Monday, September 14, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” by Charles Dickens (first published as a serial 1864-65 and then in book form 1865)
Three years ago I gave a public lecture to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, and in preparing it I looked up statistics on how popular each of his novels was, in terms of sales and printings. To my surprise, I found that his biggest seller, calculating from all the copies printed since it was first published, was A Tale of Two Cities, which has never exactly been my favourite. I also found out which of his novels has been most frequently filmed or televised (A Christmas Carol, often presented with the title Scrooge) and which has been least often filmed (Barnaby Rudge, of which no film has been made since the days of silent cinema). Given that Great Expectations and Bleak House are, for the literati, Dickens’ greatest novels; and given that David Copperfield and Oliver Twist are probably the ones most often discussed by the “common reader”, all this surprised me.
One fact does not surprise me, however. Our Mutual Friend (four times turned into television serials, but never filmed for the cinema) has never really caught on with the general reader. This was Dickens’ last completed novel, written after his masterpiece Great Expectations, and before Edwin Drood, which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1870.
Looking again at this long and rambling novel, I remain amazed that Dickens could write so well and forcefully, and yet produce something that doesn’t reach his own highest standards. For me Our Mutual Friend, even with all its incidental good things, is almost a case study of how even a great writer can go wrong.
Its unsatisfactory story has three interlocking major plots, which go thus:
The wealthy John Harmon has drowned in the Thames, and his fortune has gone to the “golden dustman” Mr “Noddy” Boffin and his wife, who are simple, altruistic and generous people. Mr Boffin employs villainous, one-legged Silas Wegg (“the evil genius of the House of Boffin”) to read to him and otherwise amuse him. But sudden wealth goes to Mr Boffin’s head. He becomes selfish, morose and miserly. Unknown to him, the villainous Wegg discovers an alternative will of the late John Harmon, which would disinherit and ruin Boffin if it were made public. With a certain Mr Venus, Wegg plans to blackmail Boffin with this alternative will.
BUT, in the second strand of plot, and as we discover definitively about halfway through the novel (it has been broadly hinted at before this), John Harmon is not really dead. He chose to be thought so when a man of similar appearance drowned in the Thames. Under the assumed name “John Rokesmith”, Harmon has taken employment as a secretary to Mr Boffin (who has not seen him since he was a child and who therefore doesn’t recognise his benefactor). “Rokesmith’s” intention is to test the feelings of Boffin’s ward, the beautiful Bella Wilfer – whom his father insisted he marry as a condition of his will – to see if she will really love him, apparently a lowly employee, for his own sake rather than as a man of considerable wealth. At first Bella Wilfer is disdainful of him. The climactic moment comes when Boffin, urged on by Wegg, denounces “Rokesmith” as a fortune hunter, seeking only the wealth that will one day be Bella’s. At this point Bella is morally “saved” when she realizes she really does love “Rokesmith” for himself. She renounces wealth and chooses, for love’s sake, to live in straitened circumstances by eloping with “Rokesmith” and marrying him.
These two strands of plot do connect, but the third strand of plot is really a separable story. It concerns Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the raffish and semi-criminal “Gaffer” Hexam, who makes his living by salvaging things from the river. It was Gaffer who found “Harmon’s” body in the Thames. Two men have their amorous eyes on Lizzie Hexam. One is the lawyer Eugene Wrayburn. The other is the jealous schoolmaster Bradley Headstone. After various complications (I’ll skip them, if you don’t mind), Bradley Headstone tries – unsuccessfully – to murder Eugene Wrayburn in such a way that it will look as if the criminal Rogue Riderhood was responsible. When this plan misfires, Riderhood turns on Headstone, and the two villainous men die, locked in each other’s arms, as they sink to the bottom of the canal where one has attempted to drown the other. (Drowning occurs in more than one novel by Dickens – Quilp dies thus in The Old Curiosity Shop, as do Compeyson and [more-or-less] Magwitch in Great Expectations and Steerforth in David Copperfield.)
