Sunday, 4 October 2015
Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (1843-4)
Alongside Barnaby Rudge, this novel is generally one of the least-known (and therefore least-liked) works by Charles Dickens. And yet it was Martin Chuzzlewit which the author inexplicably picked as "immeasurably the greatest of my works". The humble reviewer, yours truly, begs the Great Man's permission to differ on this subject.
Of course, this isn't to say that Martin Chuzzlewit is bad as such; there is some excellent flesh underneath the tough, impenetrable hide of the novel. It just isn't the best, and certainly not immeasurably the best as Dickens claims - it is merely average, which casts it in a disfavourable light if it is compared with his real masterpieces. I expect Dickens thought it the best of his novels because it was the one which he enjoyed writing the most, and no doubt his personal enjoyment stemmed from the freedom afforded from describing America, and from the clear leaps and bounds he was taking during this period in developing his personal prose style, which is certainly very advanced here. There's also one of his best-ever subplots.
Like Barnaby Rudge, though, it's an inconsistent storyline and unfortunately many of the minuses outweigh the pluses. The story gets off to a dull start, and although the second chapter improves things somewhat, much of the plot follows the regrettable template set by that first chapter: dull and slow-moving. As I mentioned before, the subplot is where most of the fun lies, significantly overshadowing the main plot of Martin and Mark Tapley in America. The USA is not especially well depicted, as I've come to expect when Brits try and write about that country over on the side of the pond, and as a consequence these bits are not enjoyable.
To prevent this from becoming a joyless rant, though, it's worth praising the latest in a long line of Dickens' wonderful creations: the hypocritical Seth Pecksniff, who not only gets a stunningly good name that is a joy simply to pronounce out loud but a magisterial and ironic introduction. The subplot I mentioned earlier, involving Jonas Chuzzlewit and the fraudulent Tigg Montague, is terrifically engaging. Most of the gathering branches of the Chuzzlewit family are quite entertainingly written, too, and who can forget the delightful pairing of Tom and Ruth Pinch?
Martin Chuzzlewit also contains, towards its close, one of the finest lines in any Dickens novel: "There is a much higher justice than poetical justice", Tom Pinch's sad acceptance of the fact that characters in books do not always get the endings we wish they did. It's almost like an acceptance of its own metafictionality, and yet feels uncomfortably real-world for that. A scintillating little moment.