Archive for May 7th, 2012

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

“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 Third – “A Long Lane”

London is Dickens’ usual setting – so much so, indeed, that it is hard for many of us to think of the city at all without some Dickensian images coming to mind. Our Mutual Friend had, in the third part, briefly wandered outside London in the scenes surrounding the death of Betty Higden: at the start of the fourth and final part of the novel, we find ourselves out there again – on the Thames to the west of the city, somewhere between London and Oxford. This river flows through the novel, and is among its most potent images: the novel had started on the river, in the midst of the murky darkness of the city, when a corpse had been fished out: now, we are in more pastoral settings, away from the filth of the metropolis.

But the filth of the city has not gone away: we meet again Rogue Riderhood, who is now keeper of the lock; and we meet again Bradley Headstone, obsessively stalking Eugene Wrayburn. Riderhood links together the three characters Mortimer Lightwood, Eugene Wrayburn, and, now, Bradley Headstone: he is not sure exactly how they are related, but he is picking out the links. And if Mortimer Lightwood had been a guvnor, and Eugene Wrayburn ’tother guvnor, then Bradley Headstone becomes, with delicious indifference to the laws of grammar ’Totherest guvnor. In Dickens’ eccentric world, that henceforth becomes Bradley’s name: ’Totherest.

The tension is high. This strand of the novel involving the love triangle of Bradley Headstone, Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam is approaching its climax. Possibly, it has developed beyond Dickens’ own expectations: it has about it a passionate intensity that goes way beyond anything Dickens had attempted before. Compared to Bradley Headstone’s murderous passions, previous forays into the psychology of violence – whether with Bill Sikes or Jonas Chuzzlewit – seem merely stagy, written for immediate effect rather than with any great insight into the vicious and impassioned mind. But there’s nothing stagy here. And, given the geniality and the warmth that is apparent in so much of the rest of the novel – which recall Dickens’ earlier work rather than his later, darker novels – one wonders whether Dickens had found himself in this particular strand going into areas that he himself had not anticipated. But be that as it may, once in this area, Dickens doesn’t shirk its implications. Closely observed by Rogue Riderhood, Bradley Headstone, already dangerously near the edge of sanity, seems mentally to tear himself apart. The scene where the rush of blood to Headstone’s head causes his blood to gush through his nose is terrifying: I do not know how accurate this is in medical terms, but, as with Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, Dickens’ fictional world is one where metaphor can easily become a physical reality.

There are a few other strands to be resolved as well, of course. The Lammles, we had learnt towards the end of the third part, are now all washed up: Dickens brings Giorgiana Podsnap back into the frame here, and tries to enlist some sympathy on behalf of this pathetically dominated girl, but she had been presented earlier in the novel in such grotesque terms that it is difficult to take her seriously now as a real person. Or, at least, if the reader is to take her seriously, Dickens needed to give himself a bit more time and space than he could spare for so incidental a character. There’s also Mr Riah, whose moral scruples force him to leave Fledgeby’s employment (shortly before he receives an unceremonious letter from his employer telling him he is sacked anyway), and whose relationship with Jenny Wren is re-established as previous misunderstandings are cleared up. Fledgeby himself gets his come-uppance as Lammle, as his final act in the novel, gives the bounder a damn good thrashing. Modern sensibilities may recoil at such a resolution: physical violence, we feel nowadays, is always to be deplored; but Dickens wrote in, we may say, an age with more “robust” values, and was an admirer of Fielding to boot: he saw nothing untoward in a snivelling cad such as Fledgeby getting his come-uppance in such a manner. This leaves two other major strands: there’s Silas Wegg’s continuing attempts to blackmail Boffin, and this continues agreeably in Dickens’ best comic manner till its predictable, though nonetheless funny, resolution. And, finally, there is the fairy tale thread – the Prince in Disguise testing his Beloved.

And here, Dickens has a problem: having set this as one of the two major plot strands in the novel (the other being the Headstone-Hexam-Wrayburn triangle), he cannot drop it with a quarter of the novel still to go – he has to keep it going to the end; and yet, the strand has already been resolved. Once Bella decides, towards the end of the third part, that she would rather forfeit her fortune than be party to the injustice meted out to John Rokesmith, this particular story is effectively finished: she has triumphantly passed her test, and all that remains is to disclose the identity of the Prince in Disguise so the two can live happily ever after. But – rather surprisingly, given the extraordinarily intricate planning in the earlier Bleak House – Dickens appears to have miscalculated here: the resolution of this story had come too early, and Dickens has to do what he can to stretch this strand through to the end, even though there is no further material to keep it going. As a consequence, the testing of Bella continues quite gratuitously, stretching in the process both probability and psychological coherence. Indeed, it becomes distasteful, as the continuing “testing” of Bella even when she has proved herself can only be seen as tantamount to deliberate cruelty; and, even in the context of a fairy story, her cheerful acceptance of it all when all is revealed makes no sense at all.

Dickens, especially in his earlier work, enjoyed describing good people being happy together: such material is usually eschewed by writers (and not just modern writers) for obvious reasons – the most obvious of which is that it lacks dramatic tension. But there was an aspect of Dickens that made him return to this sort of thing, and it is perhaps surprising that after the darker and more pessimistic views of humanity expressed in Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, he should return again to this. But he does, and does so with a vengeance; and it becomes hard to escape the impression given here of tweeness, and of a forced jollity.

