The Christmas Books certainly confirmed Dickens in the eyes of his vast and devoted readership as quintessentially the great novelist of domesticity, the grand exponent of English ‘fireside happiness’. Reviewing The Battle of Life on Christmas Eve 1846, Dickens’s old newspaper The Morning Chronicle said:
'If this climate of ours had only been sunny and dry, instead of cold and rainy, we very much doubt whether Mr Dickens would have enjoyed the high position in literature which he now enjoys. He is so peculiarly a writer of home life, a delineator of household gods, and a painter of domestic scenes, that we feel convinced, had Italy, or Spain, or any country nearer the tropics than ours produced him, instead of describing lazzaroni, and mac- caroni, and water melons, or Andalusian young ladies, and cigaritos, and chocolate, and mantillas, he would have migrated to our more northern shores for the sake of firesides, purring cats, boiling kettles, Dutch clocks and chirping crickets.'
This reviewer, though evidently referring primarily to The Cricket on the Hearth, was doubtless remembering also various scenes of domestic happiness and contentment from Dickens’s earlier fiction, such as the Nicklebys with ‘all the peace and cheerfulness of home’ restored to them in the little cottage at Bow; the Nubbles family, or the Garlands, in The Old Curiosity Shop, or the ‘triangular parlour and two small bedrooms’ that form such a domestic heaven for those two favourites of their creator, Tom Pinch and his sister Ruth in Martin Chuzzlewit.
From Dombey and Son onwards, however, the Home is a rather more precarious institution in Dickens’s fiction and his stories tend to revolve around houses, often impressive family mansions, that are very much not homes, like Dombey’s ‘house of dismal state’ near Portman Square, the Dedlocks’ Chesney Wold in Bleak House, Gradgrind’s Stone Lodge in Hard Times, the grandiose ‘Merdle establishment in Harley Street, Cavendish Square’ (Little Dorrit) where Mrs Merdle reposes on her ‘nest of crimson and gold cushions’, and the dark and dingy old City house to which Arthur Clennam so de- spondingly returns at the beginning of Little Dorrit, in a chapter with the ironic title ‘Home’ – one might add Miss Havisham’s Satis House here also, and the Veneerings’ ‘bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London’ (Our Mutual Friend).
Although Dickens does still paint a glowing domestic vignette from time to time, e. g. the Toodles’ cosy home in Dombey, or the Bagnets’ in Bleak House, or the Crisparkles’ in Drood, happy homes are mostly, as far as the central characters are concerned, only to be seen, painfully, from the outside. Florence Dombey, unable to approach her own father, cannot stop watching a series of happy domestic tableaux in a real home across the street where there is an obvious strong bond between the widowed father and his eldest child, a little daughter who, when he returns home in the evening, 'made his tea for him – happy little housekeeper she was then! and sat conversing with him until the candles came. He made her his companion'.
Childless (as she supposes) Lady Dedlock, in the dreary grandeur of Chesney Wold in Bleak House, looks out 'in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped up man coming through the gate, [is] quite put out of temper'.
In these novels Dickens seems to be more concerned with domesticity frustrated, or with the destruction or subversion of domestic havens and the ideal of Home, either by outside enemies or by failure within the walls. David Copperfield is full of such wrecked or failed homes, for example, and, in Dombey it is only thanks to the steadfast heroism of Captain Cuttle that the Little Wooden Midshipman manages to survive its ‘going to pieces’ so that it may yet become a temporary home for Florence (who, by the neat and skilful way in which she fills the Captain’s pipe for him shows herself to be as natural a ‘homemaker’ as Dot Peerybingle herself, and Dot was, writes Dickens in the Cricket, ‘out and out, the very best filler of a pipe, I should say, in the four quarters of the globe’).
Even Mr Jarndyce’s Bleak House cannot safeguard all its inhabitants from suffering and death, and all Little Dorrit’s moving efforts to make a true Home out of her father’s prison-cell and to exert a benificent ‘Home’ influence on him and on her siblings are subverted by the moral rot that the prison has produced in all of them but herself. In A Tale of Two Cities it is not his loving family circle but the hopeless love of another man for his wife that saves Darnay from the guillotine, and in Great Expectations Mrs Joe’s tyrannical temper, she being, as Joe puts it, ‘somewhat given to government’, makes home a very uncomfortable place both for Joe and for the little brother she is ‘bringing up by hand’.
