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Our Mutual Friend ()


An interesting assumption undergirds George Orwell's fascinating essay on Charles Dickens (see Orrin's review), that everyone reading his essay will have read and remembered nearly every word and certainly every character of Dickens.  Once upon a time, this was likely true.  We're all familiar with the story of eager readers waiting at the dock to greet the ocean liners that were bringing the next installment of Great Expectations.  If memory serves, it is also a book by Dickens that the womenfolk read aloud to themselves in Gone With the Wind, while the men are out on their first Klan raid.  It was undoubtedly the case, particularly when the art form of novel was itself young, that everyone used to read all of Dickens enormous oeuvre.  Today though, I doubt whether many of us get past about four or five of his most popular works:  A Tale of Two Cities>, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.  At least, I know I've got about five others sitting on a shelf collecting dust, their daunting size defeating my mild wish to have read them.  But recently PBS ran a Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Our Mutual Friend and it was terrific, which proved sufficient motivation to read it too.

In barest outline, John Harmon is the heir to a junkman's fortune.  But his father conditioned the inheritance on his marrying a young woman, Bella Wilfer, whom the elder Harmon had once met in the park when she was a mere child.  Harmon rebels at the notion, for her sake as much as his own, and when fortune presents him with the opportunity to stage his own death, he takes it.  A corpse, later identified as Harmon, is found floating in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, whose trade it is to loot such bodies.  With John's "death," the fortune reverts to Nicodemus Boffin, who had been an assistant at the junkyard.  Boffin and his wife bring Bella to live with them, in hopes of alleviating her disappointment at not receiving the fortune.  The avaricious Bella is indeed determined to marry money and so has little inclination, at first, to humor the affections of John Rokesmith, the mysterious young man (and eponymous Mutual Friend) who comes to work as Boffin's personal assistant.

Meanwhile, while Gaffer Hexam has a falling out with his old partner Rogue Riderhood, Lizzie gets her bright but selfish young brother into a school, where his teacher Bradley Headstone develops an unhealthy love for Lizzie.  She is also being pursued by the young lawyer Eugene Wrayburn, despite the obvious difference in their social stations.

While the first story line features the moral development of Bella and the growing love between her and John Harmon/Rokesmith, the second soon degenerates into obsession, murder and attempted murder.  Beyond the two basic plots, the book is completely overstuffed--with ridiculous coincidences and impossible happenings; with characters who are little more than caricatures, some too virtuous, some too malevolent; with subplots that peter out and go nowhere. Running it's course throughout the story, like a liquid leitmotif, is the River Thames and brooding over it are the enormous piles of "dust," the garbage on which the Harmon fortune is founded.  It all gets to be a bit much, but it's also really refreshing to see the great novelist at work.

This is what Tom Wolfe meant when he urged modern authors to get out and look around and write about what they found, instead of penning the increasingly insular and psychological novels which have become the staple of modern fiction.  Dickens got the idea for the body fished from the water by seeing rivermen at work, for Charlie Hexam after seeing such a bright young boy with his father. The "dust" piles were in fact a real source of wealth, in a society where the refuse of the well to do could be used again by the poor.  If Dickens writing is ultimately too broad for us to think of the book as realistic, it at least attempts to capture the flavor (or the stench) of a time and a place and it is animated by the society that teemed around him.  If Dickens ultimately seems to have tried to do too much, better a novel like this where the author's reach exceeds his grasp than to settle for one where the author ventures little.  Sure it could stand to lose a couple hundred pages, a few subplots and a dozen or so characters, and it's not up to the standard of his best work (there's a reason after all why we all read the same few books) but it's great fun and, even if just to watch the steady growth of Bella Wilfer and the steady disintegration of Bradley Headstone, well worth reading.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

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See also:

Charles Dickens (7 books reviewed)
Classics
Charles Dickens Links:

    -REVIEW : of 'Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks' by Peter Gay (Lorraine Adams, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Charles Dickens (1812-1870)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "charles dickens"
    -etexts of Dickens works
    -Charles Dickens Overview
    -David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page
    -Charles Dickens - Gad's Hill Place.
    -THE DICKENS PAGE
    -Literary Research Guide: Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870)
    -The Dickens Fellowship: Japan Branch
    -The Altered State: England, Literature and the Pub: Dickens (Steven Earnshaw)
    -Charles Dickens (Most Web)
    -An Outline of the English Novel: The Short List (San Antonio College LitWeb)
    -ETEXT: John Forster The Life of Charles Dickens
    -CONCORDANCES: Concordances - Dickens, Charles - 55 Works  Text and Search Word Indexes of Classic Books
    -ANNOTATED BIBLIO: (Otto G. Richter Library, University of Miami)
    -ANNOTATED ETEXT: Our Mutual Friend (Self Knowledge)
    -ESSAY: A Division of Labor:  How Charles Dickens' Fiction and Journalism Work Together (Michael Dube)
    -Our Mutual Friend: The Scholarly Pages (The Dickens Project)(electronic archival resource dedicated to gathering and providing scholarly information on Dickens's last completed novel. Designed to complement the BBC's 1998 dramatization of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND)
    -Dickens and the Waste Land of London (Stanford)
    -LINKS: OUR MUTUAL FRIEND
    -LINKS:  Links about Specific Victorian Novels
    -John Forster: Life of Dickens: "OUR MUTUAL FRIEND"
    -EXCERPT:  PARTICULAR WORDS :  Individual, mutual, unique, aggravating (H.W. Fowler (1858-1933).  The King's English, 2nd ed.  1908)
    -ESSAY: Those who have been enjoying the dramatisation of Charles Dickens 'penultimate novel Our Mutual Friend on television recently may be interested to learn of one or two associations between the novelist and Newark (Newark Advertiser [uk])
    -REVIEW: Our Mutual Friend (Henry James, The Nation, 21 December 1865)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: of Our Mutual Friend (Martha Stoddard Holmes, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW: of Our Mutual Friend (Richard Hawkins, Book Ideas)
    -REVIEW : of The Master's Voice: Dickens' Journalism Volume IV: The Uncommercial Traveller and Other Papers, 1859-70  Michael Slater and John Drew ed (Dan Jacobson, booksonline uk)

TV VERSION
    -INFO: Our Mutual Friend (Masterpiece Theatre)
    -REVIEW: Dickens's last complete novel shines on the small screen (M.S. Mason, The Christian Science Monitor)

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