I'm now 200 pages into a re-read of Our Mutual Friend, the first time I've returned to it in any form other than recollection since that first encounter. And thus far I've been pleased to find my memories of its quality confirmed. If anything, I'm more impressed--I'm more attentive to the extravagant joys of Dickens's animistic vision of the world. Here, for example, is a description of a celebratory dinner that Dickens renders vital and absurd:
This was a neat and happy turn in the Wilfer household, where a monotonous appearance of Dutch-cheese at ten o'clock in the evening had been rather frequently commented on by the dimpled shoulders of Miss Bella. Indeed, the modest Dutchman himself seemed conscious of his want of variety, and generally came before the family in a state of apologetic perspiration. After some discussion on the relative merits of veal-cutlet, sweetbread, and lobster, a decision was pronounced in favour of veal-cutlet. Mrs Wilfer then solemnly divested herself of her handkerchief and gloves, as a preliminary sacrifice to preparing the frying-pan, and R. W. himself went out to purchase the viand. He soon returned breading the same in a fresh cabbage-leaf, where it coyly embraced a rasher of ham. Melodious sounds were not long in rising from the frying-pan on the fire, or in seeming, as the firelight danced in the mellow halls of a couple of full bottles on the table, to play appropriate dance-music.Or take this account of a Thames-side pub:
The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, already mentioned as a tavern of a dropsical appearance, had long settled down in to a state of hale infirmity. In its whole constitution it had not a straight floor, and hardly a straight line, but it had outlasted, and clearly would yet outlast, many a batter-trimmed building, many a sprucer public-house. Externally, it was a narrow lopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped une upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the whole house inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.The joy of these descriptions comes from their complete dispensability: these are a throwaway passages, but Dickens invests them, and the inanimate objects they describe, with so much life that we can't help but smile. "Inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof"!
I'm not far enough into the novel this time to properly test my memory of the blurring of primary and secondary characters, but the opening, which with each new chapter introduces a new group of characters in a new location, with very little in the way of overtly explained connections among them, makes me think it's accurate. Franco Moretti, in Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1998), a book I've consulted regularly for years now, draws fascinating maps of the locations of the first eight installments--approximately 200 pages--of Our Mutual Friend. Pointing to the maps, Moretti writes,
Look at the rhythm of this narrative pattern: with every new installment, always one or two new spaces; and then, unlike Lost Illusions, a plot that doesn't move in an orderly way from one space to the next, but jumps--and then jumps again: from the Thames to the West End, to Limehouse, to Holloway, to Wegg's lonely street corner . . . Fantastic idea: the city--the generalized spatial proximity unique to the city--as a genuine enigma: a "mosaic of worlds," yes, but whose tiles have been randomly scattered.In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens brought to new heights his intuitive understanding of the city as a place of unexpected connections--and in doing so he changed the topography of his novelistic imagination as well, shaking up our (and his) casual separation of his characters into foreground and background, heroes and comic relief. It's an impressive growth in both sensibility and capability, and if memory serves, it's enough to make up for--and even to some extent to justify--the book's relatively creaky plot.
There's plenty more to write and think about Our Mutual Friend--such as the fact that it was poorly received by critics at the time, including Henry James, who, in an utterly fascinating review for the Nation called it "poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion"--and I expect that's where this blog will spend the next several days. I'm on page 225--catch up and join me!