This is just the kind of semi-absurd competition I like. After all, could two classic authors be more different in style, subject, or intent? The sedate Miss Austen and the prolific Mr. Dickens would hardly engage in a smackdown. But it's kind of fun to imagine the pair facing off. Would they remove their kid gloves?
Rebecca Reid at The Classics Circuit came up with this idea, and it seemed like the perfect occasion to dive into one Dickens novel I've been meaning to read: Our Mutual Friend.
I chose the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, and I'm finding the excellent notes to be very useful. I also like the fact that this edition includes the original illustrations by Marcus Stone from the 1865 two-volume edition published by Chapman and Hall. The illustrations are helpful in comprehending some of the period details. There is also a lengthy introduction to Our Mutual Friend, but I prefer to read introductions after I finish a book, not before.
Our Mutual Friend begins in darkness and death. A young girl and her father row in deepest night on the Thames. They are dragging something unspeakable: a dead body, which the father has already relieved of his worldly goods, on the theory that a dead man can't own property. In true Dickensian tradition, there is a fortune attached to the dead man, a great deal of poverty, greed, social climbing, and social satire. Even though I am less than halfway through the novel, I can see the way the pieces of the plot are going to fit together: the dead body (thought to be the heir of a fortune made in "dust") is almost certainly not really the heir. And the mysterious young lodger at the Wilfer home may be there not just by coincidence. And the somewhat obnoxious but really very pretty Bella Wilfer may or may not redeem herself by the end of the novel.
Our Mutual Friend gives the reader everything at which Dickens excelled--and some at which Dickens perhaps went a bit too far. If you are at all put off by caricature, then Dickens may grate on you at times. He had a curious knack for blending caricature and character in a way that I find immensely entertaining. Compared to contemporary novelists, Dickens is verbose, almost hysterically so. The details add up--sometimes extraneously. A chapter early in the book set at the home of the Veneerings (rather shallow people) is so filled with satirical comments and contemporary allusions that most modern readers will resort to the end notes many, many times. And if you aren't immersed in Victorian trivia or a Victorian scholar, it may sometimes be simply confusing. But I advise the reader to persevere, because Dickens has an inimitable ability to evince the reader's sympathies. His characters, the good ones, will have you fretting on their behalf (Boffin, the "Golden Dustman" is too good for his own good, and is sure to come to grief). His characters, the bad ones, are such scoundrels they nearly defy belief--yet you will believe in them.
Dickens has the little details that delight, as in this description of a school mistress and her house:
That is Dickens: even the smallest details are precise and add to the reader's understanding of the character. Dickens gets the big picture too: only Dickens could come up with a fortune made in dust.It came out in Miss Peecher the schoolmistress, watering the flowers in the little dusty bit of garden attached to her small official residence, with little windows like the eyes in needles, and little doors like the covers of school books.
Reading an eight-hundred page novel in the age of twitter and texting can be a challenge. And yes, at times Dickens just seems wordy. But what strikes me, in reading Our Mutual Friend is how perfectly apropos this novel is. As our society becomes more and more characterized by a gaping divide between the very rich and the rest of us, as politicians decide how little or how much we ought to do for the poor, the elderly, and the young, Dickens is timely. Dickens exposes behavior and motives not at all different from what we witness in our daily life; his characters are as real and as relevant as any in contemporary fiction, and the greed, social climbing, and selfishness that Dickens satirizes in Our Mutual Friend can be seen in the newspaper, the blogosphere, and the cable news networks.
I wish I could give a full review of Our Mutual Friend, but I am deep in the middle of the novel. When I finish the novel I will have a follow-up post. In the boxing ring, I think Austen and Dickens are both champions. They are different weight classes, and their reach is not the same (Austen had drawing room reach, while Dickens extended the length of London at least). I love the work of each, so for this match I think it's a split decision.
Have you read this Dickens novel, or any others? Can you take on this eight-hundred page champion?