Archive for the ‘Group Read’ Category

“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?

“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.

“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.

“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”

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

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!’

‘No?’

‘Oh NO!’

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.

Group Read of “Our Mutual Friend” in the New Year

It occurs to me that the group read of Our Mutual Friend that I’d suggested some time ago isn’t too far away now.

I don’t know that I want to make this a formal thing. I’ll certainly be reading it in the New Year, and will be posting about it while I’m reading. If anyone wants to join in, please do feel welcome.

It’s probably best if we all read at our own pace, rather than set some schedule for so many chapters per week or whatever. And if anyone wants to discuss some aspect of it, you can either add a comment to one of my posts, or put up a post on your own blog and put up a link to it from here, or whatever. Or, if you don’t have your own blog, you could e-mail me whatever it is you want to post, and I could put it up here as a guest post. Whatever – as long as some discussion occurs.

The last time I read this book was about 20 years ago, so I am greatly looking forward to this, and I do hope you’ll join me.

Anyone on for a “group read” of “Our Mutual Friend”?

Recently, it was suggested that we celebrate the Dickens bicentenary next year by having a group read. For no better reason that that I was planning to re-read Our Mutual Friend, we decided to go with that one. (At least, I think I did – please correct me if I am mistaken on that.)

I hadn’t previously considered a group read on this blog, but if anyone is interested – well, why not? Our Mutual Friend, is, after all, among Dickens’ finest works, and it should be as good a one to read as any. So I suggest that we start reading this together in the New Year.

Of course, it is long, and if anyone starts this and feels at any point they don’t want to continue, then that’s fine: there’s no obligation. But in the meantime, let us by all means have a go at reading it together.

I don’t want to be the only one putting up posts as we’re reading. Anyone who wants to take part in this, and has their own blog, can, if they wish, put up posts on their blog and cross-reference to here. (I’ll be happy to put up links to posts on other blogs as well.) And anyone who doesn’t have their own blog can always send me their posts, and I’d be happy to put them up as “guest posts”. (With the usual provisos of course … no spam, no abuse, and nothing one wouldn’t wish one’s wife or servants to read!) And, of course, one could always join in with the discussion in the Comments section at the end of each post.

As I say, even if no-one goes for this, I’ll definitely be reading it myself. But the more the merrier, so please do join in if you feel at all inclined!