"The Days Recalled by the Tale"
Although undoubtedly many readers today probably regard Dickens as an historical novelist who set his fiction a century and a half ago, to his contemporaries, the early and mid-Victorians, he must have seemed very much of his age. In fact, technically only two of his novels and one of his novellas are set many generations ahead of his own period: Barnaby Rudge (set in the year 1780, at the time of the Gordon Riots and the sacking of Newgate Prison, paralleling Sir Walter Scott's treatment of the Edinburgh Toll Booth riot in The Heart of Midlothian), A Tale of Two Cities (most of which occurs between the American Revolution and the Reign of Terror, i. e., 1776 to 1793), and The Battle of Life (set in the latter part of the eighteenth century, principally for the sake of costume). In almost all of Dickens's other extended works of fiction, the chronological setting initially is only a few years prior to the time of writing, and the narrative concludes in the present. But even when he sets the action in the past, Dickens tends to view it through the lens of the present.
Martin Chuzzlewit: Coaching in England versus Railroading in America.
The early part of the novel appears to be set in bucolic, pre-industrial England, even though by the early 1840s Britain was firmly in the railway age. However, stage-coaches continued to leave their various London termini for coaching inns throughout the country until 1846. In Martin Chuzzlewit we begin in the social milieu of the villageŅeven Todgers's constitutes a kind of village socially. When in Ch. 36 Tom Pinch enters London via its western suburbs and alights in the City at an unspecified coaching inn and when Nadgett and Jonas Chuzzlewit make their way across country by stage-coaches, we are inclined to think that the story is transpiring about a decade before its publication. That the action is set in the early to mid-1830s is reinforced by references to new London Bridge (opened in 1831) and to Furnival's Inn (re-built in 1817 and the temporary residence of young Charles Dickens in 1834), and by details such as the gauze-like silk scarves worn over low-cut evening-dresses (Ch. 36), Tom Pinch's calculating postage by distance (suggesting a temporal setting prior to the inauguration of the Penny Post in 1839), and the watchmen in the vicinity of Todgers's rooming-house (suggesting a time before the introduction of Bobbies under Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Bill of 1829). The matter of the novel's chronological setting would seem to be settled: the English scenes are set in the pre-Victorian or late Regency period, perhaps in the reign of the "Sailor King," William IV.
What then of the pointed reference to Queen Victoria made by an American traveller, and of Martin's travelling by rail rather than coach in the United States? The atmosphere in Martin Chuzzlewit's America is thoroughly contemporary: brash, demagogic, money-centred, and politically contentious. In the American chapters, we seem to have suddenly entered the 1840s, more or less when Charles and Catherine Dickens visited the eastern states (January through June 1842). Nancy Metz in The Companion to Martin Chuzzlewit (2001) concludes that the dual temporal setting is not attributable to carelessness on the part of the serial novelist:
The New World came to represent for Dickens a frightening vision of a headlong and savage future, and this spectre is contrasted with an England nostalgically figured as pre-industrial, rooted in traditions of community and in harmony with the landscape. (xvii)
So ludicrous are many of Dickens's Yankees that the reader may well conclude that the novelist has transported his Quixotic protagonist and Sancho Panza-like companion to a contemporary Lilliput. Ever the political and social satirist as much as the realist, Dickens simply could not resist tapping into the wealth of material that his recent travels throughout Yankee-Doodledum afforded him. Having experienced the effects of "yellow journalism" thanks to the New York City Herald, for example, how could Dickens, still smarting over American criticisms of his stance on international copyright, resist creating such newspapers as the Family Spy, Keyhole Reporter, Peeper, Plunderer, Private Listener, Stabber, New York Sewer and New York Rowdy Journal (Ch. 16)?
Some allusions to American politics and society are rather more generalized and therefore do not point to any particular locale, Presidency, or even decadeŅbanking crises, land swindles, political jobbery, factional rivalries, and the omnipresent spittoon, for example, had all been features of American life since the end of the War of 1812, and were not unique to the Jackson presidency. Even the dangers of the trans-Atlantic crossing and the influx of settlers from the British Isles were not special features of the early 1840s. However, the great tidal wave of British immigration coincided with the Hungry Forties and the Irish Potato Famine, during which the populations of whole Irish counties boarded ships for Liverpool and from thence for Columbia's shores, notably the ports of Boston (where Dickens landed) and New York (where Martin and Mark Tapley disembark).
Dickens's making fun of the "patriotic locofoco movement" (Ch. 16) is not particularly useful in determining the precise chronological setting of the early chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit since that radical wing of the New York Democratic Party was founded in 1835. On the other hand, pointed references to the general defaulting on foreign loans by state banks indicate that we are in the period of 1841-2, the most notorious case from the perspective of English investors being the defaulting of the Pennsylvania State Bank. Albeit obliquely, Dickens alludes in chapter 21 to the Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell, thereby suggesting that the action is transpiring in October 1843, when "a certain Public Man in Ireland" in his "contest upon certain points with England" (Ch. 21) was arrested for treason. Since this episode was part of the novel's ninth serial instalment, however, we would be reading too much into the sympathetic reference since instalment nine was published in September 1843, and probably written that August!
The Anglo-Bengalee insurance swindle, echoing the financial chicanery of the American side (especially the land "scam" of Eden), was based upon a very real, contemporary confidence scheme of grand proportions. The modeling of Tigg's fraudulent insurance company upon the notorious Independent and West Middlesex Assurance Company debacle of December 1840 brings the action of the English scenes up to the 1840s by the twenty-seventh chapter, resolving the apparent "temporal duality" of the novel: Martin Chuzzlewit's England is ultimately exposed as being as fundamentally greedy as America.
Metz, Nancy Aycock. The Companion to Martin Chuzzlewit. The Dickens Companions No. 8. The Banks, Mountfield, East Sussex: Helm Information, 2001.
Last modified 27 February 2007
Last modified 8 June 2007