Beginnings are notoriously difficult. Until the reader gets to know the characters, they are nothing more than made-up names; and yet the author has to introduce these made-up names, and, while introducing them, ensure that the reader remains interested. The information concerning these characters must not come too quickly: that will only confuse the reader; but neither must it too come too slowly, as that will not merely bore the reader, and make it more difficult for the characters to emerge as anything other than mere made-up names. At the same time, a milieu must be depicted, so the reader can imagine the characters occupying a certain space. And a tone needs to be set suitable for the rest of the novel. All in all, it’s a pretty difficult business, and sometimes, even the most experienced of novelists can experience difficulty. But Dickens by this stage was a master: in the first six chapters of Our Mutual Friend, he effectively starts off five different novels: he introduces no less than five distinct sets of characters, in five different milieux. Only the third chapter follows from the second: for the rest, each new chapter is, effectively, the start of another novel. It’s almost as if he were showing off.
And in a sense, he is. Dickens was always the showman, even when, as here, he harboured serious artistic ambitions: he did not see any contradiction between writing a serious novel and putting on a show for the reader.
In the first chapter we are introduced directly to one of the major images of the novel – the dark river. Gaffer Hexam makes his living from the river: he finds and fishes out dead bodies for the reward. He is not above pillaging the pockets of the dead: a man must live, after all; but he draws the line at anything beyond that. Gaffer Hexam and his daughter are the first people we encounter in this novel: they have been lucky – they have found a corpse in the river.
After this very sombre opening, we are taken into a very different environment – a dinner party given by the nouveau riche Veneerings. And here, the tone of the narrative voice changes: it is satiric, sarcastic, and sneering. And this seems to me a sort of departure for Dickens. Of course, he had employed satire before, and there had been people in his earlier novels (such as, say, Skimpole and Chadband) whom Dickens had clearly despised; but there’s something more here. Here, for the first time, I think, Dickens attacks wholesale an entire class of people. Orwell had famously described Dickens as a man who was “generously angry”, but there seems little generosity in his anger here: the satire is, true, often very funny, but Dickens cannot – indeed, he makes no attempt to – restrain his utter loathing for these unfeeling, shallow, insipid, insincere creatures, for whom all human intercourse is about a matter of show, with no substance, no human feeling.
It is in this second chapter that we are presented with the central exposition – the story of the Harmon legacy – and it is delivered in a curiously theatrical manner: the lawyer Mortimer Lightwood informs the other guests of all the events past that we need to know about. It is the sort of expository technique one expects from a play rather than from a novel, and, although Dickens loved the theatre, this is, once again, I think, new in Dickens. Towards the end of this second chapter, news comes: a man, believed to be the heir of the Harmon estate, has been found drowned. This brings together the two milieux depicted in the opening two chapters; and the third cements the two by following Lightwood (with his friend Eugene Wrayburn) as they go to the police station, meet with Gaffer Hexam, and, significantly for Wrayburn, with his daughter Lizzie. Already, links are being created between different parts of the novel – links that will be developed as the work progresses.
One thing that is left unclear in the exposition so far is the exact source of the late Harmons’ wealth. We are told it comes from “dust”; whether Harmon had been a refuse collector, or a dealer in clay and sand and building materials, is, in typical Dickensian fashion, left unclear: but the exact concrete nature is unimportant – what matters is the metaphor equating of wealth to dust. And it is more than hinted that the term “dust” is a sort of euphemism: it is what, in less decorous modern times, we would call “shit”. And, we are told in the sort of surreal touch that is not out of place in Dickens’ rather strange fictional world, there are huge mounds of this “dust” just outside Harmon’s house –“Harmony Jail”, as it is known.
In the fourth chapter, we are introduced to the lower middle-class Wilfer family: there’s beautiful Bella, contemptuous of the poverty in which she lives, and deeply resentful – resentful of having been merely a condition of a dead man’s will, resentful that her own inclinations had meant nothing and continue to mean nothing, resentful of having to wear mourning for a man she has never even known. There’s her good-natured father, a menial clerk in one of Veneering’s businesses; and there’s her absurd mother, for ever seeking out offence where there isn’t any, and standing on what she considers to be her dignity.
Chapter five, and yet another milieu, yet another set of characters. There’s Silas Wegg, the ballad seller, and the Boffins, former servants, and now, after the presumed death of the heir to the Harmon estate, the sole inheritors. After the darkness of the opening chapter, after the false civilities of the Veneerings and their guests, it is a relief to come at last to Dickens’ typically warm and eccentric sense of humour. Here, at long last, is the man who had given us Pickwick Papers.
