Monday, 5 October 2015

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864-5)

Originally Written in 2008

In 1865, Charles Dickens finished Our Mutual Friend, his last completed work. Naturally, he never intended for this to represent his final words and thoughts - it's quite possibly that he had more books planned even beyond his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And so it's best to focus on this as an innovative and gripping story, as one that sees a shift to a subtle and profound psychological exploration of some of its main characters.

Our Mutual Friend gets off to a flying start as a father and daughter row across the murky Thames one night - a haunting, definitive image, and one you can well imagine was Dickens' vivid starting-point for the plot. I can't exactly say that after such a great opening everything goes wrong, but you do feel the plot and tone fraying slightly for the next 80 pages or so. As he gets more into the swing of things, though, Dickens rectifies this and quickly crafts a story on par with the upper end of previous offerings.

The description - and in particular, the imagery - in this novel are second to none. As I have said, the opening chapter is especially strong in establishing the river Thames itself as a haunting, natural, elemental force, almost as though it is one of the characters of the book, but it doesn't stop there. Our Mutual Friend is possibly the only Dickens novel with the action set entirely in London, and never far from the river Thames. The river forms a crucial part of the story - many scenes are set on fishing boats, embankments, and docks; characters loathe or marvel at the river and discuss it frequently; and in the 700-odd pages of this novel a fair number of folk get drowned or near-drowned. It is as if the Thames either cleanses or curses - some die, others come back as changed and renewed.

After the comparative simplicity of the past two books, it's enthralling to be back in a sprawling and lengthy tale (the kind of fully developed world where you often have to leaf back a couple of hundred pages to remind yourself who MRF is). There is no shortage of characters in Our Mutual Friend, certainly, but the proportion of central figures who are allowed a greater degree of psychological depth is more impressive here than it has been before. Stephen Gill, editor of the Penguin edition, detects a new tone in Dickens' style, a shift towards something which was also perhaps beginning to emerge in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and would have been more explored had he not died in mid-1870. Yes, it is the Wrayburn and Headstone sections which most impress, as the two come to blows over the charming Lizzie Hexam. Dickens' portrayal of them has a certain psychological resonance that is lacking elsewhere. They rarely meet, and thus this tension often remains unspoken, but that only has the effect of heightening it. Wrayburn's eventual redemption is beautifully handled, and the terrifying scene in which the desperate Headstone drags Riderhood into the river is one of my all-time favourites.

As with many of Dickens' later works, money plays a very important role and, like the river Thames, deserves a little discussion of its own. The many characters' attempts/successes/failures/desires regarding money fill the novel quite neatly and make for a running theme as to the decadence and corruption it can bring. The initial 'murder' that sparks off the action was committed over a discrepancy in the will of John Harmon; many of the characters are constantly trying to out-swindle one another; Wegg, Bella, Mr Boffin and others are all out for money in one way or another, and while some do good with the capital entrusted to them, others do not. The social climbers such as the Veneerings and the Podsnaps are roundly skewered by Dickens' acid wit, but as in Bleak House there's a broad social canvas on which Dickens paints, going right down to 'Fascination' Fledgeby, one of Dickens' nastiest piece of works simply because he is such a worthlessly petty, small-time crook. And then, of course, there's the smart inversion in the middle of all this that the traditionally 19th century moneylending figure, Riah, the first Jew in a Dickens novel since Fagin in Oliver Twist, is no cartoonish villain but actually a thoroughly decent and sympathetic man.

The Boffins are mixed in terms of how well they work; I didn't enjoy Mr Boffin's wackiness throughout the earlier part of the novel, and find him much more interesting when he becomes obsessed with misers. Regrettably, this latter character development is later and rather unconvincingly revealed to be a charade. Silas Wegg (he of the wooden leg) is another memorable scallywag, and enlivens up the Boffin sections considerably.

The bottom line: Dickens still has it.

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