Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dickens' business epic reports on London and finance - and is strangely familiar

Dombey and SonDombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son is 814 pages in my 1907 Everyman edition. By the time you get to the end, it’s the epic scale that impresses most: the panoramic view of London life and the huge cast of characters, each with their own story, linked together as a seamless whole.

At several points in the last few hundred pages, I thought it could have finished. But Dickens was right: there were more reconciliations required and more justice to be dispensed in order to leave everyone happy, dead, or deservedly miserable.

No scene is short-changed. If the reader occasionally wonders at the length and endless detail, the writer shows no sign of impatience. The plot’s sometime clunky coincidences are more than excused by the way its characters’ actions are fully accounted for by what we already know of them.

The most complex and fascinating character, is Edith, Mr Dombey’s second wife. She is torn between destructive pride, self-interest and a streak of moral purity that’s vital to the plot in letting her heart soften to Dombey’s neglected daughter Florence.

Dombey himself, his English coldness and formality only just concealing a huge self-regard, and Florence, perhaps too much the flawless angel who will put up with anything, are only brought together in his adversity. His tragedy gives a welcome darker note to the conclusion of the story.

But it is in the perfectly realised minor characters that Dickens shows his extraordinary ability to bring a figure to life with one or two deft strokes, whether in their appearance or speech. There’s the self-effacing Mr Toots with his inability to stop adding “it’s of no consequence” to everything he says, and the boastfully plain-spoken Major Bagstock with his constant commentary on himself and his family as “J.B”, “Old Joe” and “the Bagstock breed”.

Mr Dombey is something big in the city but we never find out much - beyond what’s revealed in the full title of the book: ‘Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation.’ But the workings of the business are nonetheless convincing, and its eventual problems, when it is “urged beyond its strength” are familiar to today’s reader: “undertakings had been entered on to swell the reputation of the house for vast resources.” A negligent proprietor, an over-ambitious manager, a desire to make financial results look good rather than a prudent concern for the future of the business: it’s all there and all could have come from today’s papers.

For the cynical twenty-first century, Dickens’ ‘good’ characters, like Florence, seem the weakest - little more than ciphers, acting out their duty, the happy recipients of the love of those who recognise their purity.

Our reaction is no doubt little more than a reflection of our age. G.K.Chesterton, writing the Introduction to the 1907 edition, reports widespread criticism of Dickens’ aristocrats. It seems to have been the conventional wisdom at the time, at least among the well-heeled, that Dickens “could not describe a gentleman.” Chesterton disagrees, saying that gentlemen simply disliked criticism: “he could not describe a gentleman as gentlemen like to be described.”

Interestingly, Chesterton sees this as only one example of more general reservations about Dickens. He acknowledges a public “who feel that there is about his books something intolerably clumsy or superficial.” Chesterton’s answer is that Dickens is, essentially, a reporter: “all his novels are outgrowths of the original notion of taking notes, splendid and inspired notes, of what happens in the street.”

That makes sense when you remember that so many of Dickens’ early works were called Sketches, and the list of his fiction is interspersed with pure factual reportage from the United States (1842) and Italy (1846).

One of the most ‘Dickensian’ of present day novelists, Tom Wolfe, whose epic A Man in Full is nothing if not a sketch of American society at all levels, is also a former reporter.

That Dombey and Son is part reportage is clear from the vivid description of the despoliation of Camden (originally Camberling Town according to Dickens) by the construction of the railway:

“Here a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together lay topsy-turvey at the bottom of a steep, unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.”

There’s pages of that kind of thing, proving that if he were around today, Dickens could have written a great colour piece on the impact of Cross-Rail at the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street.

Dombey itself is a towering feat of literary engineering, an Olympic-standard demonstration of construction and control.

Dickens’ peculiar magic is somehow to be able to comment on his characters – with laugher or contempt - while in the very act of describing them. In sharing his emotional response so intimately he makes us feel we are watching at his side rather than facing our story-teller - so much so that we almost believe we should share credit for his creation, simply by virtue of understanding so completely his view of the action he has set before us. It is a remarkable sleight of hand that binds us into the story and makes us co-spectators and sometimes co-conspirators.

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