Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last finished novel, revives many familiar Dickens tropes, but unites them with lively social satire, a spare cast (by Dickens’s standard), and a mostly sound narrative. With characteristic ease, Friend traverses the socioeconomic spectrum from low to high. Its settings range from the grotesque and morbid (the opening chapter follows three characters whose occupation is fishing human corpses out of the Thames) to scenes of fevered fancy (showing Dickens’s persistent interest in altered states of consciousness, from David Copperfield to Edwin Drood) and domestic bliss (a humble wedding described like a fairy-tale). Friend’s social satire is caustic as always: though Dickens’s tone suggests that he himself has long since given up on the possibility of adequate public reform – falling back, in a return to his earliest tendencies, on private charity exercised within narrow circles. Friend is Dickens at his acme.
Friend is a story of crime and mistaken identity. John Harmon, heir to a fabulous estate, is travelling back to England to claim it – but turns up drowned in the river. His father’s wealth was built on dust-heaps: collecting rubbish, and reselling it as scrap. The heir dead, this estate passes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, the Harmons’ illiterate but kind-hearted caretakers. John Rokesmith turns up to offer his services as secretary to the newly rich Boffins. Also involved in the Harmon estate, through a quaint medieval device, is Bella Wilfer. When Bella was just a girl, and a perfect stranger, she was selected by Mr. Harmon to be his son’s bride. Bella is beautiful but spoiled. John Harmon’s death bereaves her of her long-anticipated marrying into wealth. But Rokesmith also takes an interest in Bella.
The mystery growing around John Harmon’s murder, and the ultimate destiny of the Harmon estate, are the web into which every character in Friend is drawn. Two young lawyers get involved: Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood. So do the family who recovered John’s body from the river, the Hexams. When John Hexam, who has recovered John Harmon’s body, is suspected of having actually murdered him, his daughter Lizzie sends her brother Charley away to school, to keep him away from impending troubles. Lizzie’s selfless action launches a train of circumstances that will complicate several lives.
More distantly connected to the central action are Jenny Wren, a physically deformed and preternaturally precocious twelve-year-old, perhaps written as a counterpoint to David Copperfield’s (1849-50) dwarf Miss Mowcher; and Mr. Riah, a Jew who is all things good, clearly written as Dickens’s redemption after Oliver Twist’s (1837-39) Jewish Mr. Fagin. The reader will remember that Miss Mowcher began as a gossipy, shrewd, shallow character; Dickens, gauging his audience’s reaction to Copperfield’s early installments, made her, in later chapters, good-hearted – only forced to act like a butterfly in order to make her way against all odds. Also based on reactions from readers and acquaintances, Dickens made Oliver Twist’sFagin (in this case not in later installments, but in later editions of the whole book) less obviously Jewish.
It is right for a writer to use readers’ feedback to correct prejudices that gave unintentional offence. Dickens was susceptible to the same stereotypes – including about Jewish and disabled people – as many of his contemporaries. What is problematical artistically is an overcorrection to the extent represented by Mr. Riah in Friend.
Dickens makes Riah a very angel on earth. He is “gentle, like all his race.” This is a stereotype, just reversed from negative to positive. In what is clearly an attempt to challenge the association, in the popular imagination, between Jews and the moneylending business – Dickens associates Riah with a cutthroat bill-discounting business. But, unbeknownst to the world, Riah is only an employee. He is fronting for a gentile: the despicable Mr. Fledgeby. It is Fledgeby who then assumes the burden of antisemitism; Dickens makes Fledgeby easy to despise for other reasons. Fledgeby uses his fellow-Englishmen’s antisemitism to goad Riah into being heartless in running the business – while keeping his own hands clean. Dickens describes Riah as “His grateful servant – in whose race gratitude is deep, strong, & enduring – bowed his head…” Riah tolerates, uncomplainingly, shocking amounts of abuse. It is not clear why – he has friends who would’ve given him other work – unless Dickens’s intent was to say ‘Look: all Jews are splendid people, and all antisemites are rascals.’ A noble mission, but still mired in stereotypes – and executed unartistically.
Wide as it is, Friend’s cast is less dizzyingly wide than in the nomadic Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), or in Bleak House (1852-1853) – novels where several clusters of characters might have been combined without losing narrative integrity. In Friend, the reader becomes acquainted at leisure with each of the characters, memorable and unique. Long after details of the plot have faded from memory, the characters linger.
