with off-center shots that highlight this. Where is all the “comic chaos” going?
Daniel responds that he has “yet to begin Chuzzlewit, but will this week. I’m ready for some COMIC CHAOS!!! Thanks for whetting my appetite!”
Rob has also been considering the less-than-likeable qualities in young Martin, but perhaps it is “no real surprise that young Martin shows traits of his family pedigree”; and he also considers our lovable Tom, and whether Dickens might have known a Tom who became something of a “template” for his fictional incarnations:
Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Picaresque to Bildungsroman; Atmosphere, Characterization, and Subplot
The Stationmaster discusses the ways in which Chuzzlewit differs from the novels that have preceded it, and that Dickens is “moving away from the picaresque genre toward the bildungsroman” and that “Martin the younger is much more flawed than any protagonist Dickens had written at this point in his career.” (I must add: I agree!) He enjoys the Browdiesque vibes of John Westlock, and the Welleresque Mark Tapley, while feeling somewhat annoyed with the little subplot at Mrs. Todgers’ residence.
(And…does anyone know what the issue might be with WordPress here that he describes? I have had a few strange things happen, but not disappearing images…)
Chris considers the opening of Chapter 2 to be “one of the best scenic, atmospheric, tone-setting openings in all of Dickens,” rivaling even Bleak House. (In a late response to her comment, I wrote: “I agree about the opening of Chapter 2 …so richly atmospheric! And when you ended with the quote about the winds ‘making a night of it,’ I INSTANTLY thought of that marvelous sketch we read earlier this year, ‘Making a Night of It,’ and how the winds are equally drunken, boisterous, roving…”) She argues that this passage sets the tone for the novel.
She considers the interesting tone and characterization so far: “Nobody is what they appear to be – all actions are suspect. Only those with an incredibly ‘simple heart’ (Ch 5) – like Tom Pinch – or those who have ‘a simplicity of cunning’ (Ch 11) – like Jonas – take words and actions at face value.”
A Look-Ahead to Week Two of Martin Chuzzlewit (15-21 Nov, 2022)
This week we’ll be reading Chapters 13-26, which constitute installments VI-X, published June-October 1843.
Priscilla had a good question about an audiobook version, so I’ll put my response below…