Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Our Mutual Friend: My Love Affair with a Book
edited with an introduction and notes by Adrian Poole
illustrations by Marcus Stone
Since this year is the bicentennial of the birth of Dickens, I thought I would finally finish this book about which I had heard and read so much. I read Our Mutual Friend very slowly--so slowly, in fact, that when I was about two hundred pages in I put the book aside and later had to start all over again. I'm used to devouring books in a few sittings, but in this case I'm glad that Our Mutual Friend was something of a literary companion to my life for so long (literally months).This might be my new favorite book (oh Middlemarch, I can't cast you aside like that)....
Obviously I like books with panoramic plots, a large cast of characters, and a certain amount of romantic intrigue. And I like books that have a moral dilemma at the core, which Our Mutual Friend does. The novel was first published in 1865, and it is the last novel Dickens completed before his death. I think it is the best of all his work that I've read so far, and a deep and important book.
The novel begins on the river Thames, and the river runs through this book, often carrying death. As his daughter Lizzie rows (shrinking as far as she can from their grisly cargo), Gaffer Hexam pulls a body from the water. This is Gaffer's vocation: relieving corpses of their worldly goods, since by Gaffer's logic the dead can't own property. This particular corpse sets the plot of Our Mutual Friend into motion. The body is identified as John Harmon, heir to his father's fortune (a fortune made from refuse, trash, or "dust").
Because of John Harmon's death, the inheritance falls to Mr. Boffin, now the the "golden dustman." Also affected by Harmon's death is Bella Wilfer, a lovely but spoiled and mercenary young woman who was, by order of the will, meant to marry John Harmon. Bella's family is one of Dickens's more entertaining inventions: Mrs. Wilfer is hilarious in her insufferable suffering, as is Lavinia in her attempts at a snooty dignity. The Wilfers live in a state of near poverty, which Bella finds humiliating. Soon she is lifted from her meager circumstances and virtually adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, as pure and innocent a pair as can be imagined. They mean to make up to Bella for the loss of future husband and fortune, and soon Bella is entwined in the newly enriched life of the Boffins.
Meanwhile, two lawyers are brought into the story by way of Harmon's demise, and one of them seems to fall for Lizzie Hexam. But can the dissolute and lazy Eugene Wrayburn be trusted not to prey upon Lizzie and destroy her? There are two parallel romances in Our Mutual Friend, and for a long time neither one seems to be going anywhere good. Complication ensues when the low-born schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, is introduced to both Lizzie and Eugene. Headstone conceives of a passionate obsession with each at roughly the same time: he cultivates a passionate longing for Lizzie, and an equally passionate hatred for Eugene.
The character of Bradley Headstone is one of the most memorable ever created by Dickens. There is a certain morose splendor in the man's wretchedness, and his descent into a hell created by his own thwarted longings is bonechilling, enthralling, and horrifying.'
As the Boffins and Bella Wilfer set up their household in a home more suited to their new status, John Rokesmith, a young man of mysterious origins, joins the household as Mr. Boffin's confidential secretary. Rokesmith clearly has a romantic interest in Bella, but she perceives him as beneath her new social status, and rebuffs him somewhat cruelly. However, as she continues to observe the quietly dignified secretary, Bella begins to feel drawn toward him--a feeling she fights at every turn.
Our Mutual Friend is a discourse on the corrupting influence of money and the redemptive influence of love. The alteration in Mr. Boffin is absolutely gripping. And, this being Dickens, there are several parallel plots that illustrate the shallowness of a social-climbing class that lives beyond its means and seeks fresh prey at every dinner party. The Podsnaps and the Veneerings epitomize the foolish behavior of the aspiring middle class, and the Lammles are the worst case scenario of the marriage market in Victorian London.
Since there are two parallel romances in Our Mutual Friend, I'm going to use this book to fulfill the Classic Romance selection for the Back to the Classics 2012 Challenge. In all honesty, I could almost as easily call this a crime novel, since there is a shadowy side to this novel. But the novel does close on a note of romance fulfilled, and that's good enough for me. And this year, I fell in love with this book, and that's a kind of romance too.