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1/5: Martin Chuzzlewit

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens, Patricia Ingham

A story of the extended and generally mean and selfish Chuzzlewit family.

According to my reading history, it took me nine months to read this. That’s not quite representative – I did put it on hold for a while and also read two books in between – but it’s an illustration of what’s wrong with this monster. For a comparison, this is about seven hundred pages; I read War and Peace at over a thousand pages in just over a month.

So where did it go wrong?

This was Dicken’s sixth book, and he was obviously very off his game at this point. There’s no coherent plot, or through line (Except the general selfishness of most of the characters). The padding is immense and never-ending. Seriously: He spent almost an entire chapter describing a boarding house / inn. This boarding house appears for a chapter more or so, then we’re on to something else. It’s wonderful descriptive writing, but it doesn’t move the story on one jot.

The novel was written as a serial for publication, and when Dickens decided that the story wasn’t working, he wasn’t above ditching it and shifting to a new one. So, we start with the death of an aged relative, move on to the Pecksniff family, then on to something else. Then…Boom! A character decides he’s off to America! When I read that, coming from absolutely nowhere, I knew this book was in trouble. It’s also very obvious when Dickens wasn’t up to his word count and spent pages describing a London market, or a forest. He’s never one to use one word when a dozen will do.

Mostly, it’s forgivable because you know his characters are so grand and well-drawn, but not here.

Plot after plot is thrown at this thing in a desperate attempt to save it, and nothing works. The American adventures are padded to the point of insanity; there’s (again) almost a whole chapter describing a town-hall meeting, where an American foists a letter upon our character. But not to worry, since the letter isn’t important and is never featured again.

By the time the climax (such as it is) begins to roll around and the bad guys get their justice, I’d lost interest in being able to tell the characters apart. Someone is murdered in a forest, and I really couldn’t tell you why beyond the idea there was some sort of scam going on. Someone nearly dies and then doesn’t, for no point whatsoever.

I checked the summary of the plot on Wikipedia, and it says a character conned another out of a pocket watch at one point. I have no memory of this event having taken place at all, in a book I just read.

There are a few chapters which work. Tom Pinch and his sister have a few memorable scenes of domestic bliss. Mrs Gamp and her umbrella were apparently so popular (Or there was a genius at the marketing department) that a Gamp became a byword for an umbrella. But she adds little to the story beyond a social commentary on Victorian healthcare. Everyone else is utterly forgettable.

It’s. A. Mess.