One of the nicest experiences during my travels in Ireland was a rainy day. After ten days of nonstop hiking, biking, and sightseeing, it was delicious to have an excuse to cuddle up with a good book and lose myself in someone else’s adventures instead of having to sweat them out on my own.
While Paul went searching for a prehistoric burial mound in the downpour, I curled up in bed and allowed myself to be swept away by Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Every so often, I paused to stare at the gray skies, the sheets of rain blurring the picture windows, the soft green pastures and rocky hills. What a luxury!
The plot unfolds slowly, but once it starts chugging, it is hard to put down this long novel. While the raindrops pattered and splashed, I wandered through the mean, labyrinthine streets of nineteenth-century London with its teeming crowds, unscrupulous villains, and wizened eccentrics. The novel relates the trials and tribulations of Florence, the neglected daughter of the proud and wealthy Dombey, who is furious because a daughter is unable in his eyes to carry on the name of his firm–Dombey and Son. When Florence’s mother dies giving birth to the much desired son, poor Florence must fend for herself in a cold, unloving household.
A reader does so want her to survive the many cruel twists in the plot. These include a kidnapping by the evil “good Mrs. Brown,” the illness of Florence’s beloved but frail little brother, her father’s loveless marriage to a haughty but beautiful stepmother, and the treachery of her father’s assistant, a scheming, catlike man, who contrives to divest her of her true love, Walter, by sending him off to the Barbados on behalf of the firm, where he is lost at sea.
Here’s a taste of Dickens’s description of the effect of the railroad on the layout of the town and people’s lives. The Charles Dickens Page, where I found this excerpt, is a wonderful resource.
The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.
In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.
Though not quite up to the level of Bleak House and David Copperfield, Dombey and Son foreshadows these masterpieces with its focus on the pride and arrogance of wealth, its masterful rendition of London transforming with the coming of the railroad, brilliant use of language, bitter ironies, and uproarious comic moments.