Friday, 25 July 2014

Our Mutual Friend. By Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend

Charles Dickens

Kindle e-book. First published 1865.

According to Wikipedia, this is the last novel Dickens completed. It also calls it the 'most sophisticated' of his books. To me the novel is memorable for updating, and making far more likeable, two stock female characters of his novels - the 'lady' heroine, and the working class girl seduced by a 'gentleman'. 

The character of Bella Wilfer recalls to my mind Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett (and Mr. Wilfer, her father, is somewhat like Mr. Bennett). Bella however is not as witty as Elizabeth, and more like Dickens's own Dora, from 'David Copperfield', though not so soppy. Bella starts off spoiled and mercenary in her relationships. But, as the book proceeds, and especially in reaction to the machinations of the Cheeryble-like couple of Mr. and Mrs. Boffins, in conspiracy with their secretary, Mr. Rokesmith, she comes into her own, standing up for what is just and correct, despite the potential damage this could cause to her own financial and social interests. So though in many ways like Dora, Agnes, Kate Nickleby, Little Dorrit, and many such others, Bella reveals strength of mind usually reserved by Dickens for his female villains.

The other prominent female protagonist in the book is Lizzie Hexam, who is not a 'lady' in terms of the Dickensian zeitgeist, but a working class girl, daughter of a boatman who makes his living dredging up drowned bodies from the Thames. Like Em'ly, adopted daughter of the fisherman Peggotty in 'David Copperfield', who attracts the attention of the 'gentleman' Steerforth, and is in turn attracted to him, Lizzie catches the eye of Eugene Wrayburn, a 'gentleman' of independent means. She also becomes an object of intense desire to her pompous younger brother Charles' teacher Bradley Headstone. She keeps her head, however, and though she loves Eugene, she does not have any illusions about their relative positions. She does not elope with him, as Em'ly did with Steerforth, but runs away and hides herself in village far from London. Her pursuit by her two admirers, and the violent resolution of their rivalry forms  a large, intense and thrilling part of the book. Lizzie herself preserves her strong but gentle character right to the end, and suffers no loss of her individuality, so unlike Em'ly.

'Our Mutual Friend' is a large and complicated story with many threads, in the style of 'David Copperfield' rather than, say, 'A Tale of Two Cities'. The key device is the will of a rich man, Joseph Harmon, who has made all his money trading in dust - mainly coal dust (though Dickens mentions bone dust and other types as well), which, in that period of the industrial revolution was generated in most households, was collected and sorted by specialized workmen, and sold as fertilizer or for brick-making. Dust contractors who owned the whole process became wealthy men. Though Harmon appears only 'off-stage', he is depicted as a miserly Scrooge (!), who has driven away his two children in their childhood. When the story opens, his wife and daughter are dead some years, and he himself has just died, leaving all his immense wealth to his son John, provided he marries Bella Wilfer, Mr. Wilfer having been Harmon's accountant. In default the money would go to the Boffins, who had kept house for him. Lizzie Hexam's father dredges up a body which is identified as that of John Harmon, and thus the Boffins suddenly become rich people. The effect of this turn of affairs on Bella, the Boffins themselves, and various sundry characters forms the chief concern of the novel.

Among these characters are the swindling pair of Mr. and Mrs. Lammle, who first marry for each other's non-existent money. Upon their mutual discovery of the truth, they combine to try and con various other characters. 'Fascination' Fledgeby, a vindictive money-lender is another peripheral. Riah, the Jew, who fronts for Fledgeby, is treated sympathetically, though there is always the suggestion that he is not 'one of us'. Jenny Wren is one of those grotesques who people Dickens' books so liberally. She is handicapped by a twisted back, probably a hunchback, and earns her living dressing up dolls. A character that recalls Smike, the simple-minded boy of 'Nicholas Nickleby', but not so pathetic, is Sloop. Mortimer Lightwood is Eugene Wrayburn's friend, a good and steady man. Wrayburn himself, is like Steerforth, rich and idle, but a good man, and unlike Steerforth, he does no actual harm to Lizzie or her reputation, and redeems himself in the end.

There are a few villains, two from the 'lower' orders - Rogue Riderhood and Silas Wegg - and two from among the 'gentlemen' - Fledgeby and Headstone. And while sometimes they cooperate when their interests run parallel, they also prey on each other when it is opportune.   

And there are various 'pillars' of London society, who are savagely treated by Dickens. He is at his sarcastic best when he describes them, their dresses, their homes, their concerns, their parties, their servants, their gossip, their business and their professions. There are long, witty passages when the foibles of these people are mercilessly parodied. There is a description of an election campaign, in which the candidate spends all his time visiting the houses of the rich and influential in order to successfully get elected. These chapters - there are at least three of them - deal with universal and perennial issues. 

So, this is a good book, with a couple of excellent female characters, memorable not for their comic effects. There is more wit and invention in the writing than in some of his other books. And the social comment while as savage as elsewhere in his writings, is not thrust upon the reader. It is always a problem to rank the books of a prolific writer. I have tried this with Dickens elsewhere in this blog, where I put 'David Copperfield' at the top. I will retain that rank for that book, though 'Our Mutual Friend' comes close. 

- 'It is one of the easiest achievements in life to offend your family when your family wants to get rid of you.'
- 'The incompetent servant, by whomsoever employed, is always against his employer.'
- 'Then the train rattled among the house-tops, and among the ragged sides of houses torn down to make way for it, and over the swarming streets, and under the fruitful earth, until it shot across the river: bursting over the quiet surface like a bombshell, and gone again as if it had exploded in a rush of smoke and steam and glare. A little more, and again it roared across the river, a great rocket: spurning the watery turnings and doublings with ineffable contempt, and going straight to its end, like Father Time goes to his.'

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