One of the last homes Dickens ever described is humble indeed but also hideous:
'Mother had the gripe and clutch of Poverty upon her face, upon her figure, and not least of all upon her voice. Her sharp and high-pitched words were squeezed out of her, as by the compression of bony fingers on a leather bag, and she had a way of rolling her eyes about and about the cellar, as she scolded, that was gaunt and hungry. Father, with his shoulders rounded, would sit quiet on a three- legged stool, looking at the empty grate, until she would pluck the stool from under him, and bid him go bring some money home. Then he would dismally ascend the steps, and I, holding my ragged shirt and trousers to- gether with a hand (my only braces), would feint and dodge from Mother’s pursuing grasp at my hair'.
All this emphasis on failed or unsatisfactory homes does not, of course, mean that Dickens has lost faith in his ideal – quite the opposite, in fact. No doubt it relates primarily to the fact that unhappy families provide novelists, as Tolstoy suggests at the beginning of Anna Karenina, with better story-lines than do happy ones, but it also seems most likely that the more Dickens’s own domestic situation came under strain, culminating in the marital break-down of 1858, the more passionately he clung to the ideal but now with a much keener sense of its elusiveness and precariousness.
In his last completed novel he is certainly intending us to feel as disturbed as Mortimer Lightwood does in Our Mutual Friend when Mortimer’s dilettante friend Eugene makes fun of ‘the domestic virtues’. Eugene has had a neat little kitchen fitted up in the chambers he shares with Mortimer and mockingly suggests that ‘the domestic virtues’ may assert themselves simply as a result of the proximity of so many kitchen implements: ‘See!’ said Eugene, ‘miniature flour-barrel, rolling-pin, spice-box, shelf of brown jars, chopping-board, coffee-mill, dresser elegantly furnished with crockery, saucepans and pans, roasting jack, a charming kettle, an armoury of dish-covers. The moral influence of these objects, in forming the domestic virtues, may have an immense influence upon me'.
And it is in this novel also that Dickens returns very strongly to the theme of the happy, modest home when he portrays the married life of Mr and Mrs John Rokesmith, whose kitchen is certainly not just there as a joke about domesticity: 'But, John gone to business and Bella returned home, the dress would be laid aside, trim little wrappers and aprons would be substituted, and Bella would enter on the household affairs of the day. Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating, such dusting and washing and polishing, such snipping and weeding and trowelling and other small gardening, such making and mending and folding and airing'. To invoke Mrs Peerybingle again, even she, we feel, ‘blithe, thriving, steady little Dot’ as she is, can hardly compete with this amount of purposeful domestic bustle.
Obviously, Dickens was, in his idealisation of ‘hearth and home’ and the family circle, very much a man of his age, an age when the British monarchy under Victoria and Albert was reconstituted as a highly domestic institution, when so much was written about the moral and spiritual power that could and should flow from the home and the family, when even so wild and strange a story of dysfunctional families and domestic violence as Wuthering Heights ends with the establishment of the idyllic domesticity of Hareton and the young Catherine, when the ‘domestic drama’ became the dominant genre in popular theatre (Jerrold claimed to have inaugurated it all with his highly successful The Rent Day at Drury Lane in 1832, a play in which, as his son Blanchard expressed it, ‘the interest is fireside throughout’), when domestic subjects and genre scenes were so much favoured by painters.
The cultural and social- historical reasons for all this have been much explored as, for example, by Walter Houghton in his seminal work The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (1957) and space forbids any examination of them here. It is, however, worth just noting how, through the very nature of his books, Dickens was in himself a remarkable intensifier of the cult of domesticity.
Towards the end of an arduous tour of America, Catherine and Charles were suffering agonies of homesickness (for the rest of his life Dickens would sometimes be troubled by a dream in which he was wandering in America and unable to find his way home) and he was no doubt remembering their feelings on finally getting back to England when he came to describe the exultation of Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley returning to England after their disastrous American expedition, and rejoicing in their first sight of ‘the old churches, roofs and darkened chimney-stacks of Home’.
This chapter may fittingly end with a quotation from Dickens’s last letter to Forster from America (Forster, III. 7): 'As the time draws nearer we get FEVERED with anxiety for home. Kiss our darlings for us. We shall soon meet, please God, and be happier and merrier than ever we were in all our lives. Oh home – home – home – home – home – home – HOME !!!!!!!!!!!'
Michael Slater is the author of The Genius of Dickens, out now, published by Duckworth.