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

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

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

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

We now pick up again on Fledgeby and Mr Riah. This strand is frequently criticised as being unconvincing: this, we are told, is something that has merely been tacked on to the novel  – a pious attempt to atone for the antisemitism in his depiction of Fagin. But I find it convincing enough; and, far from being tacked on, it seems to me an integral aspect of the novel.

The theme of antisemitism is not, it seems to me, out of place in a novel one of the principal themes of which is the judgement of human worth in terms other than that of moral value: here, as in Great Expectations, as in Little Dorrit – as, virtually, in all of Dickens’ novels – human worth is misjudged, determined by criteria that are, or, at least, should be, irrelevant: these criteria can be social class, and wealth; and they can also include religion, race. The denigration of Lizzie Hexam on the basis of her social origin is really not so different, thematically, from the denigration of Mr Riah on the basis of his racial origin. Whatever Dickens’ prejudices were as a man (and these prejudices were many), he put the best of himself into his writing.

But his generosity does not extend to the members of High Society – the Veneerings, the Podsnaps, the insufferable Lady Tippins, and the like. Dickens had often been angry before, but, as Orwell had put it, it was a “generous anger”; but not here. There is a rage here in his humour, a rage directed at an entire class of people. This is new, and it is surprisingly effective.

Also new, I think, is his probing into a dangerously unbalanced mind. In Barnaby Rudge, he had given us, in Barnaby, a man who is mentally handicapped, and it is utterly unconvincing: Barnaby speaks and thinks as no man, mentally backward or otherwise, had ever spoken or thought. But in Bradley Headstone, he gives us something else: here is a sane man sinking helplessly into madness, unable to resist the tide of hatred rising in him. Dickens had perhaps given us a foretaste of this in Jonas Chuzzlewit, but even he, in comparison to Bradley Headstone, is but a pantomime villain.

The major problem Dickens faces in this novel – and it is a problem that he never, I think, quite overcomes – is that of integrating together the various strands. The society strand has already settled into being a sort of demented chorus, commenting in its absurd and vicious manner to events, but never really taking part; and that leaves two strands so different from each other that there seems no common ground between them. One of them, of course, is the very realistic and engrossing drama of love and hate across social barriers, with Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone its principal players; the other is the story of the Boffins, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, and this is pure fairy tale. This is the tale of the prince who sets out in disguise to test his beloved. And it is hard to see where or how these two strands could possibly intersect.

They do eventually come together in what turns out, unfortunately, to be among the weakest sections of the novel. When Lizzie and Bella do meet, neither seems, rather absurdly, to be aware of the yawning social gulf between them. (This is all the more absurd given that it is the general awareness of this gulf is the mainspring of Lizzie’s story.) Lizzie and Bella merely mouth platitudes to each other. Dickens is, often unfairly I think, accused of sentimentality, but here, I think, the charge sticks: emotions of sweetness and light are evoked here, but there has been little in anything leading up to these scenes to render these emotions at all credible.

In between these two main strands, two more spring up, and assume importance. The first is a development of the story of Mr Riah: structurally, this story forms a bridge between the strand involving high society, and the story of Lizzie Hexam: it is Fledgeby, an associate of the Veneerings and his circle, who secretly owns the moneylending business that employs Mr Riah; and it is Mr Riah who helps Lizzie find employment outside London, and, thus, to hide away both from Bradley Headstone and from Eugene Wrayburn – two men who alarm her for different reasons. The story of Mr Riah also involves one of Dickens’ loveliest and most eccentric creations – Jenny Wren, the Doll’s Dressmaker who, like so many characters in Bleak House, is simultaneously child and adult – a child who has to act as a parent to her pathetically alcoholic father.

The other strand seems to see Dickens returning after many years to his broadest comic mode, and it’s almost as if he’d never been away. For Silas Wegg, literary gentleman, with a wooden leg, is a comic creation who could only have been created by an imagination as wild and untamed as that of Dickens. Of course, he is a villain, and I suppose Dickens could, had he wanted to, made him sinister: but there are sinister shadows enough in this novel, and I get the feeling that there was a big part in Dickens that wanted to return to the uninhibited comic exuberance of some of his earlier work. As a consequence, we never fear Silas: we never take seriously the danger he presents. He is not even loathsome as is, say, Chadband in Bleak House: of course, Silas is a moral reprobate, but his character is so delightfully and so extravagantly eccentric, that the villainy seems but the villainy of pantomime – something we may boo and hiss, yes, but not really take at all seriously.

