Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Finds among the faults

For all the praise I've given Our Mutual Friend in the past week, there's no denying that some aspects of it are weak. While John Lucas in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels argues convincingly that the flatness of Dickens's caricature of social climbers in the novel is intentional--that "they are his marvellously intelligent and imaginative way of exploring the cost of class consciousness in a society which can conceive of itself no other way"--that's a second-order response, generated by multiple readings and long engagement with the book. Our first acquaintance with the interpolated set-pieces that introduce the mannered, empty voice of society is much more likely to fall in line with this anonymous writer from the Saturday Review of November 11, 1865:
In Our Mutual Friend . . . we find only caricatures, but they are caricatures without either of Mr DIckens's characteristic excellences. They are not very witty or humourous, and we are unable to recognise their truth and purpose. Nothing, for instance, can be more dismal in the way of parody or satire than the episode of the Veneerings and their friends. Where is either the humour or the truth of caricature? The execution is coarse and clumsy, and the whole picture is redolent of ill-temper and fractiousness. This spoils it. A good caricaturist enjoys his work, however angry he may be against the object of it. Mr Dickens, in this case, seems to screech with ill-will and bitterness.
Though it's hard to banish suspicions of political disagreements underlying that review, even as Dickens's analysis of the fundamental emptiness of much society rings true a century and a half later, so does the reviewer's analysis--there is none of the glee of invention here that animates Dickens's best grotesques and villains.

Even so, there are moments of genius, like the introduction of the ready man, Mr. Twemlow:
There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James's, when not in use, to whom the Veneerings were a source of blind confusion. The name of this article was Twemlow. Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses might be said to represent the dining-table in its normal state. Mr and Mrs Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves on him, or added guests to him. Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half a dozen leaves; sometimes, of Twemlow and a dozen leaves; sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves.

Another of my favorite parts comes amidst one of the novel's greatest failures, the conversion of Mr. Boffin, who has unexpectedly come into wealth, from a kindly man to a miser. Rather than having us gradually notice the change, Dickens simply has a character announce it--as if he himself has just thought of the possibility. But one of the ways that Boffin expresses his newfound miserliness is so amusing that it redeems the whole character arc: he starts obsessively buying and reading books about historical misers.
Morning after morning they roamed about the town together, pursuing their singular research. Miserly literature not being abundant, the proportion of failures to successes may have been as a hundred to one; still Mr Boffin, never wearied, remained as avaricious for misers as he had been at the first onset.
He hands a bundle of these volumes to one of his assistants, saying,
Don't drop that one under your arm. It's Dancer. Him and his sister made pies of a dead sheep they found when they were about a walking.
He even finds a whole book--a real one, which Dickens himself owned, called Lives and Anecdotes of Misers; or, the Passion of Avarice Displayed. His assistant, Silas, reads from the table of contents:
I should say they must be pretty well all here, sir; here's a large assortment, sir; my eye catches John Overs, sir, John Little, sir, Dick Jarrel, John Elwes, the Reverend Mr Jones of Blewbury, Vulture Hopkins, Daniel Dancer--"

"Give us Dancer, Wegg," said Mr Boffin.

With another stare at his comrade, Silas sought and found the place.

"Page a hundred and nine, Mr Boffin. Chapter eight. Contents of chapter, 'His birth and estate. his garments and outward appearance. Miss Dancer and her feminine graces. The miser's Mansion. The finding of a treasure. The story of thee mutton Pies. A miser's Idea of Death. Bob, the Miser's cur. Griffiths and his Master. How to turn a penny. A substitute for a Fire. The advantages of keeping a Snuff-box. The Miser dies without a Shirt. The treasure of a Dunghill.'"
Dancer, we learn, did without a fire by sitting on his dinner to warm it, only one of many manifestations of his madness.

This is one of the reasons Dickens has lasted: even when he's at his worst, even when there are large problems within a scene or a novel, there are guaranteed to be enough jewels--to take a metaphorical cue from the misers--hidden in there to make the reading worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. I thought that the emptiness of the Veneerings, the Podsnaps and the other Society folks was all part of Dickens' characterization. And with a chapter as brilliant and funny as the one about the "pocket breeches," little things like character depth don't seem to matter.