Charles Dickens is often criticized for creating characters that don’t grow and mature. There are days I might add that in that case, art is merely reflecting life. In any case, in Martin Chuzzlewit the maturation of the eponymous Martin as a plot line is nearly obliterated by the presence of a grandiose fellow who took over the book much as he took over the air space in every room he entered and sucked up the energy of every scene in which he figured: Seth Pecksniff:
“He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precept than a copy book. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there: but these were his enemies; the shadows cast by his brightness; that was all. His very throat was moral. . .”
“It was a special quality, among the many admirable qualities possessed by Mr. Pecksniff that the more he was found out, the more hypocrisy he practiced. Let him be discomfited in one quarter, and he refreshed and recompensed himself by carrying the war into another.” (Chapter 44)
We first meet Pecksniff when he is blown onto his butt by a windstorm as he attempts to open his own front door so my first impression of him was of a harmless galoot. But it was on account of Mr. Pecksniff that it took me nearly 400 pages to decide I liked this novel. After his first buffoonish appearance I found him nearly intolerable; he reminded me of someone I was recently entangled with, someone whose arrogance, sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness was breathtaking. Since I have totally recovered from My Personality Disordered Entanglement, it seems odd that Pecksniff felt so concrete. He didn’t become funny until I was halfway through the book and he was getting his come-uppance.
In contrast to Pecksniff being a vacuous direction post, a recurring reference to a fingerpost helped orient not just the characters in the book, but me as a reader. On the road from Pecksniff’s small village to the cathedral town of Salisbury is the turn off to London and there stands the fingerpost that points in three directions. I could locate the comings and goings of the many characters whenever Dickens referenced the fingerpost, and I got quite fond of it, watching for references as though I were looking for Waldo.
My trajectory with this narrative followed the character of Tom Pinch, an open-hearted young man with a great dollop of naïveté, who had a huge fund of good will for Pecksniff, which the Great Man squandered as carelessly and thoughtlessly as My Personality Disordered Entanglement did mine—but I am completely and utterly over all that. It no longer bothers me. I don’t speak of it. Forget I said anything just now or a few paragraphs backs or that I might refer to it again.
I felt endeared to Tom right away because he played the church organ for his own enjoyment on his own time; in the 19th century that can only mean one thing: he played Bach. He and I realized together that Pecksniff, because he had risen to power in spite of his incompetence, could do a great deal of harm to people who strayed into his many blind spots.
Pecksniff, in spite of having no ability of his own, runs a small school for architects. He accepts large tuitions and provides room, board and the opportunity to bask in his grandiosity. Martin Chuzzlewit, a distant cousin, is a talented young man who comes as a student and whose family connections Pecksmith hopes will redound to him. When Pecksniff realizes there is more fortune to be made by toadying up to Martin’s grandfather with whom Martin is on the outs, he finds a way to diddle Martin out of both his inheritance and his fiancée. Tom Pinch is a casualty in the diddling of Martin, but Tom grows wiser and more content after he leaves Pecksniff’s orbit.
I identify with Tom Pinch, I have not a vestige of feeling left in regards to the arrested adolescent Pecksniffian who ate away at my sense of worth for too long (the jerk), and I tend to run as fast as I can from my third featured character when I meet her in Life, but who nevertheless is very funny on paper:
Her role serves a structural purpose and her personality explodes over the entire narrative, shoving even Mr. Pecksniff into a corner. Mrs. Gamp, a nurse and mid-wife both to birth and death, her professional services are needed because an extraordinary number of people get sick or die during the course of the story. We first meet her when she is called to a death. “Mrs. Gamp, who had a face for all occasions, looked out of her window with her mourning countenance. . .”(Chapter 19)
Today we might characterize Mrs. Gamp as a networker –“Gamp is my name, Gamp my nater,”—“a lady of that happy temperament which can be ecstatic without any other stimulating cause than a general desire to establish a large and profitable connection. She added daily so many strings to her bow, that she made a perfect harp of it. . .” (Chapter 46)
Always promoting herself, her verbal resume is announced through the intermediary of a mysterious friend by the name of Mrs. Harris to whom Mrs. Gamp is “as gold as has passed through the furnace:”
“‘only t’other day; the last Monday evening fortnight as ever dawned upon this Piljian’s Projiss of a mortal wale; I says to Mrs. Harris when she says to me, ‘Years and our trials, Mrs. Gamp, sets marks upon us all.’—‘Say not the words Mrs.Harris, if you and me is to be continual friends, for sech is not the case.
At this point she was fain to stop for breath; and advantage may be taken of the circumstance, to state that a fearful mystery surrounded this lady of the name of Harris, whom no one in the circle of Mrs. Gamp’s acquaintance had ever seen; neither did any human being know her place of residence, though Mrs. Gamp appeared on her own showing to be in constant communication with her. There were conflicting rumors on the subject; but the prevalent opinion was that she was a phantom of Mrs. Gamp’s brain. . . created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects, and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature.” (Chapter 25)
Living in such “a wale” as she does, Mrs. Gamp fortifies and contents herself at all times with brandy, which she keeps in a teapot. She takes night duty when she has a patient so she’s free to have her “tea” and her “cowcumbers.” Here’s Mrs. Gamp when a mourner has the audacity to hang around the death bed to grieve during her watch:
“I have seen a great deal of trouble my own self,” said Mrs. Gamp, laying greater and greater stress upon her words, “and I can feel for them as has their feelings tried, but I am not a Rooshan or a Prooshan, and consequently cannot suffer spies to be set over me.” (Chapter 19)
Here’s a few more Gamp morsels:
*“Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ‘em to see out of a needle’s eye.” (Chapter 25)
*“Your countenance is quite an angel’s! Which but for pimples it would be.” (Chapter 46)
And here are a few more bits from the novel that I especially enjoyed:
*. . . this horse and the hooded vehicle, whatever its proper name might be. . . it was more like a gig with a tumour than anything else. . .
(a note for this line says that a gig did not normally have a hood–Chapter 5)
*An ancient proverb warns us that we should not expect to find young heads upon old shoulders; to which is may be added that we seldom meet with that unnatural combination, but we feel a strong desire to knock them off. (Chapter 11)
*. . . Nadgett. . . was born to be a secret. He was a short dried-up withered old man, who seemed to have secreted his very blood; for nobody would have given him credit for possession of six ounces of it in his whole body. (Chapter 27)
*Change begets change. Nothing propagates so fast. (Chapter 18)