It is similarly difficult to take seriously Boffin’s moral decline. The theme of the corrupting power of wealth has been raised explicitly earlier in the novel: Bella, after all, runs towards wealth in the full knowledge that she is being corrupted by it. Once again, Dickens could, had he wanted, have made a serious drama out of Boffin’s corruption. But, as with Silas Wegg, he chooses not to. For Boffin’s descent is treated purely for laughs. After all, one imagines there were open to Dickens many ways of depicting Boffin’s increasing miserliness, but the one Dickens lights on is so insane that one can only wonder at his pursuing this at all: Boffin becomes interested in biographies of Great and Famous Misers. Now, I am not acquainted too well with the sort of books that were widely available in Victorian times, and it may well be that there was a thriving sub-genre chronicling the lives of Great Misers. But, somehow, I doubt it. This is just Dickens unable – and, I think, unwilling – to rein in that mad imagination of his. So we have Boffin going around bookshops picking up these books; he has Wegg reading them to him; and in the meantime, Dickens overwhelms us with completely irrelevant and grotesque details about the lives of allegedly authentic Great and Famous Misers. It is all very funny, in a mad sort of way, but it makes it difficult to take this strand as anything other than comic.

But the plot is thickening. Wegg has found in the dust heaps a will that is dated later than the one that had given the Harmon fortune to the Boffins, and in this latest will, the Boffins are left nothing. Silas Wegg tries to blackmail the increasingly venal Mr Boffin, and enlists the aid of Mr Venus, the anatomist and taxidermist, and another of Dickens’ marvellous eccentrics:

“Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I’d name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick ’em out, and I’d sort ’em all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you.”

Mr Venus is disappointed in love: the woman he loves (and who happens to be the daughter of Rogue Riderhood – Dickens at this late stage doing all he can to force the various different strands of the novel together) disapproves of his grisly profession. In a moment of weakness, Mr Venus agrees to Wegg’s scheme, but later recants and refuses to take part in any blackmail.

The whole thing is all very funny, but never remotely threatening or sinister. And I am inclined to think this is how Dickens intended it. Not for a minute to we believe in Boffin’s moral decline, or that Wegg’s pantomime villainy could have serious consequences.

However, Dickens’ decision to treat the story of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer as a sort of fairy tale does, I think, lead him into trouble, for, fairy tale or not, the issues broached in this story are serious issues, and they do ideally, I think, require serious treatment. Bella has appeared before in Dickens’ novels: she is the beauty who has hardened her heart – or who, at least, has tried to harden her heart – so she cannot feel the softer, gentler emotions. We have seen her before as Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times, and, quite unforgettably, as Estella in Great Expectations. With Bella, Dickens wants to show the possibility of redemption, of human goodness asserting itself despite the odds: Bella is to be an Estella who is pulled back before she reaches the brink and loses her soul. But Bella gets nowhere close to the brink before she is pulled back. And one wonders why. After all, Dickens had already, with satiric strokes that are biting and brilliant if not always very subtle, depicted the corruption of glittering high society: why does he not depict Bella in this environment? Why, for that matter, does he not depict the Boffins in this environment? Surely, if Boffin’s moral collapse is to be rendered believable, then seeing him at the Veneerings’ table would have been a far more effective stroke than having him buy biographies of Great and Famous Misers. And yet, the strands are kept resolutely apart: neither the Boffins nor Bella are shown in society. And I can only conjecture that this was because Dickens had realised that the satiric savagery with which he had presented the Veneerings and their circle could not mix either with the warm, eccentric comedy of the Boffins, or with the delicate fairy story of Bella Wilfer and her Prince in Disguise. These worlds may be contained in the bounds of a single novel, but, nonetheless, they cannot meet.

Bella, as we had all expected, passes the test; but she was never really tested that severely – she had never really come even close to being corrupted. Boffin ill-treats Harmon, and, in a splendid scene of typically eccentric comedy, dismisses him:

‘You pretend to have a mighty admiration for this young lady?’ said Mr Boffin, laying his hand protectingly on Bella’s head without looking down at her.

‘I do not pretend.’

