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our mutual friend

15 july 2021

Our Mutual Friend begins by asking us to believe that you can earn a living by fishing dead bodies out of the Thames. It goes on to ask us to believe that a mountain of garbage can constitute a great fortune. Of course stranger things have made money. But in Charles Dickens' last finished novel, the dust-to-gold dynamic seems wholly figurative even as Dickens maddeningly literalizes it. In the England he builds, fortunes are the debris of society. Mountains of wealth lie like beached dead things, stifling us, made up of junk that nobody wants anymore if they ever did, yet somehow fabulously valuable.

I re-read Our Mutual Friend

… by coincidence just as I read a remark by Italo Calvino: that classics are books you always claim to be re-reading, even the first time through. Though in this case I really had read Our Mutual Friend twice before – and for all Calvino's self-deprecation, Dickens was among his favorite authors to re-read. And Calvino too was struck by the ominous, emblematic opening of Our Mutual Friend.

I also re-read Our Mutual Friend after reading Claire Tomalin's marvelous Invisible Woman. Tomalin discusses Dickens' relationship with Nelly Ternan, the closeting of that relationship while he lived, and Nelly's subsequent erasure from discussions of Dickens for nearly a century. Since the re-emergence of the Ternan story, readers have wanted to find traces of Nelly's personality in his later works, including Our Mutual Friend (the novel appeared in 1864-65, while he was living at intervals with Nelly in various discreet dwellings that he provided for her).

Tomalin doesn't see Nelly behind either of Our Mutual Friend's young heroines, Lizzie Hexam or Bella Wilfer. In part, this is because both characters are relentlessly colorless, and one doubts Nelly Ternan was. At best, Bella has a single character note – her self-acknowledged selfishness – and that doesn't even ring true, because she's immedately and relentlessly nice to everybody.

But it strikes me that Dickens may have written himself more into the men who desire and pursue the women. This is probably no original observation, but with Tomalin's book fresh in mind, it's a perspective that kept asserting itself as I read Dickens'.

Both Lizzie Hexam and Bella Wilfer are at the center of romantic triangles. Lizzie, daughter of the awful Gaffer who pulls corpses from the Thames, finds two men infatuated with her. She returns the infatuation of Eugene Wrayburn, a feckless barrister who mostly keeps his distance. Social considerations prevent Eugene from proposing marriage to the low-born Lizzie, and his ingrained torpor prevents him from seducing her. Eugene is distinctly not a nice guy. He is insolent, arrogant, lecherous insofar as any Dickens character gets to be – and anti-Semitic. And for all his apathy he can't help cruelly taunting his rival Bradley Headstone.

Bradley is even more infatuated with Lizzie than Eugene is, but for Bradley desire is sheer poison. Bradley Headstone doesn't even merge Eros into Thanatos – to want Lizzie at all is Thanatos itself. Sex means wanting to kill her admirer, to kill her if need be, to kill others as collateral damage and ultimately, in effect, to kill himself.

Could something like the emotions that afflict Eugene and Bradley have welled up in Charles Dickens when he became infatuated with Nelly Ternan? "Do you feel like a dark combination of traitor and pickpocket when you look at that girl?" Eugene asks his friend Mortimer Lightwood (location 2621). Eugene "was not of her station, and to marry her was not in his mind," explains Lizzie's friend Riah (location 6934). Nelly was of Dickens' station in the sense that both were entertainers; neither was genteel except insofar as money could make them so. But Dickens was married, and had spent a career cheerfully preaching domesticity, monogamy, and Duty. To divorce and marry Nelly was out of the question. "Two establishments," as Lady Tippins deftly says "to her fan" in Our Mutual Friend (location 10032), was the answer: but it must have made Dickens feel like traitor and pickpocket combined.

Bella Wilfer is the bright side of the story but despite chipper Dickensian touches like her eventual bubbly domesticity and her maternal instincts, her half of the story is tinged with awkwardness too. Bella is also the hinge of a love triangle, but its other corners are the same man: John Harmon, now presumed dead, whom a crazy bequest insisted she marry though he was a stranger to her – and John Rokesmith, who is John Harmon under an assumed name, not dead at all, checking out his own extended funeral to see how well people liked him. Mainly to see if Bella will like him enough to marry him without any bequest at all.

Bella's character note is "mercenary," but somehow she falls for the first poor man who proposes to her, because he's nice. But nice as John Rokesmith is, he is also manipulative and scheming; like Eugene Wrayburn, he orchestrates the care and keeping of the woman he's intent on having, and in so doing turns Bella, the scornful "boofer lady," into a paragon of secluded suburban virtue. (Before revealing himself as the immensely wealthy John Harmon and making Bella's mercenary dreams come true in exponential fashion.) This is the fantasy of a powerful man creating, cloistering, and transforming the raw material of young femininity by secret means, and it may echo how Dickens approached his relationship with Ternan.

Even Dickens' greatest novels show his flaws, and Our Mutual Friend has some among its many strengths. The plot hinges on the title character, Harmon/Rokesmith, who about halfway through has to pause for a long self-explanation of the bizarre illogical contingencies that have gotten him into this mess. Though I suppose being in a complete mess, only partially of one's own devising, is a good description of life itself and qualifies as a suitable basis for a novel.

Other characters are even less coherent. Mrs. Wilfer seems to change character notes between appearances before settling into exaggeratedly aggrieved longsuffering. The villain Fledgeby's confident malice is at odds with his extreme diffidence in the face of Georgiana Podsnap.

But certain scenes, like Rumty Wilfer's impromptu dinner with his daughter Bella, "the lovely woman," are indelible. And other characters are among Dickens' best: George Sampson, Mr. Venus, Silas Wegg, Sloppy, Twemlow, the Veneerings. Podsnap in particular, who appears only briefly and doesn't play much role in the plot, gave his name to a complex of ideas that is still very much alive in the era of Brexit and its Trumpist echoes. Nationalist, parochial, sexist, obsessed with appearance and rhetoric, floridly but only facially concerned with morals and standards, ascribing his selfish attitudes to his concern for the women he treats as empty extensions of himself: Podsnap's character note is initially a "fatal freshness" but he seems never to have faded, and is as green in the 2020s as he's ever been.

Podsnap's daughter Georgiana

had therefore been restricted to companionship with not very congenial older persons, and with massive furniture. Miss Podsnap's early views of life being principally derived from the reflections of it in her father's boots, and in the walnut and rosewood tables of the dim drawing-rooms, and in their swarthy giants of looking-glasses, were of a sombre cast. (location 2101)
At the Podsnaps', "all the big silver spoons and forks widened the mouths of the company expressly for the purpose of thrusting the sentiment down their throats with every morsel they ate" (location 2121). The condensation of Podsnappery into the family's ponderous Victorian furnishings is one of the great imaginative passages of Western fiction.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. 1865. Kindle edition.