, September 2010
One of Charles Dickens’ most satiric novels, Martin Chuzzlewit was published serially from 1843 to 1844. In fact there are two Martin Chuzzlewits in the novel, one an old rich man who is grandfather of the main character, young Martin. The clan is an old one, as Dickens indicates in the first sentence. And a large, greedy and grasping clan it is, to be sure. Old Martin is stalked by various hopeful relatives waiting for him to die and leave them his vast fortune. He is naturally suspicious, therefore, of his namesake, young Martin.
The old man likes to be in charge of everything and thinks his grandson would be a fine match with his ward, Mary Graham, a sweet girl who has his complete trust. Martin falls in love with her without his grandfather’s permission and the two men quarrel bitterly. Thus young Martin stomps off to become an apprentice to a relative, Seth Pecksniff, who will teach him architecture. This Pecksniff is an insufferable hypocrite. He has two daughters who are spoiled and willful. Also employed by Pecksniff is one Tom Pinch, an innocent, mild-mannered and thoroughly generous spirit. As Friederich von Schiller one wrote, “A beautiful soul has no other merit than its own existence.” Tom Pinch is just such a soul and has a sister Ruth, just as admirable. She is a governess to an arrogant family in London who treat her as a lowly servant.
Old Martin, to test his grandson’s heart, lets him be thrown out of Pecksniff’s school and travel to America to seek his fortune. He is accompanied by Mark Tapley, late of the Blue Dragon Inn, who desires adventure and the chance to exercise his good humor and patience in adversity. And adversity they find. They fall into a land scam and travel to the new settlement called Eden, which is nothing but a few rough huts in a swamp. Fever is everywhere and Martin becomes desperately ill, nursed by a family whose three children eventually die. After he recovers Mark falls ill and Martin learns, while nursing him, to be less selfish and self-centered. After a year, chastened and changed, Martin returns to England hoping to deserve his grandfather’s love. The old man has been staying with Pecksniff and seems to be under that blackguard’s complete control. Back in England family members have been involved in an insurance scam which leads to murder. Many more characters and plot lines converge in a satisfying ending. Memorable characters include a drunken nurse Sarah Gamp, a barber Poll Sweedlepipe, a cousin Chevy Slyme, and a nephew Jonas Chuzzlewit.
Even at a lengthy 33 and a half hours, you will want the book to go on and on, so engaging are the humorous and dramatic moments. America comes in for a shellacking for being a greedy, boastful country full of tin-horn politicians, swindlers, and freedom-loving slave owners. Excerpts from this novel were probably not on the program during Dickens’ reading tours in America. The novel is dramatized by Sean Barrett, British actor of stage, television, and voice work including audio books. Listeners will find it hard to believe that only one voice is presenting the story, so well does he create the many and varied characters. His Americans are twangy and his Brits speak in many dialects. His female characters are notable, especially the boozy Sarah Gamp. Poll Sweedlepipe sound like the birds he keeps. Barrett’s performance is magnificent. Highly recommended.