There are times I wonder how skilled comic artists know what they write will make people laugh: how did Oliver Hardy know, for instance, that twiddling his tie will be funny? Twiddling one’s tie isn’t usually seen as funny, after all. How is it possible for someone writing a comedy script to know that something which seems merely silly will make people laugh? I have no idea – and I suppose this is why people like Stan & Ollie were comic geniuses, and I’m not. I feel similarly about Dickens: somehow, he got laughs out of things that one wouldn’t have thought had any comic potential at all. Why Boffin referring repeatedly to Wegg as “a literary man, with a wooden leg” – as if possession of a wooden leg enhanced his literary status – should be funny, I don’t know: but it is. Why the entire conversation in which Boffin’s proposes that Wegg – literary man, with a wooden leg – should read him Decline and Fall-off of the Rooshan Empire should be funny, I don’t know: but once again, it is. The humour is as eccentric as ever it was, and – although Wegg turns out eventually to be a bit of a pantomime villain – there’s no malice in the laughter. The laughter is as open and as generous as it was in Pickwick Papers: that we find the Boffins funny does not make us look down on them, or feel superior to them: as with Stan and Ollie, the laughter generates affection, not contempt.
Chapter 6. Another chapter, another opening. Here, we are taken to the riverside pub, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, and its formidable landlady, Abby Potterson. We see again Rogue Riderhood from the first chapter, and also Gaffer Hexam’s daughter Lizzie. At the end of the chapter, Lizzie, foreseeing trouble, sends her beloved brother away. And at this point, the exposition ends. All the strands, all the major characters, and the various different milieux straddled by this huge novel have now been introduced. All except one: we have yet to meet with Bradley Headstone. But he can wait till the second of the four parts of the novel. The rest of this first part is spent developing the strands so far introduced, and finding links between them.
Some of the links are easily apparent. The Wilfers are linked to the Boffins through the will; and Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn, whom we had met in the society scenes, are linked to the Hexams. But Dickens is in no hurry to establish the other links links: he is happy instead to let each strand proceed at its own pace – introducing new characters as and when he needs to (the Lammles, Georgiana Podsnap, Betty Higden, Mr Venus, etc.) And, wherever he is, he never loses his way: in each milieu, with each set of characters, Dickens appears perfectly at ease with his material.
I cannot think of any other writer who had such a fine ear for the rhythms and cadences of English prose. One could open this book at any page at random, and find monstrously long sentences that pack in vast amounts of information – but no matter how long, no matter how densely packed, it is always perfectly structured, it flows without a jar. Such is the mastery, Dickens can throw in vast amounts of incidental details, asides and parentheses, without the sentence ever losing its way, or becoming overwhelmed. Indeed, the adjective “inimitable” that is often applied to Dickens seems not misapplied here, for not even the finest parodist could, I think, bring off that unique and instantly recognisable prose style that smothers everything with such profusion of eccentric incidental detail, that gives free rein to that wild and untamed imagination, that switches effortlessly from the real to the metaphorical and back again – often blurring the boundaries between the two – with such consummate ease.
Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, identified this profusion of irrelevant detail as a hallmark of Dickens’ style. These details are not merely in the prose, but in the narrative itself. For instance, in Chapter 9, the Boffins decide they want to adopt a child, and, in search of a suitable orphan to adopt, find themselves speaking to Reverend Frank Milvey. Most authors, I think, would not have bothered introducing Reverend Frank Milvey as a character: after all, apart from advising the Boffins on the matter, he has no part to play in the novel. But Dickens not only introduces him, he gives us a characteristically brilliant portrait of an impoverished and harassed man keeping up, with what good humour he can, an image of gentility. But Dickens is not finished here: he introduces Mulvey’s wife – who has absolutely no part to play at all in the novel – but who, in the brief two pages in which she appears, seems to burst with eccentric life. And in Mrs Mulvey’s conversation, for page after page, he overwhelms us with yet more detail that just about any other writer would have considered irrelevant:
‘I think,’ he pursued, ‘we had better take Mrs Milvey into our Council.She is indispensable to me. If you please, I’ll call her.’
So, Mr Milvey called, ‘Margaretta, my dear!’ and Mrs Milvey came down.
A pretty, bright little woman, something worn by anxiety, who had repressed many pretty tastes and bright fancies, and substituted in their stead, schools, soup, flannel, coals, and all the week-day cares and Sunday coughs of a large population, young and old. As gallantly had Mr Milvey repressed much in himself that naturally belonged to his old studies and old fellow-students, and taken up among the poor and their children with the hard crumbs of life.
‘Mr and Mrs Boffin, my dear, whose good fortune you have heard of.’
Mrs Milvey, with the most unaffected grace in the world, congratulated them, and was glad to see them. Yet her engaging face, being an open as well as a perceptive one, was not without her husband’s latent smile.
‘Mrs Boffin wishes to adopt a little boy, my dear.’
Mrs Milvey, looking rather alarmed, her husband added:
‘An orphan, my dear.’
‘Oh!’ said Mrs Milvey, reassured for her own little boys.
‘And I was thinking, Margaretta, that perhaps old Mrs Goody’s grandchild might answer the purpose.
