Supplement to Dombey and Son

Here, as promised, is Peter Ackroyd’s chapter on “Dombey and Son”. It gives us a brief overview of Dickens’s activities and state of mind in the months leading up to the writing of this novel, as well as to the difficulties he had in getting started. His writing process, however, was greatly aided by his new practice of preparing working notes (see D&S Notes) which helped him organize and maintain his story. He would continue using working notes for the rest of his career. The effect of this new tool on the cohesion of this story works, if I may, like the rails of the newly constructed railway system which figures so prominently – they keep everything on track and moving smoothly from episode (station) to episode (station).


Certain aspects of the story are given away which may spoil the effect for first time readers.

J.M.W. Turner – “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway”


  1. Chris: This is great stuff! Thanks so much for posting! I especially like the Turner painting, which–as I’ve just found out–was painted in 1844–two years before the writing of DOMBEY. It’s an amazing atmospheric work of art which fits the context of DAS so beautifully. But out of THAT context, it seems SO modern, even though it was finished some 30-40 years before the great French Impressionists took over the art scene in Europe–as it too seems so “Impressionistic! The Impressionists, themselves, also painted many beautiful “impressions” of trains, and especially loved to depict engines entering various train stations in the major terminals of 19th century France. All these works were, like the Turner, very atmospheric.

    So, hats off to Charles for his own very striking “illustrations” of this new and hugely formative and controversial mode of transportation.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A great little read… thanks for sharing, Chris.

    One thing that resonated with me towards the end was mention of ‘that cloud of poetry which hovers over the narrative’

    There are many parts of the novel which have the feel of poetry in the repetition of imagery and phrases and more.

    I also felt aware while reading the novel, that there seem to be more nods to Shakespeare littered about in the novel than I have been aware of in other works. I perhaps mean in an incidental or casual way rather than as a deliberate part of the story (As with Romeo and Juliet in Nicholas Nickleby, and Mr Wopsle’s acclaimed production of Hamlet in Great Expectations) I’m sure I’m bound to mention this again in its proper place 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would actually describe the reference to Romeo and Juliet in Nicholas Nickleby to be incidental or casual too. I mean there’s not really much of a thematic connection between the play and the novel except maybe that they’re both about conflicts between the young and the old.

      Would I describe the relationship between Hamlet and Great Expectations the same way? I don’t know. An entire chapter is devoted to the production of Hamlet starring Wopsle unlike the one of Romeo and Juliet that featured Nicholas and Smike. There might be a thematic connection between the play and the story Dickens is telling…. but I can’t think of what it is. LOL.

      If anyone here has a different take than mine, I’d love to read it and maybe reread the relevant parts of the books afterwards to see if my opinion has been changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another wonderful Ackroyd piece. I agree with Lenny, Chris, that I loved your incorporating the Turner painting here, which Ackroyd alludes to — it really *does* capture the conflicting sensations about the “railway mania,” and there is so much that is ominous and looming in the atmosphere here. It is progress and speed; it is also “Death.”

    I thought it was so interesting that Ackroyd notes that there is not only a kind of caution–trepidation, perhaps?–in approaching Dombey after such a hiatus in his novel-writing (2 yrs after MC!), but that he progressed in it more slowly. In addition to the working notes, we have this textual evidence, as PA notes, that Dickens knew from the outset how it would end.

    Always loving the theatrical connections to Dickens’s own life, and his love for the stage, I couldn’t help but relish the final section about the theatrical Mrs Skewton! (Whose face is, almost literally, a *mask* with nothing behind it! So creepy…) At the same time, it is interesting that Dickens was, in real life, becoming more involved in those amateur theatricals that he loved; this, fulfilling some deep need, made him less inclined to write *directly* about the stage, as he had done in that spoofing love letter to the stage, Nicholas Nickleby.


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