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.