So to the resolution of all three strands of the plot. Wegg at last makes his move against Boffin, but it is a damp squib. By this stage “Rokesmith” (Harmon) is fully satisfied with Bella’s virtue as a wife and the mother of their small baby. It turns out that the Boffins knew all along who “Rokesmith” was and they merely pretended to be mean, miserly and scornful to further test Bella’s moral virtue against the temptations of money. Wegg’s plots fall through when his alternative will proves useless. SO – Wegg retires cursing. John Harmon and Bella are now happily married and have a fortune, as do the nice Boffins. The lawyer Eugene Wrayburn marries Lizzie Hexam. And Rogue Riderhood, Bradley Headstone and Gaffer Hexam are all conveniently dead.
And looking at this summary, accurate though it is, I realize that I have done what one often does when attempting to précis long, serially-written Victorian novels (like, for example, Thackeray’s The Newcomes). I have left out some of the novel’s most interesting characters because they are not necessary to the central plots. In Our Mutual Friend there is in effect a fourth plotline, poorly integrated with the rest, concerning the extortionate money-lender “Fascination” Fledgeby, ruining high society figures. It is through Fledgeby that we are introduced to the Veneerings, whom Dickens satirises something rotten as the type of snobbish, social-climbing parvenus; and to the self-satisfied, narrow-minded, middle-class Mr Podsnap, who makes snap judgments about everything. The only conscientious and sympathetic person we encounter in the more affluent classes is Mr Tremlow. The Fledgeby plot also introduces us to Riah, a gentle and generous Jewish money-lender (whom, after complaints from Jewish friends about the villainous Fagin in Oliver Twist, Dickens deliberately created to be a sympathetic Jewish character.) There is also the pathetic “Jenny Wren” who looks after her drunken father as if he were a dependent naughty child.
Plot summaries – even ones as extensive as you have just read – are of course no way to judge the worth of a novel. Nearly all Dickens’ novels have a large cast, complex plots and subplots, and characters who are introduced elaborately only to vanish without advancing the story in any way. All of these things are found in Our Mutual Friend, and because they are of themselves part of the Dickens phenomenon, they are not the reason I call this almost a case study in how a great writer can go wrong.
What does strike me in this novel is how there are so many false starts – so many interesting paths that are not pursued. Many scholars have strained to show that Dickens did plan his novels in advance, and did not merely improvise his plots as he went along, from serial-number to serial-number. Even if this is true, however, there is far too much evidence of things introduced into Our Mutual Friend merely for momentary sentimental effect. I think of the gratuitous introduction of “Little John”, whom the generous Boffins adopt. Within three chapters of entering the novel, he dies pathetically, which seems to be his sole purpose for being in the novel in the first place. He is merely a device to produce a pleasant maudlin feeling in susceptible readers. Or I think of the character of Betty Higden, similarly introduced for a quickly-ensuing death, so that Dickens has a platform from which to denounce the Poor Laws. (Betty Higden, incidentally, is the mother of “Sloppy” who “does the police in different voices” – the phrase that so interested T.S.Eliot).
All the time I was re-reading Our Mutual Friend, I was mentally comparing it with the great – and far more tightly-structured – novel which preceded it in the Dickens canon, Great Expectations. Clearly Dickens’ interests and thematic concerns in Our Mutual Friend are similar to those in the greater novel. There is again the presence of the river. There is again a mysterious and unrevealed benefactor working by stealth (Harmon to the Boffins here; Magwitch to Pip there). There is again Dickens’ rejecting the notion of class distinctions as determinants of moral character. Late in Our Mutual Friend, high society sneers at the middle-class lawyer Eugene Wrayburn’s marrying the low-born Lizzie Hexam. The sympathetic Tremlow steps in to defend the idea of a gentleman as one who does what is morally right rather than as one possessing wealth – which is very much the lesson Pip learns in Great Expectations. Bella Wilfer (the ward of the wealthy Boffins) is very much like a more benign version of Estella (the ward of the wealthy Miss Havisham), but with a touch of patient Griselda thrown in. She has been brought into high society but, unlike Estella, she is not corrupted by it. (Biographers now all note that Estella and Bella, with their similar names, are both in some sense portraits of Ellen Ternan, the young actress who was Dickens’ mistress at this time.)
