Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Our Mutual Friend

Since I first read it in 1996, Our Mutual Friend (1865) has been my favorite Dickens novel. Others, I'll acknowledge, are closer to perfection--on each re-reading, Great Expectations seems more impressive--but what I remember from my first encounter with Our Mutual Friend, which came at the end of a few months of intense reading of Dickens, is that it felt like a simultaneous broadening and deepening of Dickens's vision. The comedy was still there, and it still lay side-by-side with social critique, but a new note of seriousness of character and emotion also seemed to make itself heard. More impressive, the vast divide between primary and secondary characters that had characterized all of Dickens's work, which saw secondary characters reduced to caricature, change unavailable to them, was beginning to erode. At its best, Our Mutual Friend is a novel that makes you wish that Dickens had lived longer, had been healthier, had been able to follow it up with something more than that fragment of Drood. There was more to be found in Dickens's gift, it reveals, and the cruelty of that revelation is nigh infinite.

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!


  1. Holy cow, what great writing. I have already forgotten those passages. The whole book is written like that; it's overwhelming.

  2. I know! And it's all over his books! I think Dickens is so familiar to us in broad outline--and, to be fair, his actual flaws so glaring--that we forget just how amazing his prose, and the mind that animates it, can be on a sentence by sentence, scene by scene basis. When you then remember the pace at which he was working, and that most of his best descriptions really are these sort of essentially throwaway bits, it's mind-blowing.