Saturday, 8 December 2007

Dombey and Daughter (1847)



[Click on those images for a closer look.]
This Dombey and Son rip-off is only one of many attempts to exploit the success of Dickens’s novels. AntiQbook wrongly describe it as a parody (actually it’s not) and have a copy on sale for $950; Tavistock Books have one at, good grief, $1250: which, since I picked up my copy for £20—admittedly some years ago—rather startles me. There’s no date on the title page; The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens dates it to 1847; the DNB to 1858, which seems rather late to attempt to ride the coattails of Dickens’s original success. [Click on the images here for a better view]
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It is, as you might guess, rubbish. More to the point, it has almost nothing to do with Dombey and Son. Old Mr Dombey makes a couple of cameo appearances; charitably gifting money to secure the future of a poor orphaned girl called Clara. But otherwise Nicholson elected not to recycle Dickens’s characters, instead giving centre-stage to his own watery creations, amongst them the comical landlady Mrs Fribble, the poetical young Mr Shadow, the virtuous old quack-doctor Peter the Herbalist, the sparky maidservant Cleopatra (so named because ‘she was everything the sultry queen of Egypt was not; she was the contrast, the antagonist proposition’) and too many others. Presumably this was an unrelated short novel in Nicholson’s top-drawer, a project he managed to publish by substituting the name Dombey for whatever name he’d originally given his ‘Benign Old Rich Man’ character. The fit is not exact. Nicholson’s Dombey, for instance, has a brother (a Colonel called Daniel), which Dickens's original never did. None of Dickens's other characters appear: no Florence, for instance, despite the book’s title; no Walter Gay, Old Sol, no Toots. Dickens fans buying a copy in the 1840s would have been within their rights to feel cheated.
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The plot is desultory: some generic rascality from the nasty Captain Blather, the rather stupid barber Goliah Whiffen and some others; and a couple of underworked lovestories. There's also an immense amount of padding in a very sub-sub-Dickensian manner. From the first chapter:
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Descend with me, oh! fair and gentle reader, descend with me to the level of the Thames. I am no Quixote, but the wonders of the fabled cave of Montesinos shall not fall short of the marvels of our expedition. Down, down, down, with gentle, not with hasty, tread, that flight of stones stairs, close to the Feather Tavern, on the Surrey side of Waterloo-bridge. Down, down, I say, with step cautious and soft, and we will penetrate the black labyrinths of sloth, of crime, of idleness, of poverty below.
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These warrens for the burrowing and multiplying of the wretched and depraved materialism are called back-streets, and the back streets of the Waterloo-road are perhaps farther back in the world of morals and the Bill of Health, than any other back streets in the suburbs of the metropolis.
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Dirty and slipshod, improvident wives of improvident mechanics loiter and gossip in gin-shop doorways, with females in figured finery whose nameless occupation is betokened by the unmistakeable evidences of stale carmine and a shameless arrangement of dress, antagonistic to decorum, and in defiance of every known order in the architecture of feminine costume. Children—squalid, in-kneed, bandy, and bow-legged—fester in the fetid air of leprous exhalation, crying whoop at nightfall from hollow jaws and morbid lungs; and by day, wayward, wanton, and neglected, playing pitch-and-toss together in nooks, corners, and bye-places, away from the scrutiny of passer and police. [2]
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We get the picture, I think. There's worse to come, stylistically at any rate--the authentic Nicholson tang:
It was a dark winter’s night, dark as the sable gloom of unblessed eternity, dark as the raven’s wing, sombre as the burial sigh, and still as the bend of funeral feathers. Oh! how dark it was. [2]
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And the prize for the worst prose-stylist of the nineteenth-century goes to … [scrabbles open the golden envelope] Renton Nicholson! [the audience bursts into spontaneous applause, the speaker raising his voice to be heard above the excited clamour] for the spectacularly bad writing of 1847’s Dombey and Daughter! Well done Renton! Come on up here!
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Nicholson is certainly fond of the ejaculatory oh!: ‘A child, a beauteous child, between seven and eight years old, was on her knees, praying by the death bed of her dying mother … Oh! fervently she prayed. … Oh! fair and sympathising reader … Oh! the throbbing pulses of that pure, devoted heart were worth miracles’ [3] He also evidently believed the only thing needful to replicate the effective Dickensy tone is repetition. Thus his description when old Peter the herbalist alights from ‘the Twickenham coach’: ‘Twickenham is still Twickenham; even in these days of change, Twickenham is unaltered. Oh! Twickenham town is a sacred old place’ [6]; or his account of Mrs Fribble, where we can almost see Nicholson chivvying his writing self along as we read: ‘Mrs. Fribble was a sagacious woman; yes, sagacious—that is the identical word—sagacious. Wild beasts had sagacity—so had Mrs Fribble’ [11]. And what of Bow-street?
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Bow-street is a curious locality. There is food for the philosopher in Bow-street. Bow-street is an enquiring place … Oh! Bow-street is a rare and interesting section of the metropolis. To see Bow-street in perfection one must pass days and nights in its precincts. Those who sleep in Bow-street, or try to, have due notice of the approach of traffic… in every part of England except Bow-street—always excepting Bow-street … Stranger, that remorseless donkey comes three times a week to Bow-street … Bow-street station-house produces more examples of folly than any other in London … [47]
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And so on. From time to time he’ll rise, as it were, in the general direction of comic prose, although he falls away again soon enough.
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Miss Witherly took [his card] and read: “CAPTAIN MAGNUS BLATHER"
“He’s in the army, I suppose,” said Julia.
“Oh yes,” returned the landlady; “he has been wounded all over, and he says he’s got a grape in his right ham. I don’t know whether he’s marked with fruit, or what he means.” [32]
But towards the end the sense of padding becomes uncomfortably evident.
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CHAPTER XLVII
MR. WHIFFEN THINKS TO HIMSELF THAT HE’LL GO AND SEE HOW THE GALS ARE, AFTER THE EMETICS, BEFORE HE GIVES ONE TO MRS. W.

