Our Mutual Friend


Nothing–directly–to do with the Regency, but what else is new. We all posted our beach reads a couple of months ago, and although I haven’t been near a beach I have read, actually re-read, one of the books I listed–Our Mutual Friend by Dickens. His last published book, it was published in installments, and I suspect he was pretty much a pantser. The Penguin Classics edition has his chapter by chapter notes, and he takes some astonishing liberties with his plot. He introduces new characters one third of the way through a book already crowded with a cast of dozens. There’s one character who has a long, introspective monologue telling you a key plot point that none of the other characters know, something that made me grit my teeth and mutter “Not fair! No one else could get away with it.” True, because no one else writes like Dickens. No one else breaks the rules with such flair and chutzpah and good humor.


Another “writerly” thing–using setting as characters. This book is haunted by two very strong, atmospheric settings–the river Thames, both a destroyer and a means of rebirth, and the mysterious Dust Heaps that produced a fortune for their owner. What’s in the Dust Heaps? Good question. Secrets and, probably, excrement. It’s possible to go way overboard on Freudian/Marxist interpretations of what OMF is about, so I’ll desist. But one of its themes is about the effect of money–too much, too little–and what it does to people.

But what struck me most about OMF was how much I wanted the female characters to be different. It’s a complex plot, and there are two heroines. One, Bella Wilfer, has a scene that reminded me a little of Anne Elliot’s declaration in Persuasion, where she publicly states that she loves the man she once rejected, even if he no longer cares for her. Anne’s declaration is understood only by Wentworth, and it comes from hard-won self-knowledge and trust in her own feelings. Bella’s is equally impassioned and sincere, but she’s been manipulated into it by a male character, her patron Mr. Boffins (who has inherited the Dust Heaps)–who does it entirely because he cares about her. So she goes from being an infantilized daughter to the wife of another man who then deceives her–in the most playful, charming, kind way–as to the extent of his real wealth.

The other main female character, Lizzie, is interesting because she’s working-class and as sexual a female being as Dickens ever wrote about. How he does it is interesting–by omission, mostly, but it works. She’s pursued by an upper class, wealthy man whose intentions may or may not be honorable–he doesn’t even know himself. You’d think a woman who rowed a boat on the river while her father dredges up corpses could handle this situation–heck, even the genteel Lizzie Bennett could and did. But no, she too has a male mentor, another father figure, who tells her that she isn’t strong enough to withstand the gentleman’s advances, and advises her to flee.

It’s interesting that Jane Austen, with her stalwart, principled heroines, was read as widely as Dickens. So were those other proponents of strong, passionate female characters, the Brontes and George Eliot. Why? Because Dickens delivers. Even a troubling book like OMF has so much–wonderfully named characters, sympathetic and grotesque, and usually both; scenes of melting tenderness and silly comedy–oh goodness, I’m going to say all human life is there, but it’s true. It must have been fifteen years since I read this last, but the good bits are still good. Dickens is the consummate storyteller, the puppeteer pulling the strings of his characters and his readers.

So what’s your favorite Dickens book/tv or movie adaptation?

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