Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

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.

My view

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

August Prompt – A Classics Challenge

This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. This month we are asked to share some quotes from our current read.
Rather than a questions August’s prompt is to share a memorable
Quote… or a few of them from what you’re currently reading. Try to select ones that are not so well-known but, of course, if you can’t help yourself share it too!

This month I’ve been reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. There are many passages I could quote. Here are just a few:

“Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. Can a corpse own it, want it, spend it, claim it, miss it,? Don’t try to go confounding the rights and wrong of things in that way. But it’s worthy of the sneaking spirit that robs a live man.” (page 6)

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.” (page 18)

“And this is the eternal law. For, Evil often stops short at itself and dies with the doer of it! but Good, never. (page 95)

“I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can’t beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it.” (page 302)

“This reminds me, godmother, to ask you a serious question. You are as wise as wise can be (having been brought up by the fairies), and you can tell me this: Is it better to have had a good thing and lost it, or never to have had it?” (page 410)

“And Oh! there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And Oh, what a bright old song it is, that Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round!” (page 636) (From a popular song usually sung to the French tune ‘C’est l’amour’.)

Wondrous Words Wednesday

I’m currently reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. It’s taking me quite a while as it’s a long book of just over 800 pages and there are many characters and sub-plots. There are also many new-to-me words!

I’m reading it in bed on Kindle, a free edition without any notes, but, of course Kindle has its own built in dictionary, which I’m constantly using. During the day I’m reading the Wordsworth Classic edition, which does have notes, and illustrations and an introduction, all of which help with understanding the literary references as well as words that are no longer in current use.

For today I’m just going to pick out one word: hippedEugene Wrayburn has been telling Mortimer Lightwood, his friend and fellow lawyer about how he enjoys goading the schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, by walking all over London knowing that he is being followed by Headstone. He describes this as enjoying the ‘pleasures of the chase’. Lightwood says he doesn’t like it. Eugene then says:

‘You are a little hipped, dear fellow’, said Eugene; ‘you have been too sedentary. Come and enjoy the pleasures of the chase.’

I wasn’t at all sure I knew what that meant – was Lightwood getting a bit broad in the hips, sitting down too much, a bit too fat, maybe and needing the exercise?

One of the Kindle dictionary defines it as ‘having hips of a specified kind: a thin-hipped girl, so maybe that’s what Dickens meant – Lightwood has fat hips! Another definition given on Kindle is ‘obsessed or infatuated with‘, which seems to fit better.

The Wordsworth Classics edition has a more appropriate definition, I think. Hipped meaning ‘depressed‘. Lightwood needs more exercise to lift his mood.

Then I wondered how my Chambers Dictionary defined hipped. It has several to choose from, including the more modern use of ‘hip‘, meaning ‘following the latest trends in music, fashion, political ideas, etc’, ‘ the fruit of the dog-rose or other rose‘, and so on. But the one that fits is:

hipped: melancholy; peevish, offended, annoyed; obsessed.

No wonder, it’s taking me longer than usual to read this book, when just one little word takes up so much thought. 🙂

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme created by Kathy at BermudaOnion, where you can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love.