Dombey and Son: The Themes of Dickens’s Railway Novel


In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the comic genius of Dickens in one of his less well-known novel

Dombey and Son is some way from being Charles Dickens’s most popular novel. Indeed, of his fifteen full-length novels, it’s probably down there at the bottom, alongside Barnaby Rudge. The last television adaptation of Dombey and Son was back in 1983 (you can watch this adaptation online here; I used to work with the chap who played Mr Toots, who went on to become a lecturer and Baptist minister).

The novel’s neglect began early, a fact which may come as a surprise when we learn that it was published in instalments in 1846-48, only a few years after A Christmas Carol had appeared and when Dickens had become the most famous author in Britain – probably in all of the world, given the fervour with which American readers greeted new instalments of his books. But Dickens’s contemporary and sometimes collaborator Wilkie Collins thought the second half of Dombey and Son very bad, and the satirical magazine The Man in the Moon, which after Punch was the leading satirical magazine of the mid-nineteenth century, poked fun at the collapsed storyline of the novel’s latter instalments with this mock-notice, which appeared in January 1848: ‘LOST—Somewhere between the stage door of the St James’s Theatre and Miss Burdett Coutts’s Ragged Schools, the plot of the story of Dombey and Son. No use to any body but the owner, and not much to him.’ More recently, Evelyn Waugh went so far as to call Dombey and Son ‘the worst book in the world’.

Previously, I offered a long analysis of Dickens’s history-book for children, arguing for its comic inventiveness and trademark Dickensian flair for characterisation. But what makes the unpopularity of Dombey and Son more surprising is that it is a novel brimming with typically ‘Dickensian’ characters: the comic and the grotesque, the eccentric and the bizarre, the creepy and the sinister. It’s all there. True, the principal characters – especially Paul Dombey, the businessman whose relationship with his doomed son and neglected daughter – are thin and stiff as cardboard, but then nobody would claim that Esther Summerson is the most interesting character in Dickens’s masterpiece, Bleak House – and she narrates half the book. (In his brilliant study of Dickens’s imagination, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination, John Carey remarks that, when Esther Summerson gets smallpox, it means nothing to us, because as far as we’re concerned she has no face.)

Major Bagstock is not a bad place to start with a consideration of the novel’s minor, comic characters, since he shows Dickens’s early engagement with the subject of empire. He’s a comic character but that’s not all he is. Dickens’s narrator doubts ‘whether there ever was a more entirely selfish person at heart’. Dickens wrote to his illustrator, ‘Phiz’, that he wanted Major Bagstock to be ‘a kind of comic Mephistophelean power in the book’: the Devil’s minion who comes down to earth to help Faustus seal his pact with the Devil (Major Bagstock keeps reminding us how he is ‘devil-ish sly’).

The Major makes Dombey’s second marriage to Edith Granger happen; he introduces the two of them in Leamington Spa. Bagstock is the comic foil to Mr Dombey, much as Sam Weller is the comic foil or sidekick to Mr Pickwick in Dickens’s first novel. Where Dombey is dull, straight-laced, and impossibly prim (the chapters involving him, and his alienated daughter Florence, are the dullest in what is otherwise a very colourful novel), the Major is loud, obnoxious, and endlessly entertaining: in appearance, in speech, in action.

Yet he and Dombey ultimately share many of the same qualities. That is, they both view women as anything other than human beings (Dombey sees his wives as entering into a business partnership with him, while the Major sees them merely as eye candy); they both have connections with empire (Dombey in his overseas business ventures and the Major through his army service); and, perhaps most emphatically, they both believe strongly in the oppression and suppression of those in their service. Just as Mr Dombey makes Mrs Toodles, wet nurse to his son, change her name to ‘Mrs Richards’ when she comes to work for him, so Major Bagstock’s Indian manservant – whose very presence is a reminder of the British Empire – is referred to throughout the novel as merely ‘the Native’. In other words, a parallel is being invited between Mrs Toodles, who has to adopt a pseudonymous existence, and the Native, who has been reduced to an anonymous one. The Native is thus arguably worse off, especially when we witness the Major’s violent treatment of his servant. In the letter to Phiz which I mentioned a moment ago, Dickens told his illustrator: ‘Native evidently afraid of the Major and his thick cane.’

