Dombey and Son

A review and excerpt

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The story is set in early Victorian London and follows the fortunes of Dombey & Son, a successful shipping company at a time of increasing economic activity and prosperity, constructed around an interesting assortment of characters, made up of modest heroes, opportunistic villains, cunningly incorrigible rogues and others. Paul Dombey an aloof and flawed widower father of Florence and Paul junior and the owner of the company, presides over a series of trials and misfortunes, virtually ignoring his older beautiful and devoted daughter investing all his hopes and dreams in the prospect of his new born son one day joining him in the company and eventually taking the reins.

Unfortunately the boy has a weak and sickly constitution and despite the best treatment and the devotion of his sister and nurses he doesn’t survive beyond his sixth birthday, seriously affecting the mood and outlook of a disappointed and increasingly embittered father. James Carker, a man of rather dubious character, is the manager of Dombey and Son and has overall responsibility for day to day business helped by assistant manager Mr Morfin, his older brother John Carker, a lowly clerk with a mysterious past, and Walter Gay a junior. As the plot develops we are introduced to Solomon Gills, Walter’s uncle, a nautical instrument maker with a shop called the Wooden Midshipman, and his friend Captain Edward Cuttle, both will play a major supporting role in events which transpire as the main characters lives become more than a little chaotic. Florence attracts many admirers along the way but is only interested in winning the affection and approval of a proud and troubled father, however when it becomes clear that Walter Gay has romantic feelings towards her it is seen as a potential threat to James Carker who conspires with his boss to dispatch Walter to the West Indies.

Meanwhile wider family members and well wishers are encouraging Mr Dombey to remarry and on a short break to Leamington Spa he forms a relationship with Edith Granger an ill conceived match which will have disastrous consequences. After the wedding things take another turn for the worse when, after years of mis-management and some disastrous speculative transactions chickens come home to roost at Dombey and Son resulting in the flight of James Carker to Dijon with Edith leaving the firm in desperate financial straits with Florence taking the blame and being banished from the family home. With rumours of shipwrecks in the Caribbean and fears for Walter’s safety, Florence takes refuge with Captain Cuttle at the Wooden Midshipman whilst Sol Gills goes off in search of news of Walter and Dombey sinks further into deep despair while Mr Morfin attempts to bring some order the the firms accounts. Unfortunately there is no salvation for Dombey and Son but there is retribution in the form of a chase across Europe culminating in for the time, a very topical railway fatality, redemption and rehabilitation for a contrite father and reconciliation with his daughter as this masterpiece draws to a heartwarming and satisfactory conclusion. The individual characters are so well defined and easy to relate to, whether it be the sharp tongue of Mrs McStinger Captain Cuttle’s landlady who puts the fear of God into the lovable seafarer in more than one chapter or by contrast the cheerful steadfastness of Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, always there to support, there is something in this book for everyone. A terrific storyline with wonderful characters against a background of Victorian England and of course English prose at its best, this book is highly entertaining and a thoroughly good read.

An extract - Subsequent to the demise of the house of Dombey
The Counting House soon got to be dirty and neglected. The principal slipper and dogs' collar seller, at the corner of the court, would have doubted the propriety of throwing up his forefinger to the brim of his hat any more, if Mr Dombey had appeared there now; and the ticket porter with his hands under his white apron, moralised good sound morality about ambition which (he observed) was not, in his opinion, made to rhyme to perdition for nothing. Mr Morfin, the hazel-eyed bachelor, with the hair and whiskers sprinkled with grey, was perhaps the only person within the atmosphere of the House - its head, of course, excepted - who was heartily and deeply affected by the disaster that had befallen it. He had treated Mr Dombey with due respect and deference through many years, but he had never disguised his natural character, or meanly truckled to him, or pampered his master passion for the advancement of his own purposes. He had, therefore, no self-disrespect to avenge; no long-tightened springs to release with a quick recoil. He worked early and late to unravel whatever was complicated or difficult in the records of the transactions of the House; was always in attendance to explain whatever required explanation; sat in his old room sometimes very late at night, studying points by his mastery of which he could spare Mr Dombey the pain of being personally referred to; and then would go home to Islington, and calm his mind by producing the most dismal and forlorn sounds out of his violoncello before going to bed. He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes, when his landlady (who was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones) announced a lady. 'In mourning' she said. The violoncello stopped immediately; and the performer, laying it on the sofa with great tenderness and care, made a sign that the lady was to come in. He followed directly, and met Harriet Carker on the stair……
….. He handed her down to a coach she had waiting at the door; and if his landlady had not been deaf, she would have heard him muttering as he went back upstairs, when the coach had driven off, that we were creatures of habit and it was a sorrowful habit to be an old bachelor. The violoncello, lying on the sofa between the two chairs, he took it up, without putting away the vacant chair, and sat droning on it, and slowly shaking his head at the vacant chair, for a long, long time. The expression he communicated to the instrument at first, though monstrously pathetic and bland, was nothing to the expression he communicated to his own face, and bestowed upon the empty chair: which was so sincere, that he was obliged to have recourse to Captain Cuttle's remedy more than once, and to rub his face with his sleeve. By degrees, however, the violoncello, in unison with his own frame of mind, glided melodiously into the Harmonious Blacksmith which he played over and over again, until his ruddy and serene face gleamed like true metal on the anvil of a veritable blacksmith. In fine, the violoncello and the empty chair were the companions of his bachelorhood until nearly midnight; and when he took his supper, the violoncello set up on end in the sofa corner, big with the latent harmony of a whole foundry full of harmonious blacksmiths, seemed to ogle the empty chair out of its crooked eyes, with unutterable intelligence.

Charles Dickens 1848

Palfreyman 2nd January 2014

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Charles Dickens in the age of railways