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I love Dickens, I really do. Given this, my re-reading of this book at preparation for my Open University course was pure pleasure. And I think that this is one of Dickens’ greatest novels, a real blockbuster with an enormous scope and reach, yet immensely personal as well.

The novel is mainly about Florence, who is not the required son. Her father, Mr Dombey is a proud Victorian patriarch, the head of Dombey and Son, and cherishes dreams of his firm’s continued international expansion under the guidance of his son. But his son Paul is not strong, and even if he were he seemed unsuited to his father’s business. Paul shows the wisdom of his childish question, “What can money do?” as he gradually declines and dies, nursed by his sister Florence, despite all the medical care his father’s money can buy.

So Dombey is left son-less and gradually grows to hate Florence, who is strong and well and not a son, and who people warm to and care for. After the end of Mr Dombey’s disastrous second marriage Florence is forced to flee the house and throw herself on the care of her only friends.

And this set of characters, with a few peripheral others, make up the other main storyline. Sol Gills and his son Walter, Florence’s childhood friend, who ends up shipwrecked after being sent on a dangerous journey due to the displeasure of Mr Dombey make up the counterbalancing and interweaved storyline. And the remarkable Captain Cuttle, one of Dickens’ great caricatures, but a creature of great heart.  And here Florence eventually finds the comfort and love she never found at home, and is reconciled to her father, who eventually realises her worth and his fault, through his eventual downfall.

My brief précis above does not even begin to touch upon many of the other subplots of this novel, for example, the themes of social justice, and perversion of human nature through maltreatment and poor environment. But that is necessary, as with all of Dickens’ novels they spread themselves so wide and far, and have so many lessons to tell it would take a detailed study to explore them all.

The main criticism that is made of this book (as far as I know having not studied it closely yet) is the portrayal of  Florence. Florence appears so meek and mild to the point of self-effacement that she appears, at times, unbelievable. But, this is a criticism that could be made of many of Dickens’ ‘good’ female characters and one which I accept. Even though Florence is not one of the flat (in the sense of not having a fully rounded complete character, as none of Dickens’ characters could be called flat in the sense of blandness) characters, she is still there to tell a certain story and prove a certain point of morality, and at that she does, to my mind, do her job well.

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I can’t begin to say just how much I disliked this book. I haven’t read a book in a long tine that annoyed me quite so much. The book starts with George and Sabine Harwood living in Trinidad in 2006. They’ve been there for 50 years and Sabine has hated it, they’ve both aged but she has transformed from a long-legged beauty into a fat old nag. George appears to be what George has always been, selfish and arrogant, drinking too much, and still running after women. A chance discovery of letters his wife wrote, but never sent, to Trinidad’s first independent prime minister leaves him shaken, wondering how much they ever really knew about each other.

I won’t give too much away but the book basically ends when the first section does. The next two sections of the book are then flashbacks through the Harwood’s time in Trinidad, and it ends, rather predictably, with them missing the boat back to England in 1970 and leaving Sabine on the island – which we knew anyway as she’s still there in 2006 when the book opens. 

My main issue is with the relationships and characterisation. Apparently Sabine still loves George, and yet he appears to have slept his entire way around Trinidad, is still attempting to sleep with prostitutes past their prime at the age of 70, and has ignored for 50 years Sabine’s pleas of unhappiness and despair, seemingly content to watch her turn into a befuddled Valium addicted drunk. Yet, while all this is happening they are still at it like rabbits (up until 1970 anyway), with George apparently able to put his head between her thighs and rip off a skirt with his teeth at the same time. And Sabine never leaves. It all just seems a bit ridiculous.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I just cannot comprehend the lack of options available to a French/English woman of that generation who had never worked and was entirely dependent on her husband. But in that case why keep having sex with him and apparently stay completely in love with him while he screws around? Again, I know that some relationships can be complicated and women fall for the wrong men, but for over 50 years? And George is portrayed as an apparently likeable person in the book, but any dispassionate examination of his character immediately reveals him to be a chauvinistic, selfish, git.

Okay, there are some interesting themes running through this book, how all men disappoint, the corruption caused by power at all levels, the unfulfilled hopes of independence and the ramifications of disappointment, the power and iniquity that money can breed. But I just couldn’t get away from the central issue of this bizarre marital relationship and the characters in it. Not one for me I’m afraid.