Friday, August 12, 2011

The Cunning Man

"Should I have taken the false teeth?"

A great opening line delivered by the narrator, Jonathan Hullah, a physician who grows up in Sioux Lookout where two medical practitioners are presented as possible models. One is a shamanistic healer, the other a second-rate doctor who is also the town's bootlegger.

Hullah goes away to a boarding school where he makes two close friends, Charles Iredale and Brocky Gilmartin, whose lives continue to intertwine with his own throughout adulthood. Iredale becomes an Anglican priest, Gilmartin a respected prof of English literature, and Hullah a doctor who employs unorthodox methods of diagnosis. Their professions provide the three principal motifs in the book, and give Davies a broad canvas on which to display his erudition. There is a boggling number of literary references, as well as forays into theatre, opera, painting, and church music.

But the great thing about Davies is the way he mixes his erudition with comedy, often of the ribald variety. Here is Hullah examining one of his patients:

...not that he demanded to peep up her chimney, or anythng like that...but he stared at her until she said she blushed from head to toe. Then he poked at her with an enquiring finger simply everywhere! He grabbed her tum until she thought he was trying to dislodge something inside, but it appears it was just an unusually prolonged and searching examination of the spleen. He made her turn over and did the same sort of investigation of her back, including a prolonged parting of the buttocks while he seemed to be staring at her exit – about which she seems to be extremely secretive. He did a lot about feet. Then – and this is what really shook her -- he began to sniff at her, very close up, and he sniffed her from head to foot, very slowly and even quite a lot of sniffing in that area which Miss Fothergill described as You Know Where...

But he's not merely a "twat-sniffer." He believes the health of the body is inextricably bound up with the health of the spirit, and combines modern medical techniques with enemas and poetry-reading. He refers to himself as a Paracelsian physician, melding humanism with medicine. He is the modern version of a village wise man who can also mend bones – a "Cunning Man."

The novel proceeds with a combination of satisfying plot twists, outrageous incidents, and lots of playful but wide-ranging dialogue fueled by good wine and fine scotch. There is a murder, a couple of miracles, a bad breath contest, and a scene during the war when a bomb explodes while Hullah is taking a bath, leaving him trapped in the tub for four days.

In the penultimate chapter Davies introduces a brave new character who takes over some of the narrative duties. She writes numerous letters in an amusing "schoolgirl-slangy vein," letters which later come into Hullah's possession. When he incorporates them into his Case Book and comments on them, the result is an interesting narrative crossfire.

In the final section Hullah reaches retirement age and devotes himself to working on a revolutionary approach to literature. He is going to re-evaluate the the characters of great works from a medical point of view. Was Shakespeare constipated? What about Mr. Pickwick's prostate? The Anatomy of Fiction will be the title, in homage to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, from which is taken The Cunning Man's epigraph.

Some Great Lines

A brief sampling of the many delightful turns of phrase:

She blabs to conquer.
a trumpeting of flatus
a hymen like parchment
a melting young beauty
English beef-witted folly
some dark cupboard in my mind
the portcullis of respectability
the small change of her conversation
The church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.


The book has an astonishing number of characters. Many of them are minor, some appearing only once, but Davies names them all, a formidable task in itself. He always comes up with some great ones.

Dr. Ogg
Elsie Smoke
Hugh McWearie
Emily Raven-Hart
Edwin Allchin
Richard Craigie
Father Ninian Hobbes
Father Tommy Whimble
Pansy Freake Todhunter (aka Chips)
Hercules McNabb and his wife Dorsy
Lieutenant Dorrington
Prudence Vizard
Joe Sliter

An Unfinished Trilogy

One of the sweetest aspects of Davies's work is the way the books in his trilogies complement each other. The Gilmartin family tree was exhaustively explored in the preceding book, Murther & Walking Spirits, and while not necessary to understand The Cunning Man, it so enriches it that I've revised somewhat my earlier opinion of that book.

The ending in particular harkens back to Murther in a couple of respects – Esme wondering whether Gil's ghost might be hanging around, and a misdirected telephone inquiry about a movie. Those who have read Murther will immediately understand their significance.

And not only do the books in the trilogies overlap, but the trilogies themselves occasionally do. For example, Dunstan Ramsay has a brief walk-on as a history teacher at Colbourne, the boarding school attended by Hullah and his friends. And Brocky ends up a prof at Waverley University in Salterton, the setting for Davies’s first trilogy.

