If you have never read Dickens, this isn’t the book to start with. Not that I think it’s the one Dickens novel everyone hopes to read before they die but I thought that made for a good opening sentence. I wonder how often the novel is taught or if many people –like me for instance—get the notion that they want to read all the novels of Dickens and inevitably get to it. Have you heard of the Golden Dustman? Nobby Boffin? Lizzie Hexam? I thought not. They haven’t entered the cultural atmosphere the way Madame LeFarge, Ebenezer Scrooge or Miss Havisham have.
It’s a long book: 822 pages in the Oxford World Classics edition. It’s always a little alarming to me when a book has a cast of characters list. On the other hand it’s a nice service. I photocopied and enlarged it, referred to it often and used it as a bookmark.
The expression “Our Mutual Friend” occurs at page 111. Now here comes a convoluted Dickens plot line. A man left all his money to his son– John Harmon—on condition he marry a certain woman, Bella Wilfur. It was a nasty thing to do and the man was a nasty piece of work but as it turns out, Bella wasn’t. She was quite a lovely woman and John was quite a nice man. But neither of them knew that nor did they know if they would find the other attractive.
On a ship returning to England after hearing of his father’s death, John trades places with a man named Julius Handford with the idea that the masquerade would buy him a little time to get to know Bella. But Julius Handford drowns. The dead man is fished out of the river by Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie. John/Julius goes to the morgue. This accomplishes two things: he ascertains that the dead man is Julius Handford, the fellow he is impersonating, and it allows a solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood to get a good look at him.
Mortimer has been engaged to deal with the will of John Harmon. Now that the main beneficiary is –apparently–dead, John/Julius thinks it efficacious to change his identity again and he chooses the name John Rokesmith. The first thing he does as John Rokesmith is find a room in the home of the Wilfurs. Secondly he finds employment with Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, secondary beneficiaries of his father’s will. So he becomes the mutual friend of the Wilfurs and the Boffins. The Boffins invite Bella to live with them, recognizing that she, in a tangential way, deserves to share in the good fortune. From these two vantage points John Rokesmith can observe Bella.
A lot of watching and spying and hiding goes on in this book. John Rokesmith’s observing of Bella is a little creepy but it rights itself in the end. More creepy still is a parallel plot which involves as psychopathic a character as I think one will find in Dickens, Bradley Headstone (such a name!) who stalks Eugene Wrayburn, a solicitor because they both are interested in Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of Gaffer Hexam, the riverman, and then stalks Lizzie Hexam herself.
The business of fishing things out of the river is paralleled by the business of fishing things out of the trash, which the British politely call “dust.” John Harmon’s father made his fortune managing what Americans would call a garbage dump but what Dickens calls “dust mounds.” When the novel opens, the Boffins are the dump caretakers in a house on the edge of the garbage heaps. When they come into their fortune, they have a glorious home built and Nobby is nicknamed “The Golden Dustman.”
That’s probably all you need to know to nod your head intelligently at a dinner party or book club. If you read the next several sentences without attempting to make any great sense of them, you’ll enter into the topsy-turvy world of a Dickens’ plot:
Lizzie goes into hiding to get away from Bradley Headstone but the father of her friend Jenny Wren, another creepy man who has the DTs, rats out her whereabouts.
Bradley Headstone and Rogue Riderhood who was initially thought to have murdered Gaffer Hexam, and who is continually trying to swear “Alfred David” (an affidavit) that he didn’t, get into a fight and kill each other.
Mr. Venus a taxidermist and collector of bones has actually bought the leg bone (how weird is that?)of Silas Wegg who gets about on his peg leg and who tries to scam the Boffins.
The Lammles married each other because each thought the other was rich. On their honeymoon they discovered that neither had a penny. They weave in and out of the novel scheming and conniving to keep their appearance in society, which is represented by the aptly named Veneerings.
The scrambling to keep one’s veneer in society is paralleled by the marriage of Mr. Eugene Rayburn and Lizzie Hexam. From two different classes of society, they have both been through so much they don’t care what the upper class thinks of them. While high society is discussing the scandal, Mr Twemlow who himself rather falls through the cracks of the upper crust makes the pronouncement that shuts them all up:
“If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him to marry this lady. . .I think he is the greater gentlemen for the action and makes her the greater lady.”
Finally, to get back to the main plot which is a Pride and Prejudice sort of courtship minus the stalking, John Rokesmith and Bella marry. Only after she becomes pregnant does he reveal that he is John Harmon the man she was expected to marry anyway. And even then the revelation only comes about because Mortimer Lightwood who John has tried to stay clear of, recognizes him as Julian Handford whom the police have been looking for ever since the drowning of the supposed John Harmon. Finally it is revealed that the Boffins have been in on the deception from the beginning.
George Orwell in his marvelous essay about Dickens comments that what sets Dickens’ apart is not his use of detail so much as his use of unnecessary detail. Here, I think, is an example of what he was talking about. What is the gratuitously unnecessary detail in the following sentence from Our Mutual Friend?
“Her letter folded, sealed and directed, and her pen wiped and her middle finger wiped, and her desk locked up and put away, and these transactions performed with an air of business sedateness which the Complete British Housewife might have assumed. . .she placed her husband in his chair and placed herself upon her stool.”
I think the unnecessary detail is that wiped middle finger.
Because there aren’t a lot of famous quotations born out of this novel—at least not ones that I recognized–, here are some bits that can be enjoyed without having to keep track of any particular plot line or character:
*Mrs. Wilfur sat silently giving them to understand that every breath she drew required to be drawn with a self-denial rarely paralleled in history, until Miss Bella appeared. . .
*There was a Miss Podsnap. And this young rocking-horse was being trained in her mother’s art of prancing in a stately manner without ever getting on. But the high parental action was not yet imparted to her, and in truth she was but an undersized damsel with high shoulders, low spirits, chilled elbows, and a rasped surface of nose. . . Miss Podsnap’s life had been, from her first appearance on this planet, altogether of a shady order. . . (she)was likely to get little good out of association with other young persons, and had therefore been restricted to companionship with not very congenial older persons and with massive furniture.
*Ma was talking at her usual cantor, with arched head and mane, opened eyes and nostrils.
*Among these correspondents are several daughters of general officers, long accustomed to every luxury of life (except spelling). . .
*Veneering then says to Mrs. Veneering, “We must work,” and throws himself into a Hansom cab. Mrs. Veneering presses her aquiline hands upon her brow, to arrange the throbbing intellect within; orders out the carriage; and repeats in a distracted and devoted manner, compounded of Ophelia, and any self-immolating female of antiquity you may prefer, “We must work.”
*(Silas Wegg, himself nearly illiterate, reads to Mr Boffin from what they insist is The Decline and Fall of the Rooshan Empire several times a week. Here he is one evening:) “Mr Wegg’s laboring bark became beset by polysyllables, and embarrassed among a perfect archipelago of hard words. It being necessary to take soundings every minute and to feel the way with the greatest caution. . .”
Herein ends my Alfred David on Our Mutual Friend.