‘Oh my DEAR Frank! I DON’T think that would do!’
The smiling Mrs Boffin, feeling it incumbent on her to take part in the conversation, and being charmed with the emphatic little wife and her ready interest, here offered her acknowledgments and inquired what there was against him?
‘I DON’T think,’ said Mrs Milvey, glancing at the Reverend Frank’–and
I believe my husband will agree with me when he considers it again–that you could possibly keep that orphan clean from snuff. Because his grandmother takes so MANY ounces, and drops it over him.’
‘But he would not be living with his grandmother then, Margaretta,’ said Mr Milvey.
‘No, Frank, but it would be impossible to keep her from Mrs Boffin’s house; and the MORE there was to eat and drink there, the oftener she would go. And she IS an inconvenient woman. I HOPE it’s not uncharitable to remember that last Christmas Eve she drank eleven cups of tea, and grumbled all the time. And she is NOT a grateful woman, Frank. You recollect her addressing a crowd outside this house, about her wrongs, when, one night after we had gone to bed, she brought back the petticoat of new flannel that had been given her, because it was too short.’
‘That’s true,’ said Mr Milvey. ‘I don’t think that would do. Would little Harrison–‘
‘Oh, FRANK!’ remonstrated his emphatic wife.
…and so on. We get more accounts of possible orphans to adopt, each accompanied by an entire world of irrelevant and eccentric detail, all piled with seeming recklessness on top of each other. All this is clearly not to advance the plot, and neither is it to give us greater insight into character: but it does help create what we may call, for want of a better expression, the narrative texture of the novel – a sense of a wild, grotesque world teeming at all corners with irrepressible life, with no square inch of the canvas left empty. This indeed is inimitable, because no-one has that mad, exuberant imagination, combined with that extraordinary ear for the rhythms of English prose.
If art holds up the mirror to nature, the mirror held up by Dickens’ art is a distorting one. That strange and irrepressible imagination of his couldn’t be limited merely to anything so prosaic presenting an accurate representation: he has to distort, to exaggerate, to stylise. He creates his own fictional world, but that fictional world is by no means divorced from the real. And, at this stage of his life, the real world seems increasingly to disgust Dickens. Not that he ever lost his almost childlike faith in human goodness: the Boffins and Betty Higden are characters that could only have been created by someone who sincerely believed that human goodness was not merely possible, but real. But increasingly, Dickens sees a world controlled by the Veneerings, a world in which the likes of the Podsnaps are esteemed. Never has Dickens’ satire been more savage. It is sometimes very funny indeed – the first half of Chapter 11, “Podsnappery”, contains some of the funniest pieces of satirical writing I have come across – but the satire is so motivated by genuine hatred that it runs the danger of becoming crude. The unmoneyed Lammles marrying each other because they both deceived the other into thinking they were wealthy makes for a good comic sketch, but one wonders whether there is enough substance in what is essentially a simple anecdote to carry the weight it is allotted. Podsnap speaking to the Frenchman (complete with The Man Who Says “ESKER”) is hilarious, but Dickens’ turning the conversation to starvation on the streets makes too blatant points that had already been well made. Georgiana Podsnap, crushed by her overbearing parents, is skilfully done, but one wonders whether a less grotesque presentation might in the context have been more poignant. For all the brilliance of the satire, perhaps, one may feel, a bit less anger on Dickens’ part might have led to a more nuanced picture.
There can scarcely be any such complaint about the other parts of the novel. Not the least of Dickens’ achievements is his depiction – as apparent here as in Bleak House or Little Dorrit – of the teeming city, which seems both real and, at the same time, unreal, phantasmagoric. It is no accident, after all, that, some sixty years after the publication of this novel, modernist T. S. Eliot’s original title for his depiction of the “Unreal city” was a line from Our Mutual Friend: “He Do the Police in Different Voices”.
By the end of the first of the four parts, most of the situation has been set up, and most of the major players have been introduced. Eugene Wrayburn, a young lawyer without a practice, bored with the life into which he has been forced and affecting a world-weary cynicism that is already partially real, is clearly attracted to Lizzie Hexam, who originates from one of the lowest strata of society: he is confused about his own feelings. Who John Rokesmith is, we are not yet sure: but we may guess. Silas Wegg, we are sure, is up to no good in the employment of the unsuspecting Boffins: he may be but a comic villain, but we can never be sure of the impact that even a comic villain may have in so strange a fictional world. Georgiana Podsnap, overwhelmed in a life she has not yet begun to live, is set to become a pawn in the matrimonial games of wealth and power that society so delights in, while the predatory Lammles, each simultaneously deceived and deceiver, lie in wait, ready to pounce. And Bella, like her literary cousin Kate Croy in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, is given an opportunity the escape the poverty in which she has grown up and which so shames her, and become a lady. All is set up in this rich, Christmas pudding of a novel.