Unfortunately The Cunning Man is Davies’s last novel. He had begun preliminary work on another, mostly likely the concluding volume in what has been termed the Toronto series, when he died. While it's useless to speculate on what the contents of that book may have been, it's also fun. The main question is who would have been the lead character. Perhaps Nuala Conor, Brocky's wife and Hullah's lover.

Since Murther and Cunning Man both open with a death, it's not unreasonable to suppose the final volume would have done so as well. Perhaps it would have been that of Darcy Dwyer, who died of stab wounds in Gilbraltar.

There is a character in Murther known as the Sniffer. In Cunning Man, Hullah is also a sniffer, using his nose as a diagnostic tool. Would there have been another sniffer in the third book?

The Gilmartins

Since several of Brocky's relatives pop up in Cunning Man, I made an abbreviated family tree to refresh my memory. All except for Ollwen appear in Murther. The names in bold are those who appear in this book.

The Female Line (5 generations)

Anna Vermeulen + Major Gage
--Elizabeth Gage + Justus Vanderlip
----Nelson Vanderlip
------Cynthia Vanderlip + Dan Boutelle
------Virginia Vanderlip + William McOmish
--------Caroline, Minerva & Malvina McOmish

The Old World Gilmartins (5 generations)

Thomas G.
--Wesley G. (adopted)
----Samuel G.
------Polly G. + John Jethro Jenkins
------Walter G. + Janet Jenkins
--------Elaine, Maude, Lancelot, Rhodri G.

The New World Gilmartins

Rhodri G. + Malvina McOmish
--Brochwel "Brocky" G. + Nuala Conor
----Conor "Gil" G. + Esme Barron
-----Ollwen G.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit

The plot of the novel originates with a quarrel between two men, both named Martin Chuzzlewit. One is wealthy and old, the other is his grandson. They were on good terms until young Martin fell in love with Mary Graham, an orphan raised from childhood by the grandfather.

As a result young Martin is disinherited and heads to America with Mark Tapley in search of fortune, only to be conned into buying worthless swampland in a place called Eden. When they return to England, Martin has been transformed by his experiences into a better person.

During their absence, old Martin’s brother, Anthony, dies. His avaricious son, Jonas, marries Mercy, the daughter of a sanctimonious hypocrite named Pecksniff. Tigg, the prosperous chairman of the Anglo-Bengalee company, learns that Jonas hastened his father’s death with poison. Jonas is blackmailed into investing in Anglo-Bengalee, then forced to persuade his father-in-law, Pecksniff, to do the same. Tigg pays for this with his life.

Old Martin, who has pretended to fall under Pecksniff’s influence in order to expose his hypocrisy, now confronts Jonas about his role in Anthony’s death. To the surprise of everyone, including Jonas, it is learned that Anthony only pretended to take poison and died of a broken heart. Jonas, however, does not go free, as he is immediately taken into custody for the murder of Tigg, and commits suicide by swallowing poison. Old Martin denounces Pecksniff and is reconciled with young Martin, who regains his inheritance and weds Mary.

The novel was not as well-received as previous titles, and the first one to suffer a decline in readership.

Memorable Characters

Pecksniff is a major figure in the book. His smarmy hypocrisy and glib fawning ways are wonderful to behold. He is "soft and oily," has a flabby face, and is described by Jonas as "a sleek, sly chap...just like a tomcat." At one point he tells young Martin, "I am an honest man, seeking to do my duty in this carnal universe and setting my face against all vice and treachery. I weep for your depravity, sir."

Mrs. Gamp is a fat old woman with a swollen red nose and a liking for booze and snuff. She works as a nurse, midwife, and "performer of nameless offices about the persons of the dead." A comic figure and loquacious spouter of malaprops, she goes to "a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish." One of her sayings: "Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ‘em to see out of a needle’s eye."

Mark Tapley is a jolly fellow in search of a trying situation. He wishes “to come out strong under circumstances as would keep other men down.” In Martin he sees the potential he is looking for.


