“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Second – “Birds of a Feather”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the First – “The Cup and the Lip”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Third – “A Long Lane”

“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens: Book the Fourth – “A Turning”

At the start of the second part, Dickens completes the exposition by introducing Bradley Headstone, Charley Hexam’s teacher. And, over this second of the four quarters of he novel, we see emerging as a major strand a love triangle involving Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstone.

Dickens’ novels, with a few exceptions (Hard Times, Great Expectations), tend to be multi-stranded. This is because the problem Dickens faced was quite unlike that faced by most other novelists: exercising the imagination was never a difficulty with him – the difficulty was in keeping that wild and teeming imagination of his under some kind of control. His natural exuberance led him towards multiple strands, and the problem was somehow to knit them together, to impose upon this mass of often wildly divergent material some sort of shape. In his earlier novels, this wasn’t much of a concern: the various strands were placed next to each other more or less at random. But as Dickens’ artistic ambitions grew, he realised the need to tie the all the different parts together into a coherent whole. This he achieved triumphantly in Bleak House and in Little Dorrit. Indeed, in the former, the underlying and often subtly hidden links between the different parts of the novel are an integral aspect of its underlying artistic purpose: Bleak House presents a fictional world in which everything is intricately connected, and the nature of these connections, and their uncovering, is itself one of the major themes.

In Our Mutual Friend, the knitting together of the strands is nowhere near as complex, nor, indeed, as subtle. As the novel progresses, two strands emerge as the major ones all others become subservient, or even merely incidental, to these. These two major strands are that involving John Harmon, Bella Wilfer and the Boffins; and that involving Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstone.

The narrative strand depicting the society centred around the Veneerings doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Every single character in that part of the novel is a caricature: brilliant caricatures, admittedly, but caricatures all the same, and therefore incapable of development. (Lightwood & Wrayburn are exceptions – but they are involved in a different narrative strand, independent of the Veneerings and their circle.) Of course, Bleak House and Little Dorrit were also full of caricatures, but there, Dickens had successfully integrated them into the overall scheme. (How he had achieved this integration would require an entire book-length study, and since I have neither the space nor the ability to write such a study, let us not go there now.) But in Our Mutual Friend, the integration of the different trands seems to me less successful. It is hard to imagine, for instance, any strand of Bleak House being omitted without damaging the overall picture, but in both the two previous BBC dramatisations of Our Mutual Friend, the Veneerings and their circle had been omitted without any great loss to the whole. Dickens does, admittedly, try to develop a narrative line of sorts with the Lammles’ schemes involving Georgiana Podsnap, but even that very soon comes to a dead end without adding much substance to the novel.

There is the Silas Wegg-Mr Venus storyline, of course, but, so far, that seems to do little except provide some comic relief. It’s very good comic relief, admittedly: even so late in his career, Dickens’ very individual sense of humour and his unique sense of comic timing remained intact from his earlier works. But, in this part of the novel at least, it is incidental and not integral. And there’s also the Betty Higden storyline – fine it itself, but comparatively minor in the grander scheme of things. Of course, no Dickesian would want to be without any of these strands, but they do not seem so closely knit together as the strands had been in some of the earlier novels: they seem to exist more or less independently.

However, the two strands that do stand out from the rest are both fascinating, and couldn’t be more different from each other. The Bella Wilfer-John Harmon story is essentially a fairy tale: the tale of the prince who woos his beloved in disguise to see if she could love him for his own sake is an old motif, and occurs frequently in all sorts of folk stories. The Lizzie-Eugene-Bradley story, on the other hand, is much more realistic in mode, and here, I think, Dickens was entering new areas: his depiction particularly of Bradley’s violent and uncontrollable passions was new not only in his own writing, but also possibly in prose fiction. Dostoyevsky, soon to produce his first great masterpiece Crime and Punishment, was, one imagines, paying close attention.

