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MC Cambridge Secrecy and Duplicity | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

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Cambridge Dickens Fellowship: “Martin Chuzzlewit”

September 11, 2017

“Secrecy and Duplicity in Martin Chuzzlewit’s London (but not at a Pinch)” by Rick Allen

There’s a long, London-centred literary tradition on the subject of urban trickery and deception. At the last meeting Michael Slater reminded us that Dickens was a devotee of Ben Jonson’s plays, and two of them, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair, are notable 17thc contributions to that tradition, along with other Jacobean City Comedies. A favourite work of mine in the 18thc is John Gay’s Trivia — the title signifying not triviality but the meeting-place of three roads, and therefore an urban settlement. This mock-georgic poem purported to warn uninitiated visitors about all the treacherous ruses they might be trapped by, especially when misdirected into a maze of dark narrow streets:

‘Seek not from ‘prentices to learn the way,
Those fabling boys will turn thy steps astray;
Ask the grave tradesman to direct thee right,
He ne’er deceives, but when he profits by’t’ (II,69-72)

The ironic wit indicates that the main purpose is to entertain a sophisticated metropolitan audience while pretending to provide the gullible outsider with a crash-course for survival in the corrupt city. The same is true of most of the 18th & 19thc journalistic prose which nominally deplored a variety of petty deceptions, yet reflected real admiration of the ingenuity involved. In one of the most popular 19thc books pre-Dickens, Pierce Egan’s Life in London, two swells, the original Tom and Jerry, go in disguise to the East End to witness the return of the ‘cadgers’ after their day’s work as sham mendicants, tossing away their crutches and wooden legs: ‘it almost staggers belief that mankind can be so debased, that hypocrisy should be so successful’.

Dickens was very familiar with this genre of writing and indeed with many of the actual tricks it celebrates. The opening of ch 37 of MC gives a long list of tricksters — eg ring-droppers, pea and thimble-riggers, duffers, touters — that Tom Pinch did not fall prey to on his first walk through the London streets; ‘neither did he fall into any other of the numerous man-traps which are set up…in the public grounds of this city’ (545). And although he does lose his way, this paragon of innocence has learnt Gay’s lesson not to ask anyone, so he comes to no harm. I’ll come back later to Pinch’s immunity in this dangerous environment, and to the impact of his sojourn in London on the image of the city established in earlier sections of the novel. As evoked from ch 8 onwards, London is full of mystery, menace, shape-shifting and duplicity; these characteristics infiltrate its everyday life, much of which is presented in a tone of satiric irony. There are continuities with the aforementioned tradition of urban writing but here it acquires a broader and sharper socio-critical edge.

There’s continuity also, of course, with the provincial world of Wiltshire represented in the first seven chapters and intermittently thereafter. Indeed, you might well say, how can London lay special claim to duplicity when, from the outset, its Supreme Master, Pecksniff, has been practising his art with such virtuosity in a country village? It’s there too that we first meet that not-so-great Pretender, Chevy Slyme, and his chancing sidekick, Montague Tigg, and the unseemly swarm of fortune-hunters pursuing old Martin. The air of suspicion surrounding that mysterious figure has further dispelled any notion of a rural idyll. But apart from Pecksniff himself, these undesirables are all interlopers in village life — Antony and Jonas are city men through and through. And when Pecksniff perpetrates professional fraud on a grand scale — winning an award for young Martin’s grammar-school design — he does so in London. It’s there that a host of mini-Pecksniffs, double-dealers and dissemblers find fertile soil in which to flourish. And by the time we arrive there, indeed from the very first chapter of the novel, an ironic narrative voice has become prominent — the voice referring to Pecksniff as ‘that worthy gentleman’ and ‘the best of architects and land-surveyors’ and to Mrs Gamp as ‘this excellent woman’. Adjusting to this voice stating that which is not, the reader thus breathes in the atmosphere of distrust pervading the fictional world itself, especially the world of London as represented, for example, by the devious environs of Todgers’s or by the surreptitious surveillances of Nadgett.