The wonderful glimpses of Victorian England -- a steak wrapped in a cabbage leaf, straw on the floor of a stage-coach for passengers to shove their feet into for warmth, a medication called a slime draft, patches of pickled brown paper applied to Pecksniff's head, sacks stuffed up a chimney to keep the rain out, men carrying letters in their hats and walking arm-in-arm in convivial friendship. The draymen, thimbleriggers, underporters, and coal-heavers; and the quaint antiquarian objects -- hunting-whips, portmanteaus, tea-chests, pudding-basins, stone brandy-bottles, fish-baskets, waist-coat strings, toasting forks, key-bugles.

Dickens's delight in food: oysters for breakfast, potted boar's head, intensely pickled salmon, beef-steak pudding, sheets of ham, stewed kidneys, a hot leg of mutton, innocent young potatoes, a cool salad, a crusty loaf, cunning tea-cakes, flowing mugs of beer, jorums of hot punch.

Some fine comic scenes including the row between Mrs. Gamp and Betsey Prig, and Tigg's weaselly cadging at the beginning of the novel when he is still a shiftless bum. In fact, some consider Martin Chuzzlewit to be Dickens's funniest novel, while author John Boyd finds that chapters 8 and 9, which describe the Pecksniffs' London visit, as the "most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature." Counterbalancing the humour are some dark scenes, and though not always effective or believable, the nightmarish carriage journey undertaken by Jonas and Tigg is especially powerful.

Finally, the book is not burdened with a labyrinthine plot as some of the later novels are. It is relatively free from sentimentality; there are no cloying characters or tear-jerking death scenes. And young Martin’s slightly flawed character makes him more likeable than other bland heroes, like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.


Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit after a disappointing trip to America, and vented some of his ire in this book. Most Americans are portrayed as glib, crass, pretentious, and hypocritical. They are gluttonous feeders with swinish table manners, and have the unpleasant habit of spraying tobacco juice everywhere. Despite such comedic potential, this portion of the book (7 of 54 chapters) was the least satisfying, because the characters are pretty much cut from the same cloth, with the result that none stand out the way Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp do. Some great names, though:

Colonel Diver
Major Pawkins
General Fladdock
General Cyrus Choke
Major Hannibal Chollop
Professor Mullit
Doctor Dunkle
Jefferson Brick
LaFayette Kettle
Zephaniah Scadder
Mrs. Hominy

Reversals & Improbabilities

As much as I enjoy Dickens I always seem to have difficulties with his plotting, and in this book the appalling bipolar behaviour of old Martin is more a function of plot than of character. The senseless quarrel with young Martin, and especially the ruse of pretending to be in Pecksniff's power, are neither credible nor creditable. Dickens has a lot of explaining to do at the end, but none of it is very convincing. He is not unaware of the problem, for he has Pecksniff declare, "Whether it was worthy of you to partake of my hospitality, and to act the part you did act in my house, that, sir, is a question which I leave to your own conscience."

Equally unbelievable is Anthony’s pretending to take poison, and Tigg's transformation from a scruffy cadger at the beginning of the book into the well-dressed and prosperous chairman of Anglo-Bengalee. Again, these are functions of plot rather than character.

Also related to Dickens's handling of plot is the way some characters are dragged back into the story when there is no need for it. Chevy Slyme shows up at the end of the book as an officer of the law, and the woman Mark assists during the journey to America reappears with her husband in Eden and again in London in the last chapter. This is perhaps an effort to make the sprawling tale seem a little more shapely than it actually is, tidying up ends that are not really loose.

Still, one might argue that some plot decisions are based on the recurring theme of character reversal, of which there are many in the book. Anthony, Pecksniff, Tigg, Slyme, Mercy, both Martins, and the suitor of Mercy's sister all undergo (or pretend to) some sort of transformative change. This is underscored by the change in Tigg's name -- from Montague Tigg to Tigg Montague.

It might also be said that some of Dickens's most entertaining characters are no more believable than his twisted plots, and that together they are but two sides of the same coin of his teeming genius.


The 1994 BBC production of Martin Chuzzlewit is superb and quite faithful to the book. Paul Scofield as old Martin, Tom Wilkinson as Pecksniff, and Pete Postlewaite as Tigg are especially good. You can find clips on Youtube.

Here's a map of London showing locations mentioned in the novels of Dickens. The boarding house of Mrs. Todgers is close by the Monument near London Bridge.