So comparisons can be drawn between a very great novel and this one, but there is still a major problem that places Our Mutual Friend in a lower rank. It is the screeching illogic of its development. Coincidences (the fortuitous linking of the destinies of otherwise unconnected characters…) are one thing. They work handsomely enough in Great Expectations (Pip just happens to be sent to play with the little girl who just happens to be the daughter of the convict he helped….). But then Great Expectations is told in the first person, and its surprise revelations are credible in that they are filtered through the limited consciousness of Pip. In Our Mutual Friend, by contrast, Dickens’ omniscient third-person narration seems merely to be withholding things from us wilfully.
He cheats blatantly.
Cheerful, altruistic Mr Boffin’s sudden transformation into a nasty and carping miser is too abrupt for belief. But then, it is much later explained, he was only playing at this role in order to test Bella and others; and he already knew the truth about Wegg and Harmon. Not very satisfactory dramatically, but at least it has some sort of logic. Unfortunately, it also makes complete nonsense of the scenes in which we have been led to believe that he was quaking in fear at the hold Wegg supposedly had over him. In retrospect, they are a cheap conjuring trick – neither believable nor dramatic as psychological development. (Apparently G.K.Chesterton argued that Dickens originally intended Boffin to be genuinely corrupted by his inherited wealth and to find redemption slowly; but the pressures of serial writing forced Dickens to improvise the existing plot. Alas! We have to judge the book that was actually written – not the one that might have been projected.)
In addition, the revelation of “Rokesmith’s” identity about halfway through the novel deprives Wegg’s schemes of any real suspense. We know in advance that they will be defeated.
It was sometime in the mid-twentieth century that literary critics began to interpret Dickens as a great imaginative “poet”, whose works had to be read in terms of dominant symbolism. So Bleak House was read in terms of its great opening image of fog, symbolic of the obfuscations and delay of the law about which the plot turns. And Little Dorrit was read in terms of its central image of the debtors’ prison, paradigm of an imprisoning society. Similarly, Our Mutual Friend could be read symbolically in terms of its opening scene set on the river. It is a great opening scene, one of the best Dickens wrote, with Lizzie Hexam and her father Gaffer rowing on a darkening evening between Southwark Bridge and London Bridge. It is tempting to see this as some sort of image of the river of life and the strange (or unsavoury) things that it throws up. This image is so potent that I have noticed a twilit or moonlit river scene often features on the cover of recent paperback editions of the novel.
Now there certainly are symbolic images in this novel – Boffin’s “dust”-heaps (“dust” being a Victorian euphemism for rubbish, mud and filth of all sorts), connecting wealth with sordor; the “Harmony Jail” of John Harmon’s father, suggesting the imprisoning nature of wealth; and the river. But the actual experience of reading the novel is quite different from a matter of pursuing poetic images, whatever their intention may be. We are caught up in the plot-spinning of an absurd plot. We are presented with characters who are stand-alone shafts of acute social satire for the few pages they inhabit (the Veneerings; Podsnap; Lizzie’s brother Charley Hexam), but who are not fully integrated into the story. And we are faced with psychological untruths – the absurd transformations of Boffin and the sickly image of Bella Wilfer’s married bliss.
In the end, Our Mutual Friend seems to me a novel that lacks the gusto of the early Dickens and the psychological truth
Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering why I have been so hard on this novel, which is esteemed highly in some quarters. The answer is - disappointment. Of all the women characters whom Dickens created, Lizzie Hexam seems to me the most attractive – a strong-willed young woman who is able to defy her criminal father over the way he makes a living, and who clearly makes her own plans. Dickens finally gives her wedding bells as a reward, which might offend some modern women readers; but at least he shows a middle-class character fully allying himself with this working-class woman. I am aware that this character has been criticised as being improbable and superficially-drawn. We never get to hear Lizzie Hexam’s thoughts. She is seen from the outside only. She speaks in standard English rather than the demotic tongue she might be expected to speak after growing up in the lower depths. She develops at the whim of the plot. But when all this is said, she is still a hardy young woman with a will and a brain and admirable physical strength.
It therefore disappoints me that this fine and spirited character does not inhabit a better novel. Draw a rough comparison – it’s like the delightful Beatrice and Benedick inhabiting one of Shakespeare’s less accomplished comedies.
Our Mutual Friend is not worthy of Lizzie Hexam.