When I lived in Shetland I attended a book group entitled ‘Lunch with Dickens’ organised by Shetland Library which started each year by reading a novel by Charles Dickens. Although I have now left Shetland I still try to read the annual Dickens’ novel. This year the novel was Dombey and Son which was published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848 and was Dickens’ seventh novel. It tells the story of Mr Dombey and his family – his first wife dies giving birth to their son Paul when their daughter Florence is 6 years old. Mr Dombey is a proud, rich man who is delighted to have a son to follow him in his shipping firm.
I find that women in Dickens’ novels, especially the middle-class ones, are often poorly portrayed being pathetic, weak creatures who frequently dissolve into tears. Despite her age and circumstances, Florence is a strong character who develops throughout the novel. She is mature and dotes on her brother helping him with his schoolwork when he is sent away to school in Brighton. Unfortunately Paul is a sickly child who dies young leaving both his father and Florence bereft. Mr Dombey is unable to comfort Florence, ignoring her completely. In the absence of friends and family, Florence is brought up by servants while striving to gain her father’s love. 'Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone'.
After Paul dies, Dombey goes to Lemington Spa with his friend Major Joe Bagstock where they meet Mrs Skewton and her daughter Edith Granger. Mrs Skewton is an awful woman who is determined to marry her daughter off as they are in a poor financial state. The following is how Dickens describes Mrs Skewton at the end of the day as she changes from 'Cleopatra' to an old woman. 'The painted object shrivelled underneath her hand; the form collapsed, the hair dropped off, the arched dark eyebrows changed to scanty tufts of grey; the pale lips shrunk, the skin became cadaverous and loose; an old, worn, yellow, nodding woman, with red eyes, alone remained in Cleopatra’s place, huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown'.
Mr Dombey does marry Edith but this is not a happy marriage as both are very proud. Mr Dombey wants to dominate Edith but she is strong-willed and tries to stand up to him. He is also jealous of the good relationship which Edith forms with Florence and puts pressure on Edith to prevent this. 'There must be no will but his. Proud he desired that she should be, but she must be proud for, not against him. As he sat alone, hardening, he would often hear her go out and come home, treading the round of London life with no more heed of his liking or disliking, pleasure or displeasure, than if he had been her groom.'
Dombey and Son deals with some wide ranging social themes such as arranged marriages, child abuse, deceit and betrayal. The book certainly demonstrates how dependent women were on men in Victorian times despite their class.
I did not enjoy this novel as much as some of other Dickens novels I have read. I felt some parts of the story were unclear and a bit far-fetched. As usual in Dickens’ novels there is a huge cast of characters introduced at the beginning who all eventually have a part to play in the story. Some characters started to get a little annoying as the book progressed – the constant references to Mr Carker’s teeth and Captain Cuttle’s fear of his landlady, Mrs MacStinger, were overdone. Some of the characters did grow on me as the book progressed, for example Susan Nipper who was loyal to Florence and was more of a friend than a servant.
I will not give away the ending of the book but leave you to read it yourself.