Dombey and Son was the first "late" Dickens book - for the first time, he actually sat down and planned the whole book out and made an effort at making a Novel (capital N). Reading it after Pickwick Papers, his first, is like going from Please Please Me to Rubber Soul. There's still a lot of fun to be had, but more of an attempt at art and creating a cohesive "whole" piece.
It seems like everyone I talk to quits reading Dombey and Son halfway through - I did so myself a couple of times before finally finishing it. The first quarter of the book is a complete story about the short life of Little Paul Dombey, and after (spoiler alert) he dies, it's hard to imagine what the hell the rest of the book will be about. You also sort of feel like an asshole, because by the time Paul finally kicks it, you're sort of ready for him to die. Tiny Tim works because he's only there for a few pages. Paul is essentially the same character, but lasts for 300 pages, occasionally ominously asking what it is that the waves are always saying as a means of foreshadowing his death (apparently the waves are saying "You die at the end of the 5th monthly number, kiddo!")
That sort of melodrama seems like Dickens trying too hard to be artsy to me, and one character, Captain Cuttle, is someone that Dickens clearly put a LOT of effort into, but who never quite works for me. He has his moments, but mostly he seems to me as though Dickens was trying very hard to make a Dickensian character.
But that's not to say that the book is bad. There are a lot of characters and long subplots in the second half that could have been lifted right out, really, but there's also Chapter 20, where Mr. Dombey rides on a train thinking about death and in which the prose is just colossal - one of many such sections where Dickens stops trying to be a genius and simply is one. And there's Dr. Blimber, Mrs. Pipchin, Major Bagstock, Mr. Toodles, Mr. Toots, Cousin Feenix, "Cleopatra," Mrs. MacStinger, and so many others characters that I just love. I particularly like Susan Nipper, the maid who speaks her mind, and is one of the most well-rounded women Dickens wrote (he had a tendency to make old women crazy and young women overly pious and innocent). The use of the railway as a metaphor for the changing world is very good (and a few major points of it would be echoed by Booth Tarkington is his The Magnificent Ambersons a generation later with when he used horseless carriages the same way).
Major Bagstock, a pompous old asshole who speaks of himself in the third person, is a freaking riot, and I love the way Dickens describes him when he talks about going to boarding school:
"None but the tough fellows could live through it, Sir, at Sandhurst. We put each other to the torture there, Sir. We roasted the new fellows at a slow fire, and hung 'em out of a three pair of stairs window, with their heads downwards. Joseph Bagstock, Sir, was held out of the window by the heels of his boots, for thirteen minutes by the college clock"
The Major might have appealed to his countenance in corroboration of this story. It certainly looked as if he had hung out a little too long.
There isn't a LOT of drinking in the book - most references to it refer to a bottle of very old madeira that Uncle Sol keeps for a special occasion, and I'm not likely to break out any old, old madeira for this blog anytime soon, though I did get some undated madeira for six bucks to use in a future recipe - can't be THAT recent, since it's a Paul Masson, and they sell no wine before its time. It tastes like raisins.
But towards the end of the book (I finally made it!), Cousin Feenix gives his prescription for depression and illness:
If my friend Dombey suffers from bodily weakness, and would allow me to recommend what has frequently done myself good, as a man who has been extremely queer at times, and who lived pretty freely in the days when men lived very freely, I should say, let it be in point of fact the yolk of an egg, beat up with sugar and nutmeg, in a glass of sherry, and taken in the morning with a slice of dry toast.
This, of course, is the Sherry Flip, which I covered a while ago. It tastes like custard, and Dickens himself used to drink it as a pick-me-up during intermission at his public readings.
Cousin Feenix goes on to add a twist:
Jackson, who kept the boxing-rooms in Bond Street ... used to mention that in training for the ring they substituted rum for sherry. I should recommend sherry in this case, on account of my friend Dombey being in an invalided condition; which might occasion rum to fly - in point of fact to his head - and throw him into a devil of a state.
So, had Rocky taken place a century or so before, he would have added rum, sugar, and nutmeg to his bowl full of raw eggs. Boxers still drink raw eggs, as I understand it - it's an "old school" gym trick for getting your protein quickly. The boxers at Jackson's boxing-rooms probably should have included the egg whites, too, but, as Cousin Feenix doesn't specify that they did, I'll stick to his recipe for rum flip, which will, apparently, get you in shape and cure what ails you, though it may also fly to your head and throw you into a devil of a state.
1 egg yoke
1 heaping tablespoon of sugar
1/2 cup of rum or so
nutmeg to taste.
Hot water (optional)
Another simple one - separate the yoke from the egg by passing the yoke back and forth between your hands, letting the white part fall away into the sink. Add the sugar and rum, then mix well with a fork until the egg is fully blended into the liquid, and top with some nutmeg.
This is the recipe as Cousin Feenix gives it, and it tastes a lot like drinking the batter to a Betty Crocker spice cake. Tasty, spicy, and thick, but I couldn't help but feel as though I ought to be baking it, not drinking it.
However, I then added a cup or so of hot water, and hit paydirt - the drink was now drinkable, and delicious, not unlike the hot spiced butter-rum that I once had at Trader Vic's. Tasty! Didn't make me feel like getting into a boxing match or anything, but maybe if I drank one every day I'd be in fighting shape.