Although Charles Dickens called Martin Chuzzlewitt immeasurably the best of his stories, it was at first unsuccessful and even caused him to have his pay cut. Suspenseful and gripping, with murders and poisonings, Martin Chuzzlewitt takes place at a time when hospitals were largely places where the poor went to die1; the wealthy were treated at home and died in their own beds; quack medicines and useless tonics were widely available, and so were opium and other hazardous drugs.
The story of Martin Chuzzlewitt, written in 1844, is set in “a little Wiltshire village, within an easy journey of the fair old town of Salisbury.” There lived with his two spoiled, giddy daughters Cherry and Merry the hypocritical widower Mr. Pecksniff offering board, lodging, and instruction to young apprentices in a discipline of which he knew nothing about. The pupil, young Martin Chuzzlewitt, soon has a falling out with his so-called mentor and ends up trying to make his fortune by traveling in steerage under the most unappetizing conditions to New York. There this naïve youth is cheated by local financial sharks into investing in a piece of land so malaria-infested that both he and his traveling companion are lucky to survive.
Among the many characters described in the book we find the greedy and brutal Jonas Chuzzlewitt, who laces his father’s cough medicine with poison and murders the imposter Montague Tig of the fraudulent Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. There is Dr. Jobling, a money hungry physician who encourages his patients to invest in Anglo-Bengalee but at the same time claiming that he knows nothing about this kind of business.2 Also featured are the kindly Dr. Bevan, whose “profession was physic, though he seldom or rarely practiced”, and Lewsome the medical assistant who unintentionally assists Jonas to try to poison his father.
Perhaps the most memorable character in the book is the cockney nurse Sairey Gamp, who never drinks alcohol but has a very red nose and keeps a bottle of gin on the mantlepiece in case she needs to put it to her to her lips. Her job is to work as a midwife, take care of infirm or demented patients, and also to wash them after they die. She often mentions her highly respectable sponsor Mrs. Harris, apparently a mere product of her imagination. Sairey’s partner, Betsie Prig, is another slatternly nurse and a good characterization of the nursing profession before the reforms of Florence Nightingale. Dickens set his novel in the time of a deadly cholera outbreak but does not mention it in what is probably the best of the many books he wrote.
- Public hospitals in many parts of Europe had not greatly improved by 1929 when George Orwell described in How the Poor Die how he was treated for pneumonia at Hospital X in the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris.
- Toshikatsu Murayama. “A professional contest over the body: Quackery and respectable medicine in Martin Chuzzlewitt.” Victorian Literature and Culture 2002:403.