Miss Tox (whom the Major has got his lobster-eye on) is the one who gives the Major’s unfortunate servant this label: Dickens tells us, ‘Miss Tox was quite content to classify [him] as a “native”, without connecting him to any geographical idea whatever’. It doesn’t matter to her where he came from, and indeed we’re never told precisely where he did originate. The Native’s lack or, more precisely, his loss of a name is a reminder of his loss of identity, an idea reinforced by the description of the way his body never looks at home in European clothes. Of course, it’s an ironic name – he is, as Grace Moore points out in her study of Dickens and empire, the one character in the novel who is not a native of Britain. Next to his master, who has too many names – being, variously, the Major, Joey B., Joe Bagstock, Joey Bagstock, J. Bagstock, Josh Bagstock, and so on – the Native’s lack of any name seems an even greater anomaly. What’s more, the Major never uses one word when he can use ten, whereas we never hear the Native speak. It’s almost as if the English language itself is the dominion of the conqueror, and the conquered, or colonised, is not even permitted to use it.

Even the skin-colour offers a contrast: the Native is unjustly marginalised from society because of his dark skin (we are told he was a prince in his own country, but has been reduced to the status of a servant in England), whilst the unnaturally blue-faced Major (purple when he’s particularly apoplectic) sees himself as the toast of civilised British society and embodies the British Empire (in that he has served in the army). At one point, the Major even laughs until he is ‘almost black’. Again, the anomaly is there to make us stop and think,

even while we laugh at the Major’s excessive absurdity. Again, G. K. Chesterton sums this up well: Dickens ‘could only get to the most solemn emotions adequately if he got to them through the grotesque.’ Dickens’s feelings about the Empire were complex, but Dombey and Son represents his first sustained attempt to deal with the subject in his fiction. (Major Bagstock is depicted in the illustration from the novel, right, by Hablot K. Browne or ‘Phiz’.)

Marginal characters like Major Bagstock aren’t just useful for the comic relief they provide in a novel that is about, first and foremost, the clash between business and family, and, as part of this, the march of progress during 1840s Britain as the railways were developed on a vast scale. G. K. Chesterton went so far as to argue, ‘Susan Nipper is not only more of a comic character than Florence; she is more of a heroine than Florence any day of the week.’ Susan Nipper stands up to Dombey, whereas Florence pines away as the unloved and neglected daughter. Thus immediately we have a pairing between Susan and Florence. This pairing or doubling is strengthened at the end of the novel, when Mr Toots, who spends most of the novel pining away with unrequited love for Florence, marries Susan Nipper instead. Toots also provides another clue to a doubling in the novel: he calls Captain Cuttle ‘Captain Gills’ throughout the book, thus conflating two characters, Captain Ned Cuttle and Sol Gills.

Chesterton also suggests that the characters of ‘Dombey and Florence are perfectly reasonable, but we simply know that they do not exist. The Major is mountainously exaggerated, but we all feel that we have met him at Brighton.’ He concludes that this paradox is caused by the fact that ‘Dickens exaggerated when he had found a real truth to exaggerate.’ The times when we need to be on our guard reading Dickens is when the writing is understated, serious, po-faced. That is when he has lost his sincerity.

So, it would be wrong to overlook these cameo appearances as mere comic window-dressing, providing light relief from the weightier, meatier stuff of the novel and nothing more. These minor characters often provide important clues to some of the biggest themes explored in Dickens’s work. The sea-captain, Captain Cuttle, in taking Florence under his wing at one point, is set up as a sort of mirror-image of the sort of father Mr Dombey should be. Mr Toots’s unrequited love is absurdly comical, and yet somehow more real to us than Florence’s pining away for her father’s unconditional love.