I’ve picked out those two cases in particular because both are introduced in terms implying their metropolitan typicality. The title of ch 9 implies that Todgers’s and its environs are representative of the town as a whole, an impression explicitly reinforced in the opening paragraph, where ‘surely London…[is] qualified to be on terms of close relationship and alliance with hundreds and thousands of the odd family to which Todgers’s belonged’ (131). The district in question is the City, the tightly packed square mile within the remains of the old Roman walls, and we note that already in this opening paragraph, the built environment is treated as an aggressively anthropomorphic force ‘which hemmed Todgers’s round, and hustled it, and crushed it, and stuck its brick-and-mortar elbows into it…’. This leads straight on to the account of strangers driven to distraction in ‘those devious mazes’ and never finding their way even if they ask for it: ‘Nobody had ever found Todgers’s on a verbal direction, though given within a minute’s walk of it…T’s was in a labyrinth, whereof the mystery was known but to a chosen few’. This general account has already been borne out in the previous chapter in the particular case of the arrival of Pecksniff & co at the coach terminus in a dense fog — ‘as if it were a city in the clouds’ in which ‘they might as well have been playing blindman’s buff’ (127) — and the frantic confusion of the walk to Todgers’s (even though Pecksniff is not a stranger there). We’ve seen earlier writers warn of the dangers of being led astray by tricksters in London’s darker streets; here, one feels the labyrinthine neighbourhood itself to be a malignly deceptive force. This impression is further developed in the passage known as ‘the view from Todgers’ (133-4) since Dorothy van Ghent’s celebrated article on it 67 years ago. As Patricia Ingham’s commentary in the Penguin Intro shows, the viewer is immediately struck by the ‘long dark path’ of the Monument’s shadow’ across a wilderness of smoke and noise; then becomes aware of inanimate objects whispering conspiratorially and appearing ‘to be maliciously holding themselves askew, that they might shut the prospect out and baffle T’s’; and then overwhelmed by a crescendo of tumult and an apparently vast thickening and expansion of the host of objects, he or she retires panic-stricken with a sensation of vertigo. I would add that the language describing the inauspicious start to this viewing experience, in which the would-be observer is first stunned by bashing his head on the exit door and then ‘choaked’ by the kitchen chimney, parodies the kind of criminal assault that visitors to London had always been warned about. Also worthy of note with regard to the viewer’s rapid withdrawal to avoid ‘com[ing] into the street by the shortest cut: that is to say, head-foremost’, is a then topical concern about just such an outcome focused on the Monument. Nathan Pope’s 1987 article cited in our Penguin edition shows that the Monument had become notorious for suicides — ‘so notorious that just a month or so before the first number of MC appeared, an iron cage was built at the top to prevent more people from throwing themselves off’. Several recent victims had been young women, just the sort of tragic case Dickens would take a close personal interest in. One such occurred in 1839, when Dickens and family were in Broadstairs. He wrote to Forster: ‘What a strange thing it is that all sorts of fine things happen in London when I’m away. I almost blame myself for the death of that poor girl who leaped off the Monument — she would never have done it if I had been in town’ (18/9/39). The most recent case in 1842 was shrouded in mystery; the victim was again a young woman, but this time the act of suicide was completely inexplicable. Perhaps she, as the viewer from Todgers’s was in danger of doing, had just given up the ghost when faced by the sinister labyrinth laid out endlessly below her. For the contemporary audience, then, the Monument and its shadow would reinforce the atmosphere of morbidity and gloom evoked more directly by the ghostly little churchyards, where ‘paralysed old watchmen guarded the bodies of the dead at night’, and the former mansions converted into warehouses ‘with an air of palpable deadness about them’ (132). These, together with the ‘queer old taverns that had a drowsy and secret existence’, patronised by ‘ancient inhabitants…much opposed to steam and all new-fangled ways’ (133), represent an obsolescent form of commerce. But as we’ll see, more vigorously pursued business can lead to ‘palpable deadness’ as well.

