I am almost finished with my Dickens Project. Fourteen novels down and one more to go. I stalled a little at the prospect of Dombey and Son because no one seems to like it or to think it’s much good. Surprise! It was a sleeper. I loved it. It’s a glorious gush of a soap opera, and almost embarrassing in its domesticity.
It’s actually a book about daughters since the titular son dies a quarter of the way through the novel. The father, Paul Dombey is a man of great fortune, great standing in society and great arrogance. He ignores and neglects his first child, Florence, who spends her entire life trying to earn her father’s affection, even in the face of his hostility and spite.
Florence is still a young girl when little Paul, the son, is born. The two children love each other, a situation which irritates the father who apparently wants to excise Florence from his awareness. Dickens doesn’t say why her father is so cold to Florence. I was left with the impression that it was merely because she was female. When little Paul dies, the father commissions a headstone to read that he mourns the loss of his only child. It falls to the stonecutter to suggest that the stone should read “his only son,” not “his only child.”
Along with all his other superficial qualities, Paul Dombey is a bad judge of other people’s worth primarily because his pride clouds any clear assessment of his own character. After the death of his son he goes off with a blowhard named Joseph Bagstock to spend some time at Leamington Spa. There he meets another interesting daughter.
Edith Granger, the widowed daughter of Mrs. Skewton, has been groomed by her mother to attract men with the hope that she marry a rich man. Edith has apparently done this once and then had the ill luck to lose him. So mother and daughter are on the circuit again.
Mrs. Skewton is a thoroughly ridiculous character. Probably in her 60s, she dresses like a girl, flirts like a teenager, and calls herself “Cleopatra.” All to the disgust of her daughter. Edith is cold and disdainful but she knows her job. She makes the acquaintance of Paul Dombey and endures his company until he proposes marriage without the slightest understanding that Edith despises him.
In this cesspool of human relations, Edith finds not just someone to love, but someone who gives meaning to her life: Florence Dombey. Mrs. Skewton invites Florence to stay with her when Edith and Paul go on their honeymoon. Edith interposes and threatens her mother. She must drop the idea or Edith will call off the wedding. Mrs. Skewton is not going to skew Florence the way she has Edith:
“I am a woman who from childhood has been shamed and steeled. I have been offered and rejected, put up and appraised, until my very soul has sickened. I have not had an accomplishment or grace that might have been a resource to me, but it has been paraded and vended to enhance my value, as if the common crier had called it through the streets. . .”
When Edith and Paul take up housekeeping back in London, Paul is disturbed by the unmistakable love and friendship that Edith and Florence develop. He orders Edith to stop showing such affection to the girl. She refuses. He threatens to exile Florence. At this Edith balks. She tells Florence they must not spend so much time together but she cannot tell her why. She does this to protect Florence from her father’s hatred as much as to keep her in the same house with her, Edith.
But the tension is unbearable and Edith snaps. She runs away to France with Dombey’s slimy business manager, James Carker who, like Paul Dombey, completely misunderstands her. Carker thinks the two of them are going to live together in Italy, but Edith dumps him as soon as she safely can. Carker dies one of those fantastic Dickens’ deaths: he falls into the track of an oncoming train.
Back in London, a sub-plot that I haven’t mentioned has its denouement. Early in the novel Florence has been friends with a young man, Walter Gay, in the Dombey office. Because of this friendship, Paul sends Walter to an outpost of the business in the West Indies, an act understood to be an early death sentence. Yet Walter returns. He and Florence marry and Florence finds lasting love at last.
References to Dombey and Son often comment on the door-mattedness of Florence Dombey. Much as I don’t care for human door-mats, the truth is that I was one in my early adult life and I found Florence’s behavior psychologically credible. All of us who suffered a lack of parental empathy have large deficits to make up. Some adult children move away to either lick their wounds or try to start over–I’m actually not sure what they do because I wasn’t one of those children.
I stayed close to unhappy family relations for the same reason that cats hang around watching the vacuum rather than just go outside to play until the noise is over. Since I couldn’t figure out how to break my attachment to toxic family relations, I kept vigilant to make sure they didn’t erode me any further. Though the attachment hurt me, I felt my parents had something I needed. If I hung around them, I would be there if a drop of it squeezed out. This is how I read Florence Dombey.
Paul Dombey loses his business and his health; he ends up being cared for by the daughter he despised and mistreated. He learns to love his grandchildren, especially the child he calls “Little Florence.” So there’s that in the end.
And now to David Copperfield!