“I’ll just see,” said Whiffen, to himself, “how them ’metics operates upon the gals at the mansion; and if they don’t hurt ‘em much, Mrs W. shall have one the next time I go to London, bless her heart!"
Chapter 50 is mostly given over to a lengthy interpolated tale that has nothing to do with the main story. The ending happens with startling abruptness; a two-paragraph chapter 55 jolts the characters unexpectedly to Cremorne Gardens, for no very apparent reason; and the final chapter (the 56th), back home again, suddenly ties up the loose ends, marrying Shadow to Cleopatra, Mr Fink to Miss Witherly and disposing of the baddies. Presumably his publisher, finding continuing serialisation unprofitable, had put a stop to the operation. There follows a rather peculiar closing address from the author:
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FAREWELL kind and benignant Reader … I have endeavoured to amuse and instruct you. … I think I may, without arrogance, predict that these pages will be read with pleasure by those whose tastes are not vitiated, and who prefer a simple story, representing scenes of real life, to the monstrous productions of a feverish imagination, which of late have been received with unmerited though almost universal applause. RENTON NICHOLSON.
Presumably a dig at Dickens himself; a strange touch in a book seeking to exploit Dickens’s fame.
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Nicholson (1809–1861) is described by the DNB as an ‘impresario’; he certainly seems to have lived a colourful life:
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He started in business as a jeweller at 99 Quadrant, Regent Street, but on 1 Dec. 1831 he became insolvent, and paid the first of many visits to the King's Bench and Whitecross Street prisons. On one occasion, after being released from the latter prison, he was in so destitute a condition that for several nights he slept on the doorstep of the Bishop of London's house in St. James's Square. He afterwards picked up a living by frequenting gambling-rooms or billiard-rooms, and in the summer months went speeling, i.e., playing roulette in a tent on racecourses. He afterwards kept a cigar shop, and subsequently became a wine merchant. Finally, a printer named Joseph Last of Edward Street, Hampstead Road, employed him to edit ‘The Town,’ a weekly paper, the first number of which appeared on Saturday, 3 June 1837. It was a society journal, dealing with flash life. The last issue, numbered 156, appeared on Saturday, 23 May 1840. In the meantime, in conjunction with Last and Charles Pitcher, a sporting character, he had started ‘The Crown,’ a weekly paper supporting the beer-sellers, which came to an untimely end with No. 42, 14 April 1839. In partnership with Thomas Bartlett Simpson, in 1841 he opened the Garrick's Head and Town Hotel, 27 Bow Street, Covent Garden, and in a large room in this house, on Monday, 8 March 1841, established the well-known Judge and Jury Society, where he himself soon presided, under the title of ‘The Lord Chief Baron.’ Members of both houses of parliament, statesmen, poets, actors, and others visited the Garrick's Head, and it was not an uncommon occurrence to see the jury composed of peers and members of the lower house. The trials were humorous, and gave occasion for much real eloquence, brilliant repartee, fluent satire, and not unfrequently for indecent witticism. Nicholson's position as a mock judge was one of the sternest realities of eccentric history. Attorneys when suing him addressed him as ‘my lord.’ Sheriffs' officers, when executing a writ, apologised for the disagreeable duty they were ompelled to perform ‘on the court.’ On 31 July and 1 and 2 Aug. 1843 he gave a three days' fĂȘte at Cremorne Gardens.
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Aha! So that's why he whisks all the characters off to Cremorne gardens in chapter 55 ...
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PS: The Latin motto on the novel's title page up there is "solo nobilitas virtus", which is presumably there to indicate that 'virtue is the only nobility'. Except that the Latin is actually: "sola nobilitas virtus" (Juvenal, it's quoted from). Shoddy ... really shoddy.