As for Todgers’s itself, the physical character of this ‘very dingy edifice’, its interior ‘very black, begrimed and mouldy’ (128), is entirely in keeping with its surroundings. But as a functioning commercial boarding establishment, its clientele almost entirely comprising single men under the age of forty, it appears somewhat less moribund. And as the very first establishment we encounter in London, it’s a fitting introduction to the city’s culture and values, which, more than in any previous Dickens novel, are essentially commercial [as argued, e.g., by H.M. Daleski in Dickens and the Art of Analogy (1970). Apart from the Monument, where the man taking the money gloats about how many steps there are: ‘It’s worth twice the money to stop here’ (p.546), the only public building mentioned in the whole novel is the stock exchange. One of the major symptoms of the city’s business culture is the extent to which almost all its practitioners are at best equivocal figures, deviously two-faced (at least) or with shifting identities. The first one we meet, Mrs Todgers, greets the Pecksniff daughters ‘with affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other’(130). We soon find that she handles her clients in a similar way, and in the scene (still in ch 9) where the Pecksniffs pay Ruth Pinch a condescending visit at the dreadful brass and copper founder’s mansion, Mrs T is equivocation incarnate, preserving ‘a kind of genteel grimness, suitable to any state of mind, and involving any shade of opinion’ (138). There are far worse characters in MC than Mrs T, but you only have to compare her with her roughly rural equivalent, Mrs Lupin, to recognise the taint of metropolitan commerce.

That taint on a far more destructive scale is institutionalised in the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company. Montague Tigg, first encountered in ch 4 as a ‘swaggering’ yet ‘slinking’ ‘shabby-genteel’, has come to the city and reinvented himself as Tigg Montague, smartly dressed CEO in lavishly appointed premises. Much of relevance might be said about him and his fraudulent company, its wonderful name combining the claims of imperial opulence and public integrity, its colourful criminality barely an exaggeration of that perpetrated by one of its real-life originals, the West Middlesex (not West Sussex as the Penguin notes have it) General Annuity Assurance Company. If the warehouses around Todgers’s represent old-style commerce, then the Anglo-Bengalee represents the murkier side of recognisably modern capitalist models. The figure of its secret agent, Nadgett, embodies a mystery, spookiness and apparent outdatedness already seen in Todgers’s environs, but his multiplicity of shifting personal identities — he carries cards identifying him as coal-merchant, wine-merchant, commission-agent, collector and accountant, and seems actually to be a landlord — gives him a representative niche in the modern metropolis. Nadgett is so profoundly secretive and deceptive a character that he apparently deceives himself (belatedly delivering his own letters to himself ‘very much to his own surprise’ (426)) and perhaps deceives his creator too, since he turns out to be so much more ruthlessly efficient a sleuth than the initial description of an aimless old bumbler suggests. More likely Dickens, a devotee of secrets himself, colludes in this aspect of Nadgett’s deceptiveness. That initial sketch in ch 27 (425-6) of a seemingly pathetic old isolate and fantasist carries some echoes of the essay on ‘Shabby-Genteel People’ in that foundational work, SB. The shabby-genteel ‘seem indigenous to the soil, and to belong as exclusively to London as its own smoke, or the dingy bricks and mortar’; they sit around in the Stock exchange waiting for someone or something to turn up. So too does Nadgett, who likewise ‘belonged to a class; a race peculiar to the city; who are secrets as profound to one another, as they are to the rest of mankind’ (426). The crucial difference is that Boz wrote to elicit deep sympathy, since ‘the miserably poor man…who feels his poverty and vainly strives to conceal it, is one of the most pitiable objects in human nature’; Nadgett turns out to be anything but pitiable.

Sadly I have to rush past an ultimately less fortunate Anglo-Bengalee employee, young Bailey, a superb example of personal reinvention — from Todgers’s juvenile porter to flash man of the turf. But we can’t overlook a couple of those ‘professional persons’ who first appear in ch 19, Mrs Gamp and Mr Mould. In both cases, the term ‘professional’ is highly questionable, of course. Before the training and supervision introduced in later 19thc hospital-based reforms, nursing was entirely domestic and unregulated; it was a personal business sustained by local networking. Mrs Gamp is introduced as a lady ‘who had a face for all occasions’ (304); in her case these are mostly associated with either birth or sickness and death, her ‘twofold profession’ (p 402) and we see her ruthless opportunism in touting one form of business while engaged in the other. Self-promotion is effected by another kind of duality: the alter ego of her inventive monologues, Mrs Harris, serves to present Mrs Gamp at her own public valuation as a conscientious and compassionate carer.