‘Oh! Well. You HAVE a mighty admiration for this young lady–since you are so particular?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do you reconcile that, with this young lady’s being a

weak-spirited, improvident idiot, not knowing what was due to herself, flinging up her money to the church-weathercocks, and racing off at a splitting pace for the workhouse?’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘Don’t you? Or won’t you? What else could you have made this young lady out to be, if she had listened to such addresses as yours?’

‘What else, if I had been so happy as to win her affections and possess her heart?’

‘Win her affections,’ retorted Mr Boffin, with ineffable contempt, ‘and possess her heart! Mew says the cat, Quack-quack says the duck, Bow-wow-wow says the dog! Win her affections and possess her heart! Mew, Quack-quack, Bow-wow!’

And Bella, who had not so long ago refused Harmon, now takes his part, and so doing, renounces her wealth. All very fine, and all as we’d expect in a fairy tale. But what about psychological probability?  Some will say that Dickens never bothered too much about that sort of thing, but that is nonsense: the merest glance at the story of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn tells us otherwise. How can the writer who could depict with such piercing insight the psychological intricacies of that story here appear so indifferent to them? For, although we see a very dramatic change in Bella, there is absolutely no indication at all of how this change has come about. Such psychological probings are out of place in a fairy tale.

And yet, even as the conventions of the fairy story appear to take over almost completely the story of John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, the story of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn beomes ever darker. Wrayburn is desperate to find out where Lizzie is, and is not above bribing with drink the pathetic sot that is Jennie Wren’s father – a man who is quite clearly drinking himself to his death, and who would not be out of place in the pages of a novel by Zola. And watching Wrayburn obsessively is Bradley Headstone.  This is no fairy story. The few chapters of this third part in which these characters appear are set almost entirely in the dark, and are frighteningly intense. The fictional world of Dostoyevsky (whose major novels followed soon after the publication of Our Mutual Friend) does not seem too far away. In Oliver Twist, or in Martin Chuzzlewit, or even in Bleak House, a murder was but an extravagant theatrical gesture: but here, Dickens observes and depicts in horrible detail a mind unable to stem in himself the rising tide of hatred, and driven inexorably to violence.

This one single novel contains so many divergent worlds, it is no wonder that even Dickens could not find a way of reconciling them. As a consequence, we do not quite find the intricate counterpointing of different strands that had characterised Bleak House or Little Dorrit: instead, we see a sort of reversion to his earlier work, in which the strands merely lie next to each other without really touching. Thematically as well, there seems to be a return to his earlier novels: the broad, open humour of the Silas Wegg scenes, for instance, seems closer to the world of Nicholas Nickleby or The Old Curiosity Shop than it does to Little Dorrit or to Great Expectations; and the faith Dickens re-asserts in human goodness redeeming the darkness which surrounds it seems also in sharp contrast to the mainly pessimistic vision of so much of his later work. As we end the third of the four parts comprising this novel, we have a fair idea which way it will go. Or, at least, which way the story of John and Bella and the Boffins will go. The other principal strand is left hanging in the air. In the very midst of this warm humour and this fairy story lies the dark tale of Lizzie Hexam, Eugene Wrayburn, and Bradley Headstome – amongst the earliest and still amongst the most engrossing and terrifying of psychological thrillers.

The third part ends with another chorus of the Veneering circle. The Lammles are now exposed as being poor after all. Not a penny. How shocking! The Lammles, it appears, have been living beyond their means. “But how CAN people do that?” cries Veneering in sheer outrage and incomprehension.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Lots to take in here. Agree, agree, agree, on like that for a while.

    Jenny Wren is a fascinating character, a risky one. She should not work. But Dickens makes her so wonderfully weird, and thus interesting.

    The tonal contrast between the Dustman plot and the stalker plot is real. As a guess, a wild one, I would hazard that the depth of the Wrayburn-Headstone story developed in process, and became darker and more complex as the novel was composed, while the fairy tale plot did what had been planned for it. But then the mismatch remains. No fairy tale plot in the next novel, not that I remember.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree – the Wrayburn-Headstone story very likely developed as Dickens was writing it. It is superb for all that.

      As for the Wilfer-Harmon strand, Dickens did, I think, set out to dispel some of the dooma nd gloom that had so enveloped his later novels. It’s diverting – thugh perhaps pointless – to speculate in which direction Dickens would have developed had he lived longer than his 58 years,

      Reply

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