Bella herself is a character who had appeared before in Dickens’ work in different shapes: she was Louisa in Hard Times, Estella in Great Expectations – the beautiful but cold woman who either has no tender emotions, or who keeps them repressed. Bella is, however, is not so extreme as the others: she is, one feels, merely on the cusp: as her warm regard for her father testifies, she is capable of great tenderness of feeling. But circumstances are such that she is on the point of relinquishing such feelings: she cannot bear the misery and the humiliation of poverty – especially now that a new and different world has come into her view. And the worst of it is that she is sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to recognise what is happening to her: she is becoming mercenary, heartless, and even as she is distressed by the path she knows she is treading, she cannot help treading it. This is a complex character, and those who make that penny-in-the-slot criticism that Dickens “couldn’t do women” would do well, I think, to examine his achievement here.

(As an aside, I wonder to what extent Dickens may have had Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on his mind when creating the Wilfers. From what I know, Dickens was not the greatest admirer of Austen, but the picture of Bella’s impossible mother, and of the warm relationship that exists between Bella and her father, reminded me irresistibly of the Bennets in Austen’s novel. However, Mr Bennet, who has effectively barricaded himself in his study away from his family – his beloved Lizzie apart, of course – is a very Austenite figure, whereas the child-like “cherub”, Mr Wilfer, could only be a creation of Dickens. But perhaps Mrs Bennet and Mrs Wilfer might have got on with well each other.)

John Harmon, in contrast with Bella, emerges as rather dull. After the likes of Arthur Clennan in Little Dorrit, or Pip in Great Expectations, Harmon, presented here as a flawless being who is intelligent, courageous, honourable, and sensitive to a fault, seems a bit of a throwback to the worthy but dull heroes of some of Dickens’ earlier novels. Through most of Our Mutual Friend, he is in disguise of some sort or other, and we don’t really get a chance to see beyond the disguise. Even the long interior monologue he is given (Chapter 13 – “A Solo and a Duet”) is purely expository in nature, revealing to us (in a surprisingly clumsy manner) the backstory, but little of interest relating to his character. In short, John Harmon exists purely to provide a mainspring to set the plot in motion; and, once it is in motion, he does little except help keep the wheels turning.

In Chapter 12, he turns up in disguise at Rogue Riderhood’s in a scene that is straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo – that masterpiece of continuous narrative in which characterisation does not extend beyond the minimum that is required to render the narrative intelligible. But what is acceptable – indeed, exciting and thrilling – in The Count of Monte Cristo does frankly seem out of place in a work such as this: one would gladly have sacrificed some of the Count-of-Monte-Cristo dramatics here for greater depth of characterisation.

The Lizzie-Eugene-Bradley strand takes us into a very different fictional world.  Dickens does, however, manage to counterpoint the two very different strands together, as in that sequence of chapters in which Bella’s rejection of John Harmon’s proposal is counterpointed with Lizzie’s rejection of Bradley Headstone’s: on the one hand, we have John’s sorrowful understanding that human affections cannot be forced; and on the other, we have Bradley’s furious inability to understand this same point.

Of course, the intensity of Bradley’s passion is exacerbated by class resentment. He has, he knows, worked hard to raise himself to the social level he now occupies (and which, as a consequence, he values): his endeavour has been admirable, and he knows it. On the other hand, there is Eugene, who may be impoverished by the standards of his class, but who, by virtue of belonging to that class, lives nonetheless a reasonably comfortable life without actually having to work. And yet, this Eugene, from his privileged position of comfortable indolence, can casually insult the schoolmaster, and coolly humiliate him. And he does. Just as he had insolently held Charley by the chin when he had first met him – a gentleman is entitled to do that sort of thing to a mere working class lad, after all – he is gratuitously rude and insulting to Bradley Headstone: he takes his entitlements for granted, without ever pausing to think, and the more Bradley smarts under the insults, the more Eugene appears to enjoy the power he wields over him.

