Friday, 8 June 2012


I've been thinking about location and Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, in part because it is the only one of Dickens’s major novels to have extended scenes set in non-European locations (indeed: among the shorter fiction, I think only the novella Perils of Certain English Prisoners (1857) and the play he wrote with Collins, The Frozen Deep (1857)—minor works, both—venture beyond European settings).  The simple reason for this is that Dickens preferred to extrapolate from his own first-hand experience, and the only non-European place to which he himself had travelled was America.  But of course his novels apprehend the non-European world; as a writer with synoptic ambition writing in the heyday of the British empire could hardly fail to do; and he actively advocated emigration, especially to Australia, for the British poor.  The way Dickens’s novels represent the lands of beyond-Europe, though, is marginal:  Walter Gay is set away to the West Indies on company business in Dombey and Son, but whatever happens to him there happens offstage and is only of interest insofar as it affects affairs in Britain.  David Copperfield packs a number of its characters off to the antipodes by way of arranging their happy endings, but no scenes in the novel are set there.  Arthur Clenham is back from China at the beginning of Little Dorrit, although the furthest afield the novel itself travels is the south of France.

Martin Chuzzlewit, then, is unusual in moving its protagonist thousands, rather than hundreds, of miles from home.  But it is also unusual in the way it triangulates, as it were, the London-Salisbury axis of its main events in global terms.  The three apexes of this triangle are: the USA, India—Bengal, where Tigg’s supposed property in part underwrites the viability of the Anglo-Bengalee Assurance company—and Tasmania (the Van Dieman’s Land to which Moddle flees rather than marry the forbidding Miss Pecksniff).  Now what is interesting about the last two of these three locations is that they don’t, really, exist.  To be precise: of course Bengal and Tasmania exist, and existed in the 1840s as tangible imperial destinations.  But in terms of the novel, Bengal is a fraudster’s fiction, and Van Dieman’s Land is an anti-place, defined only in terms of being as far from his fiancée as possible, a kind of second-best to suicidal annihilation (the comedy of Moddle’s note is beautifully judged:  ‘Frequently—when you have sought to soothe my brow with kisses—has self-destruction flashed across me. Frequently—incredible as it may seem—have I abandoned the idea.’)  Then there is America.  It might seem absurd to argue that the USA in Chuzzlewit doesn’t exist: it is not only an actual place, it is described in a great deal of detail, and with much of the brilliant clutter of Dickens’s London.  Some critics might concur with P N Firbank’s ‘certainty’ that the American scenes represent a kind of attenuation of the proper Dickensian mode (‘certainly the American chapters strike us as generally thinner and more extravagant than the rest of the novel’ because American society itself was ‘much looser and thinner in texture’; Firbank, Martin Chuzzlewit [Penguin 1968], 25).  But there are many others who find the American scenes thick with life and laughter, for all that the tone is more bitingly satirical.  Rather, I am talking about what Rodney Stenning Edgecombe calls ‘topographical disaffection’ in the novel.  Edgecombe’s analysis takes as its starting point Robert Lawson-Peebles analysis of the relationship between Dickens’s letters from America, American Notes and Chuzzlewit itself:  As Edgecombe notes, Lawson-Peebles

makes some interesting discoveries—transpositions and conflations of the landscape—and is led to the following conclusion: "Previous analyses of Dickens's revulsion against America, then, identify the causes either within American society, or within the novelist's psyche. I would like to propose a third possible cause: the American terrain. The process of revulsion, I suggest, was reinforced as Dickens went westwards into the American hinterland. These new experiences provided him with a language which (so to speak) brought into full bloom an anti-pastoral element which had already taken root in his fiction." [Robert Lawson-Peebles, ‘Dickens Goes West’, quoted in Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Topographic Disaffection in Dickens's American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93 (1994), 37]

What Dickens revolted against, the argument goes, is that (as Edgecombe puts it) ‘the shortcomings of American society were there for the noting, the psyche of a disappointed republican received the data, and the neutral American landscape, like a Rorschach Blot, obligingly configured with the revulsions and disappointments that filtered its perceptions.’  In American Notes Dickens touches on a kind of anti-sublime, a sublime of decay: ‘In so vast a country, where there are thousands of millions of acres of land yet unsettled and uncleared, and on every road of which, vegetable decomposition is annually taking place; where there are so many great rivers, and such opposite varieties of climate.’

Dickens had not seen the deserts of the West, but he had at least seen a prairie, and no doubt had some theoretic sense of its typicality. And yet here, in the closing pages [of American Notes] he projects America—its varieties of climate notwithstanding—as a vast swampy forest, unwholesome and endlessly rotting. [Edgecombe 38]

‘Eden’ turns out to be a utopia in the no-place, rather than the ideal-place, sense of that term; and in a weird sort of anticipation of Forster’s Marabar Caves this great immensity of nothingness reflects young Martin’s ego back upon itself, in what is (in a sense) the central chapter of the novel, where he encounters and is abashed by the egregiousness of his own selfishness.

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