And if we’re thinking of the minor characters in Dombey and Son, we could do worse than to consider the very minor character Reverend Melchisedech Howler. He appears just twice in the novel, is only mentioned briefly on both occasions, and plays no important role in the novel’s plot beyond officiating at the wedding of two other minor characters, Captain Bunsby and Mrs MacStinger. You could be forgiven for overlooking him. But you could not be forgiven if, having noticed him once, you chose consciously to overlook him. Here is the description of him when he first arrives on the scene, in Chapter 15:

It was not unpleasant to remember, on the way thither, that Mrs MacStinger resorted to a great distance every Sunday morning, to attend the ministry of the Reverend Melchisedech Howler, who, having been one day discharged from the West India Docks on a false suspicion (got up expressly against him by the general enemy) of screwing gimlets into puncheons, and applying his lips to the orifice, had announced the destruction of the world for that day two years, at ten in the morning, and opened a front parlour for the reception of ladies and gentlemen of the Ranting persuasion, upon whom, on the first occasion of their assemblage, the admonitions of the Reverend Melchisedech had produced so powerful an effect, that, in their rapturous performance of a sacred jig, which closed the service, the whole flock broke through into a kitchen below, and disabled a mangle belonging to one of the fold.

This is one paragraph from the novel (the Reverend disappears from the scene immediately after he and his flock have fallen through the floor onto the mangle in the kitchen below), but it’s also one sentence. We get swept up in the energy of Dickens’s description of these religious Ranters, until Dickens brings down the description, just as the worshippers literally (or very nearly literally) bring the house down. The description is warm and funny, even as it pokes fun at the extremes of Christian religion, and at people who form breakaway religious sects which hold meetings in people’s front parlours and perform frenzied dances to bring on the apocalypse (not to mention those who forecast the end of the world for a specific date at ten in the morning). This is something that was in the air in the 1840s. In 1844, America – and Dickens had just visited the States at this time – had ‘suffered’ something that was known as the ‘Great Disappointment’, which was the name given to an event of October 1844 when the Millerites, a group of radical dissenters, predicted, based on an interpretation of scripture, the world would end. Now, as you may have heard – the world didn’t end. And so this event became known as the Great Disappointment, and it’s this sort of thing that Dickens is satirising in Melchisedech Howler.

It’s easy to laugh at the Reverend, especially as he turns out to be wrong about the end of the world in two years’ time; when he reappears in the final instalment of the novel, he announces that he ‘had consented, on very urgent solicitation, to give the world another two years of existence, but had informed his followers that, then, it must positively go’. But Howler and his flock’s fall onto the mangle does effect a miniature, if slightly anticlimactic, apocalypse of its own; so it would be wrong to write this episode off as a mere bit of comic relief without any ties to the novel’s wider thematic concerns. The Reverend’s crashing into the domesticated space of the kitchen is a comic reflection of the novel’s more general quasi-apocalyptic concern with the destruction of domestic space – and, inextricably tied to that, the danger this poses to the notion of family – which is coming under threat, notably from the railways and from the changing face of commerce. After all, ‘destruction of the world’, the phrase used here, is a loaded one in this novel. Apocalypse is hinted at in numerous ways. Elsewhere in Dombey and Son Dickens describes the train, in that famous long passage, as ‘the triumphant monster, Death’, and Death, of course, is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Thus the marginal characters in Dombey and Son serve an intriguing dual purpose: they are both escapism, or comic relief, and subtle commentaries on some of the key themes of the time (new technology, fears of apocalypse, and the threat that technological progress posed to the Victorians’ notions of the family). It is an underrated novel and worth reading not for Dombey, or for Son, or for Daughter for that matter, but for Major Bagstock, Melchisedech Howler, Mr Toots, and the rest of that glorious panoply of supporting characters.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History

, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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