Mr Mould is a natural associate in Gamp’s business network. He too has faces for different occasions, private and professional, but since the latter in his case always needs to be solemn, Dickens enjoys catching him out in smiles of self-satisfaction. And like Mrs Gamp, Mould deploys an allusive style of discourse (with inappropriate and/or misquoted references to the poets) to elevate the moral status of his occupation. Another member of the same business network is the doctor who attends Anthony Chuzzlewit’s funeral, but ‘it was a great point with Mr Mould, and a part of his professional tact, not to seem to know the doctor — though in reality they…very often…worked together’ (311). We aren’t surprised when this same physician reappears as a partner in the Anglo-Bengalee outfit. As in the case of nursing, Dickens is focusing through Mould on an occupation under intense public critical scrutiny at the time, partly on account of its association with the scandal of overcrowded urban graveyards (powerfully exposed later, of course, in BH). But parliamentary investigations into this crisis soon broadened their remit, and according to Nancy Metz’s summary in her Companion to MC: ‘within this wider context, undertakers emerged as the most prominent factor in a system of abuses…and extravagant funerals became potent symbols for how predatory greed could breed, in its final result, pestilence and death’. Thus, Mould is perfectly named not only on account of the most obvious associations of his occupation, but as part of the novel’s thematic link between money-grubbing, moral decay and physical death. This is most strongly posited in the case of Anthony and Jonas Chuzzlewit, in whose house the grim paraphernalia of business have completely expelled domesticity (ch 11, pp 175-6). But witness, too, Mould’s genial conversation with Gamp during that topically satirical episode of Anthony’s funeral, when ‘feathers waved, horses snorted, silks and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr Mould emphatically said, “everything that money could do, was done”.
‘“And what can do more, Mrs Gamp?” Exclaimed the undertaker, as he emptied his glass and smacked his lips’ (309).

However, the strong satiric vision of London and the equally strong ironic voice which help to sustain it become attenuated with the arrival there of Tom Pinch. Following that first failed attempt to find his way to Furnivall’s Inn, but to no ill-effect, Tom becomes an enthusiastic flaneur in ch 39, window-shopping and viewing the architectural sights, and then in the following chapter, taking ‘many and many a pleasant stroll’ (585) with his sister in Covent Garden Market and down to the river. It’s true that they are then involuntarily thrust into a tensely dramatic encounter with the representatives of the fallen city — Gamp, Nadgett, Jonas Chuzzlewit and Tigg. Tom is completely uncomprehending as he witnesses Tigg telling Jonas why he has had to prevent his escape, and enunciating the governing principle of this novel’s London: ‘that confounded bee-hive of ours in the city must be paramount to every other consideration, when there is honey to be made’ (ch 40, 593). But the Pinches emerge completely unscathed from this corrupt imbroglio; there is indeed something magical, a fairy-tale quality, about the inviolability of Tom’s physical security, let alone of his virtue, throughout his London stay. In most of their subsequent London appearances, the Pinch siblings feature in scenes of cosy domestic bliss; Tom is once again eulogised in 2nd-person singular addresses: ‘Thy quality of soul was simple, simple’ (582), and even worse, as the Westlock-Ruth love interest is developed, the narrative voice becomes coyly patronising at Ruth’s expense: ‘oh, foolish, panting, timid little heart’ (repeatedly in the Temple Fountain Court scene in ch 45 — and that demeaning epithet ‘little’ is attached to Ruth and her accoutrements an amazing fifty times in just three chapters). It’s clear that Dickens intends to offer a positive vision of purity and innocence to offset the darker one of secrecy and duplicity. And more effectively, in the case of Tom’s enjoyment of urban bustle and his appreciation of ‘change and freedom in the monotonous routine of city lives’ (585), there’s acknowledgement of a more positive way of seeing London. But modern taste is more drawn to secrecy and duplicity. On the other hand, Dickens no doubt knew that ‘oh, foolish, panting, timid little heart’ would go down well with a large number of contemporary readers. By the time he wrote MC he was himself a Londoner of 20 years’ standing, and in more ways than one a shrewd businessman. He had always deployed radical shifts of style but rarely with such virtuosity as here, where the narrator is as duplicitous a shape-shifter as any of the characters.