It’s hard to know just what to write about Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The General Introduction to the book advises that you enjoy the book before reading the Introduction (which I did), so I have tried not to reveal any spoilers in this post.
- It’s Dickens’s last complete book, first published in 19 monthly instalments from May 1864 to November 1865. It’s meant to be read at a leisurely pace.
- It’s a long multiplot novel, with a multitude of characters.
- In it Dickens comments on the ills of contemporary society.
- It concerns mysteries, lost identities, hidden wills, corruption and violence.
- It’s varied in style, sometimes comic, other times serious, sometimes sombre and dark and at others ironic and flippant.
- It’s written in both the past and present tense and from the characters’ differing perspectives.
Brief synopsis (from the back cover of the Wordsworth Classic edition)
The chief of its several plots centres on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. He is believed drowned under suspicious circumstances – a situation convenient to his wish for anonymity until he can evaluate Bella Wilfer whom he must marry to secure his inheritance. The story is filled with colourful characters and incidents – the faded aristocrats and parvenus gathered at the Veneering’s dinner table, Betty Higden and her terror of the workhouse and the greedy plottings of Silas Wegg.
Although it nows reads like historical fiction, in the mid 1860s Our Mutual Friend was modern up-to-date fiction, beginning with the words: ‘In these times of ours’, in case there was any doubt in the readers’ minds.
The opening chapter reveals a darkly atmospheric scene on the River Thames, a modern scene for its first readers,with a macabre story of a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, searching the Thames for human corpses:
Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. (pages 3-4)
In direct contrast in the next chapter Dickens moves to the nouveau-riche setting of the Veneerings house:
Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick-and-span new. (page 7)
Just like their name the Veneerings are all show, all surface, without any depth. They collect people as well as objects. Their standing in society is dependent on their wealth – just as Gaffer Hexham’s is at the other end of the financial strata. And there is a great emphasis on money, wealth and poverty in Our Mutual Friend.
There are some wonderful characters, such as the Boffins, Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to name but a few. As John Harmon is presumed to have been drowned in the Thames (the body found by Gaffer Hexham), it is his father’s faithful servants, Mr and Mrs Boffin who inherit the miserly and incredibly wealthy ‘dust’ contractor’s fortune. This pair are at first unchanged by their good fortune and take in Bella Wilfer, the socially ambitious young woman who would have married Harmon, had he lived. Through these characters Dickens shows the effect that greed in all its forms can have.
I particularly like Dickens’s depiction of Wegg, who is employed by Mr Boffin to read to him what he calls the ‘Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ Wegg is a hard, rascally character, out for anything he can get. His wooden leg reflects his nature:
Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. … Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected — if his development received no untimely check — to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months. (page 43)
Wegg is one of the characters that Dickens also uses to inject some humour. He is obsessed with his lost leg and goes to Mr Venus’s shop to see if he can find it for him – Venus is an articulator of skeletons and a taxidermist, who has great skill in piecing things together. He boasts:
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 them all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you. (page 77)
Wegg is positive that he doesn’t want anyone’s bones:
… I tell you openly I should not like – under such circumstances, to be what I call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person. (page 77)
It’s not just social injustices, the class system, the importance of money, property, greed and materialism that Dickens highlights, but also family relationships – in particular that of fathers and daughters and the position of women. He also concentrates on instances of violence, through drownings and physical assaults.
There is so much in this novel, more that I can explore in this (long) post. I haven’t even touched on the majority of the major characters.
This Wentworth Classics edition includes the original illustrations by Marcus Stone. The one shown below is ‘The person of the house and the bad child‘ – this shows ‘Jenny Wren’, the dolls’ dressmaker, whose back is ‘so bad‘ and whose legs are ‘so queer‘, and her drunken father, who she calls her ‘bad child‘ and treats him as such.
- Paperback: 832 pages
- Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Ed edition (1 Jan 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1853261947
- ISBN-13: 978-1853261947
- Source: my own copy
- My Rating 3.5/5