In his conversations with his friend Lightwood, we find a man full of self-loathing, a man drifting through life with no aim, no sense of purpose; we find a man who, although attracted to a girl from a lowly social background, simply does not know what to do, how to act. Despite his insulting behaviour to those he unthinkingly considers his inferiors, he is sufficiently decent to want genuinely to help Lizzie. As we know from novels as diverse as Adam Bede and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a casual seduction followed by an equally casual desertion was hardly unknown in such relationships across the social divide, and such a possibility is clearly in the minds both of Charley and of Headstone when they express their objections to Eugene. And it may have been in Lizzie’s mind also when she ends up hiding herself away both from Bradley and from Eugene. And yet, Eugene appears to have no thoughts in this direction: for all his insulting behaviour, there is in him a core of decency that prevents him doing such a thing. A core of decency, and also a very real respect and concern for Lizzie. But what can he do with this respect and concern? He knows also that he cannot marry her: at this stage of his moral development, he is in no way ready to challenge so dramatically the rules of society, even of a society he despises. So he is left not having the first idea what to do: all possible alternatives – not seeing Lizzie, seducing her and then abandoning her, or marrying her – seem completely out of the question. So, as in everything else, he contents himself merely to drift along, with no aim, and with nothing, indeed, to aim for.

Lizzie, when we first see her in this part, is staying with Jenny Wren, the Doll’s Dressmaker, and yet another in that melancholy Dickensian list of children forced by circumstances to assume adult responsibilities. We are never quite sure throughout the novel whether she is still a child, or an adult whose physical growth has been stunted. For Jenny is crippled: the leitmotiv with which Dickens associates her is that sing-song refrain and recurs in various different forms – “my back’s so bad, and my legs are so queer”. Her father, when we see him, is a pathetic drunk: Jenny reprimands him severely as if she were the parent and he the child – indeed, she refers to him explicitly as a “child”. And as her father, ashamed of having drunk away the precious pennies needed for survival, turns his pockets inside-out on Jenny’s orders to see what, if anything, has survived from his alcoholic binge, one thinks of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment: but it is Dickens’ presentation that seems the more vivid. However, marvellous though both Jenny and her father are, they are, once again, not integrated so neatly into the fabric of the novel, as, say, characters such as Skimpole or Chadband had been in Bleak House: Jenny Wren and her father are certainly marvellous creations – of a type that no-one without an imagination so strange as that of Dickens could ever have conceived – but they remain incidental, not really an integral part of the whole.

Meanwhile, other characters emerge. There’s that wonderful creation, both hilariously funny and morally despicable, Fascination Fledgeby: he is the most boring man on earth – rich, socially well-placed, but lacking any social grace or manners, and utterly lacking in anything to say that is of the slightest interest to anyone (hence his nickname, “Fascination”). Fledgeby forms a link between the society scenes, and the strand involving Lizzie: for Lizzie and Jenny are friend with Mr Riah, a kindly and generous Jew; and this Mr Riah is Fledgeby’s front in a money-lending business.

Mr Riah is, as is well-known, Dickens’ attempt at reparation for the unthinking antisemitism in Oliver Twist. When that novel had been published, Jewish readers had, not surprisingly, taken offence at the antisemitism displayed in the figure of Fagin. When Dickens realised the offence he had occasioned, he was mortified, and disclaimed any intent to offend: it is, I suppose, a measure of how deep that antisemitism was that Dickens had not even recognised it. But here, he is making amends: not only is Mr Riah kindly and sensitive, he is also, quite explicitly, a scapegoat for the Christian: it is the Christian who is here the moneylender – a profession traditionally associated with Jews – and it is Mr Riah, the Jew, who takes upon himself the opprobrium of a sin not his own.

Dickens has been accused of overdoing it here. Orwell described the depiction of Mr Riah as “pious”, and the general critical consensus appears to be that Dickens, in making amends for past trespasses, had gone out of his way to present a Jewish figure as an embodiment of all that is admirable; and that, as a consequence, he had not succeeded in creating a real person. I don’t know that I’d go along with that. For Dickens had long presented characters of just such kindness, generosity, and unassuming nobility of nature. We may think back on the Peggottys, on Joe Gargery, or, even in this novel, the Boffins, or Betty Higden. Mr Riah seems to be the latest in what was by this this stage a well-worn Dickensian tradition, and he seems to me every bit as believable as all the other saintly characters Dickens had depicted.

