Sunday, July 22, 2018

Our Mutual Friend

Of the 15 novels of Charles Dickens, I have now read 12 of them at least once. With Our Mutual Friend now in the books, so to speak, I only have Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood left to read for the first time, although my reread list is long. I may read Great Expectations next...just because!

I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend immensely, and found it quite different from the others that I have recently read. I thought the plot extremely interesting, and the themes of identity, rebirth, resurrection, and trial by water to be fascinating, giving the novel a richly layered canvas. I know the conventional lit crit  on the novel focuses on Dickens lambasting London society for being greedy, money grubbers, which he does, but I found the rebirth angle stronger.

The basic idea is that John Harmon's father dies, leaving his son his entire estate, with some very severe conditions. I can't talk about the main plot any more than that without giving away the whole thing as Our Mutual Friend, aka the man from somewhere, takes on a few different guises as the plot unfolds.

Dickens really goes macabre with this novel, which makes it absolutely delightful in a pretty grotesque way. The Harmon fortune stems from Harmon senior investing in dust--he sifts through debris, and collects stuff that he finds to sell, leaving behind a fortune as well as mountains of dust. As a neat counterpoint to mining dust for treasure, the Hexam family makes a subsistence living from dredging the Thames at night, mostly pulling out bodies of suicides and murders, and emptying their pockets before turning them over to the authorities. The London of Our Mutual Friend is definitely not a pleasant place.

I really enjoyed comparing the various father/daughter combinations.

  • Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam - Gaffer is a rough old riverman, who pulls up bodies, while his beautiful, sweet, loving daughter (typical Dickens heroine) rows him nightly as he searches for booty. Lizzie knows that Gaffer loves her, but he doesn't want her to learn to read for fear she will leave him and he needs her to help him in his work.
  • Bella and R.W. Wilfer - R.W. is a cherubic, sweet, hen-pecked clerk who absolutely dotes on his beautiful, but spoiled daughter, Bella. I found Bella to be such a refreshing heroine--she is selfish and mercenary, but circumstances contrive to teach her how to overcome these characteristics and let her true, lovely nature shine through. Bella teases her father in a loving way, confides in him, scolds him gently, and  they love each other very much.
  • Pleasant and Rogue Riderhood - Rogue is a former partner of Gaffer, and is even rougher than Gaffer. Pleasant is his much abused daughter, who runs a shady pawnshop and specializes in swindling sailors on leave...but she too has her good side, which Dickens allows to triumph over her upbringing. Rogue backhands Pleasant regularly and they are at war most of the time, but she feels she owes him her obedience and fealty.
  • Jenny Wren and Mr. Dolls and Mr. Riah - Jenny is truly one of Dickens most bizarre characters. She is a very young girl, who is lame, looks after her drunken father (whom the narrator refers to as "Mr. Dolls"), whom she calls  her child, and sews dresses for dolls in posh Bond Street to make her meager living. She is quasi adopted by Mr. Riah, whom she calls her fairy godmother, who assumes role of parent to this child who was born old. 
    • Note about Mr. Riah - he is Dickens' apology and answer to the criticism he received for the very anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Mr. Riah is Jewish and is a front for the heartless money-lender, Fledgeby, who takes advantage of the stereotype and makes Riah his scapegoat. I loved Mr. Riah--one of the few gentle and gentlemanly characters in the entire book.
  • Georgiana Podsnap and John Podsnap - really only minor characters but she is sheltered and is very much a pawn of her rich father, who will make a good match for her, regardless of how miserable she will end up. Georgiana is starved for love and affection, and her father hasn't an inkling that she will go off the rails if he doesn't start paying attention to her.
I also absolutely adored the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Boffin - they are sweet, original, and golden in their own way, and are really the guardian angels of the novels. They are caretakers, faithful and true, with a naivete, energy, and zest for life that I absolutely loved.

I have downloaded all six parts of the mini-series from 1998 to watch on my upcoming airplane trips. Hope it's good!

Our Mutual Friend is my 19th century classic for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and it is the first of this summer's Big Book Challenge.


  1. I liked this one too! And Chuzzelwit was ok, but I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed Barnaby Rudge -- I think those two are probably the least-read Dickens novels. I wonder if it's because the titles are so awful? And I still haven't read Edwin Drood. I think the fact that it's unfinished is what has put me off.

    1. Yes, I think Dickens would be hard pressed to find worse names for novels that Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge. Where was his imagination then!

  2. Great review. This is a great one. I think that it does not always get the respect that it deserves. As you point out, the dark references to death really work well within Dickens’s style.

    Your reading of Dickens is impressive. I still have a few more to go.

  3. I admire your clarity about all the relationships among these characters. I found this novel a bit refractory--a tough nut to crack. Parts of it were perfect portraits, as you describe. Of these, Lizzie Hexam and her father were most involving for me. Who could forget those vivid descriptions of their night scavenging runs on the river? Jenny Wren was also peculiarly fascinating. But somehow I was exhausted by all the complicated connections between the other characters. I did stay with it, seeing it through to the end, and found some satisfaction with the romantic conclusion at least.
    I'm currently reading Dombey and Son, just started it, and finding once again the almost alarming abundance of Dickens' powers of observation and expression. He must be nearly the ideal writer for rereading. My reread of Bleak House was one of my most exciting reads ever. I could place only a few writers in the same category of rewarding rereading: George Eliot, Homer (!), Tolstoy, Cervantes, and of course Shakespeare.

    1. You are so right--Dickens is for rereading! Part of why I haven't read the entire Dickens canon is that I keep on rereading my favorites!

      It was a convoluted plot but I found that it all worked.

      Dombey was the most recent read before OMF, and I quite enjoyed it as well.

  4. I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. Nobody does characters like Dickens does!

  5. I need to give this one a try. I love your review of the father-daughter combos. It'll add to my reading when I get to it!

  6. I'm so impressed you've read so much Dickens! I've only read a few and always mean to read more.

  7. Wonderful review. I've only read it once but would love to re-read with the idea of rebirth being a theme throughout. I too loved the Boffins!

    It is comforting to know that Dickens was called out on his Antisemitism in Oliver Twist in his lifetime.

  8. Jane,
    I'm so inspired by your love of Dickens and your persistence in reading so many of his books. I have a copy of Bleak House in the house, and I want to read it, but I see how long it is and I lose heart. This is no way to feel if one is to enjoy a Dickens novel!! So I'm inspired--maybe I can get to it soon.
    And Barnaby Rudge--oh, gosh, I haven't heard of it til now.

  9. You are very astute about Dickens & his novels. I have read about 4 but would like to read more. How did the mini-series compare?

  10. Love this one! I must confess I haven't read the Dickens with the terrible names as titles ;-)