But if, as I suspect, Dickens had some inner need to write in this mode – almost as if he needed to convince himself that virtue can triumph, even in a world so wicked as this – the other principal strand shows no sign whatever of compromise. Eugene Wrayburn has tracked down Lizzie Hexam, but is still without much idea of his own intentions; and Lizzie, very understandably, remains apprehensive. If the depiction of the violent passions of Bradley Headstone is a new departure of Dickens – and it is a mark of his artistic restlessness that even in so late a stage in his artistic career he was willing to take the risk of making such departures – then the depiction of Eugene Wrayburn is no less so. Convention – which Dickens has often been happy to accept at face value – would have demanded that Eugene be an innately good and decent man. But while Eugene certainly has in himself elements both of goodness and of decency, he is no spotless hero. On his first meeting with Bradley Headstone, Eugene had made full use of the one weapon he had in his possession – the superiority of his social rank over Headstone’s. Headstone was enraged, and it is not hard to see why: not only is this man his rival in love, this man also insults him gratuitously purely because, by an accident of birth, he happens to occupy a superior social position. (Indeed, his hatred of Eugene, which has its roots in their first meeting, may well have been as potent a force as his desire for Lizzie in driving him to homicidal madness). And later, when Eugene meets Mr Riah, he does not hesitate to make insulting remarks regarding Mr Riah’s Jewishness. It is a distasteful scene, but perfectly in character.

Eugene lacks any sense of purpose – either in personal or in professional matters; and yet, he feels superior to others, on account of his social class, and also on account of his race. He is obviously attracted to Lizzie, but does not know what to do, how to act, or what to say. Even his close friend, Mortimer Lightwood, worries about what he might do. In such cases, after all, even the possibility of rape could not be ruled out: as readers of Tess of the d’Urbervilles will know, a man of higher social standing would be unlikely to be called to account for what would have been regarded merely as a “seduction” of a working class girl. Under the circumstances, Eugene’s winning of Lizzie is no mere conventional love story of spotless hero and spotless heroine triumphing over the odds: for, among the hurdles Eugene has to overcome, the most significant is his own mind. Like Bella earlier in the novel, Eugene needs to be educated; and since his story is not a fairy story, as Bella’s is, his education is harsh and painful. It almost costs him his life.

The development of Eugene’s consciousness is among Dickens’ triumphs. Eugene has long been sexually attracted to Lizzie, to the point even of obsession, but he can only develop a healthy relationship with her once he learns to respect her. Each touch in the telling of this story is a touch of a master, and refutes all those allegations of lack of depth or of sentimentality that the latter part of the John Harmon-Bella Wilfer story appears to confirm. After Headstone’s attack leaves Eugene almost dead, it is Lizzie who rescues him, and tends to him. And her heroism is answered by his: he finally decides what is important in his life, and, defying all social conventions, marries her. It is a heroic decision, as he knows full well that this will mean exclusion from the only society that he is acquainted with. But he makes his decision with a fierce pride and defiance. He briefly mentions to his friend Mortimer the possibility of escaping away from society to the colonies, and, when Mortimer suggests that this may be the right thing to do, Eugene reacts passionately:

‘No,’ said Eugene, emphatically. ‘Not right. Wrong!’

He said it with such a lively–almost angry–flash, that Mortimer showed himself greatly surprised. ‘You think this thumped head of mine is excited?’ Eugene went on, with a high look; ‘not so, believe me. I can say to you of the healthful music of my pulse what Hamlet said of his. My blood is up, but wholesomely up, when I think of it. Tell me! Shall I turn coward to Lizzie, and sneak away with her, as if I were ashamed of her! Where would your friend’s part in this world be, Mortimer, if she had turned coward to him, and on immeasurably better occasion?’

Mortimer is indeed surprised: this is not the Eugene he had known – the man with no purpose in life, and who hid his lack of energy and direction under an affected show of languid boredom and indifference; and neither is the Eugene we had known earlier in the novel – the man who had rubbed in his unearned sense of superiority over those to whom he had no right to feel superior. Eugene’s blood is up, as he says: we had never seen that before. But now, it is “wholesomely up”: he has grown in moral stature.

The novel ends with a final visit to that demented chorus at the Veneerings, and they are enjoying a good old gossip. That Eugene Wrayburn, who used sometimes to frequent that table, has gone and married a boatwoman of some kind, and one by one, they take turns to ridicule the match, and to express their disgust. Mr Podsnap is so offended and disgusted at this – his gorge rises to such an extent – that he declines to hear anything further about it, and sweeps it away with a movement of his arm. Only one voice in the company remains unheard – that of Mr Twemlow. Throughout the conversation, he has been feeling increasingly uneasy, and, finally, when asked to speak, he overcomes his usual gentlemanly reticence (as with all passages depicting the scenes of society at the Veneerings’ table, this is written in the present tense):

Twemlow has the air of being ill at ease, as he takes his hand from his forehead and replies.

‘I am disposed to think,’ says he, ‘that this is a question of the feelings of a gentleman.’

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

And on this splendid note, we come to the end of Dickens’ last completed novel. For all the pessimism and darkness that permeate his late works, he ends with the belief that the degree of being a “gentleman” can be “attained by any man”; and that, with human kindness and decency, those barriers that separate us humans one from another may indeed be overcome. Dickens did not, of course, know that this was to be his last completed novel; but, in retrospect, this does seem to me a fine way to bow out.

***

Our Mutual Friend is one of those proverbial curate’s eggs (although, frankly, I’m not too sure what a real curate’s egg is): so much that is merely crude or simplistic or sentimental lies side by side with other elements that remind me why it is I love the novels of Dickens – alongside those of Tolstoy – more than, I think, the novels of just about anyone else. Our Mutual Friend is not so intricately planned as Bleak House, nor, perhaps, as deeply felt as Great Expectations: neither does it have quite the epic sweep of Little Dorrit. There is too much here to provide ammunition to the anti-Dickensian, and even make confirmed Dickensians such as myself regret at times his reversion to some of his bad old ways. But which other novelist could have given us this?