But what seems to me more striking than Dickens’ depiction of Mr Riah is his depiction of, and sensitivity to, the everyday antisemitism that someone such as Mr Riah experiences. That Fascination Fledgeby should be antisemitic is only to be expected: Fledgeby is, after all, morally vacuous; but more striking is a quite remarkable scene in which Mr Riah, generously offering his aid to Lizzie when she is at her lowest ebb, meets up with Eugene Wrayburn, and he, intelligent, polished and self-aware though he may be, sees fit to sneer at Mr Riah’s Jewishness, referring to him insultingly as “Mr Aaron”. Mr Riah takes the slights with his customary placid dignity, but Dickens knew well the extent to which even small insults could hurt. Eugene Wrayburn, we realise, is, for all his sophistication, much in need of a moral education; but, as with Bella, he is not, we feel, is irredeemable. Both he and Bella are capable of learning in time how to value human worth for what it is, despite all that conspire to divide us one from another.

For, as with Great Expectations, it is this theme that seems to me to be at the centre of this novel: how can we recognise and value human worth in a world in which humans are valued purely in terms of wealth and of social status, or, as in Mr Riah’s case, in terms of race or religion? Everywhere we look, human worth is hidden. Lizzie’s warm and loving heart is hidden behind her lowly social status (and it is the fact that Eugene can see through her lowly social status and value her that gives us hope that he may be capable of redemption). The Veneerings and their circle cannot perceive human worth at all: everyone in the Veneerings’ circle, no matter how brief their acquaintance with the Veneerings may be, is greeted with a faked warmth and generosity as their “oldest friend”. Whether the Veneerings are cutting the friends they had before they made their wealth, or whether they never had any friends at all, we do not know: either way, they are heartless. They belong now to a world in which social form is everything: all else is banished. Warmth, love, human regard, generosity – such things can only be faked because the real articles are not there. And it is this world from which Eugene needs to escape; and it is this same world that Bella longs to enter. It is this world that exerts its fascination on her to such an extent that, even knowing full well how heartless it is, she is prepared to sacrifice her own heart to enter it. Different though the stories are of Bella and of Eugene – one belonging to the realm of fairy tale and the other belonging very much in the real world – they complement each other.

In the last chapter of the second quarter of this novel, we are shown again Veneering’s circle. Having no real part to play in the novel, they are now reduced to a sort of chorus on the proceedings – a chorus that is on all matters most reliably unreliable. But even in the midst of this, Dickens shows us Mrs Lammle rising above the moral squalor she willingly inhabits to save the innocent Georgiana. And we can’t help but feel that even if someone such as Mrs Lammle could rise above all this, then so, perhaps, in time, could Eugene, and so could Bella.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika on January 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    You are crushing me. I am enjoying this book and dislike the feeling that on reading your remarkably thoughtful but didactic essays I am back in graduate school. In fact you are frightening me away although I truly appreciate the time you are spending on this and am grateful for you having caused me to turn to Dickens again after many years of passive dislike.

    The firat two chapters have pulled me right in even with CD’s sledgehammer humor; very Victorian (and why not?) with no wit about it.


    • Hello Erika, I’m very sorry if that’s the effect my posts are having – that’s certainly not what I intended! I just want to put down as much as I can of the thoughts I’m having as I read the book, and I don’t really know how else to do it!

      The main thing is to enjoy the reading, & if my posts do diminish the enjoyment, then please do ignore them. I never eellike understood what Wilde meant when he wrote “Each man kills the thing he loves”, but it may well be that I am killing this novel that I love. I’ll carry on writing these as the act of writing helps me put my own thoughts in order, but pleased don’t feel obliged to read them!


  2. Posted by Erika W. on January 23, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    You are very gracious. It is probably because I had so much trouble with Dickens in school and this brings back memories>


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