Friend, more than any other Dickens novel bar Great Expectations (1860-61), functions as a character study: an exploration of how an individual’s problematic upbringing and character flaws lead to choices whose consequences may be unforeseen and irretrievable. But don’t worry. This is still a Dickens novel. Persistent badness is punished, but aberrations are forgiven, and a person who’s actually good inside has only to chuck their baggage to earn their due reward.
This analysis of the effects of childhood experience on character occurs most clearly with Friend’s Bella Wilfer and Bradley Headstone. Bella was raised in a middle-class family, but always expecting to marry into the fabulous Harmon wealth. When John Harmon’s death cheats her of this expectation, she becomes spoiled and whiny. When the Boffins take her under their wing, she enjoys her new lifestyle, and repudiates secretary Rokesmith’s offer of marriage. But then Bella falls in love, and makes a new friend who embodies humility and contentment – and Bella sees how wealth can corrupt even the best. And Bella is reformed. She renounces the lifestyle that she has always sought, and that has now been enjoying. She embraces her lower-middle-class life. The first half of Bella’s trajectory, more realistic than the second, captures the effects of childhood and home experience on character.
Friend’s Bradley Headstone is another well-studied character: somewhat in the mould of Copperfield’sUriah Heep, though much more human. What Headstone and Heep share is their humble background, which makes them pathologically insecure as they climb through the social ladder. Headstone is a dull-witted man who has had to struggle to get where he is – headmaster of a school. This leaves him perennially unsure of himself, making unsolicited speeches about his humble background and refusing to apologise for it (though nobody asks him to), and struggling to reconcile his mercurial temperament with the utterly repressed façade he believes he must maintain. Headstone’s decisions, too, stem from his repressed, compulsive nature – which in turn Dickens traces to his life-trajectory.
Dickens tropes and character types the reader will recognise in Friend include: the lovely woman persecuted by suitors, which Dickens explored as early as Nicholas Nickleby (1839); the corrupting influence of wealth or its pursuit, a hobby-horse Dickens rode in multiple works, from Ralph in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), to a whole nation in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), to, most famously, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843). It is the corrupting influence of wealth that constitutes the primary target of Dickens’s satire in Friend. Perhaps the most interesting recurring character-type is Eugene Wrayburn. Wrayburn is a young man who’s gifted and witty and charming, but lacks an anchor, drifting with the tide – but is capable of selfless and intense activity – and is self-aware of his own enigmatic nature. Wrayburn recalls Copperfield’s James Steerforth and A Tale of Two Cities’ (1859) Sydney Carton. But, as Wrayburn’s circumstances differ from Steerforth’s and Carton’s – so does his destiny.
The mystery of Harmon’s death – and of what the dust-heaps contain – is slowly cleared up. Friend unfolds at a sure pace, building suspense over several storylines. The reader can see many of these surprises a mile away – Dickens foreshadows and reveals perhaps too much – but, when they arrive, they are nonetheless shocking in their details and aftermath.
Friend’sfinal act is disappointing. A deus-ex-machina redeems a character whose decline from goodness to greed Dickens has painted accurately and developed systematically. Less incredibly, a near-death experience turns a gray character all-white. (The effect of the near-death experience in this case is weakened by the fact that another near-death experience earlier in the novel leaves another character totally unchanged.) Via this final-act turnaround, Friend seems to teach us the lesson: ‘Trust and obey your master, and all will be well. Even when you are bewildered, ask no questions: just close your eyes and trust blindly. Stop seeking wealth, and a mountain of wealth will fall into your lap.’
These are dubious ethical lessons. And, artistically, they spoil the structure Dickens had been carefully building up – all in his quest for a happy ending that preaches his usual lesson: ‘Be good and obedient, and all will be well.’
But Friend is too masterful a work, too interesting a narrative, to be spoiled by its ending. This is a master-storyteller at his peak.
Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier and more extensive, my reading therefore more mindful and critical. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing and dusty bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Win-win! Try switching to soft copy today. (Yes. This is propaganda. From someone experiencing every day multiple ill-effects of climate change, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. Please have a thought for the earth.)