Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

August 7, 2022

Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2011) [1865]
925 p.

This was the last novel that Charles Dickens completed, and it marked, Chesterton thought, “a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’ life.” It is the story of a man who, thought dead, returns to his former life in disguise and observes the repercussions of his “death” as they reverberate through the lives of his friends and enemies.

The structure of the story reminded me of Les Miserables: a man has a window into his own previous life, and must decide whether and how to reclaim it. For Jean Valjean that former life was one of crime and suffering, whereas for John Harmon it is one of riches and happiness — yet he hesitates, convinced that he must win the heart of the woman he loves on his own merits, before she knows his true exalted station in society.

Having a character appear under false pretenses for much of the novel gives the book a juicy dose of dramatic irony, an aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Our Mutual Friend suffers from too much, much too much, in the way of false pretenses; a late revelation that certain character arcs were wholly feigned struck Chesterton as “highly jerky and unsatisfactory”, and I agree with him. A truly splendid chapter (“The Golden Dustman at his Worst”), which I cheered my way through, turned to ash and dust in the wake of these unwelcome reversals. It would be a shame to allow a book this big and beautiful to be ruined by such a fault, but the temptation is there.

The novel gives us one of Dickens’ least characteristic, but remarkably successful, villains in Bradley Headstone, a desperate third wheel in a love triangle. He is an ordinary man, not a colourful villain in the usual Dickens manner, and noteworthy for being wholly sympathetic; we understand his pain and the actions that follow from it, and nothing about him is lurid or larger than life.

Amusing to me was a subplot involving an interminable reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have myself been reading alongside the novel. Call me Wegg.

I have compared it, above, to Hugo’s masterpiece, but tonally the two books could hardly be more different. Dickens is a humourist, and his humour is irrepressible. Where another author, for example, might be contented to narrate that a character walked from his house to another, Dickens tells us that

He held as straight a course for the house of the dolls’ dressmaker as the wisdom of his ancestors, exemplified in the construction of the intervening streets, would let him.

It’s a small thing, but typical of his penchant to inject humour into even incidental details. Even the moments of high drama are usually accompanied by an absurd or incongruous aspect that winks our way. Or consider this happy passage on a new mother’s joy in her baby:

It was charming to see Bella contemplating this baby, and finding out her own dimples in that tiny reflection, as if she were looking in the glass without personal vanity. Her cherubic father justly remarked to her husband that the baby seemed to make her younger than before, reminding him of the days when she had a pet doll and used to talk to it as she carried it about. The world might have been challenged to produce another baby who had such a store of pleasant nonsense said and sung to it, as Bella said and sung to this baby; or who was dressed and undressed as often in four-and-twenty hours as Bella dressed and undressed this baby; or who was held behind doors and poked out to stop its father’s way when he came home, as this baby was; or, in a word, who did half the number of baby things, through the lively invention of a gay and proud young mother, that this inexhaustible baby did.

Name me another major novelist who could, or would, write this. Dickens can be inexhaustibly happy, and even goofy, when the situation arises, and I love him for it.

About the only thing I didn’t like about the novel — apart from the structural defect already noted — was a cluster of secondary, or tertiary, characters who popped up here and there, usually only loosely connected to the story. All were unlikable figures — self-important, self-conscious, fashionable, snooty, and joyless. I found their scenes hard to follow, and unnecessary, and therefore irritating. I was delighted, and suitably chastised, therefore, to find that Chesterton, in his essay on the book, singled these characters out as being especially praiseworthy. Chesterton always loved the shaggy, unpremeditated Dickens of Pickwick the most, and in this circle of snooty killjoys he saw Dickens making a near approach to his earlier manner. “The whole point of an early Dickens novel,” he writes, “was to have as many people as possible entirely unconnected with the plot,” and in their scenes, which I found simply confusing, he found the characteristic Dickensian humour, “an unfathomable farce—a farce that goes down to the roots of the universe.”

Reading Chesterton’s remarks on Dickens is an essential adjunct to reading Dickens himself, and I invite you to peruse the essay if you are so inclined.

**

I conclude with a brief personal note: I believe that I have now read all of the novels that Dickens completed. I began 15 years ago with David Copperfield and, in the intervening years, in fits and starts, somehow worked through all of them. I feel good. Perhaps next year I’ll start with David Copperfield again.

****

[A good word]
burglarious: relating to or involving burglary

[Power and character]
Power (unless it be the power of intellect or virtue) has ever the greatest attraction for the lowest natures.

[Chesterton on Dickens’ strengths]
He was not good at describing change in anybody, especially not good at describing a change for the worse. The tendency of all his characters is upwards, like bubbles, never downwards, like stones.

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