Thursday, 23 May 2013

Review: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

In relative terms, Charles Dickens and I are only newly acquainted. Having avoided him like the plague for a number of years, I finally gave in two summers ago - largely the result of his connections with Knebworth House and my inability to talk with any kind of authority about his life and work. A close friend of Edward Bulwer Lytton, the 19th century best-selling novelist who lived in Knebworth House, Dickens visited the estate on a number of occasions. It is rumoured that it was on Bulwer's advice that Dickens chose to give Great Expectations its controversially happy ending. We are also the proud owners of the cabinet that served as inspiration for the dog kennel described in David Copperfield. To confirm the extent of the friendship between Dickens and Bulwer, I need only tell you that Dickens named one of his children Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (their relationship clearly representing a love that transcends any need to not mentally-scar your son). It was fairly inevitable, then, that I would end up feeling the need to dip into some Dickens, if not only to tease out the reasons for his connection with Knebworth House.

With a courage that I wasn't aware I had, I selected Bleak House as my first introduction to his work. 800 pages later, I was in love. And I haven't looked back since. Unfortunately, Dickens continues to suffer the contempt of many a high-school and university student. Even those of us who claim to be the most tenacious of bibliophiles find ourselves avoiding him, on account of his reputation as a truly difficult read. There is, I think, an idea that Charles Dickens exists for only the most intellectual of readers - the tweed-wearers and pipe smokers, surrounded by dusty tomes and Brobdingnagian bookshelves. But to make this assumption is to miss out on perhaps the richest and most diverse body of literature in existence. Dickens is fundamentally a man of the world - a man who understood people and the impact rendered upon them by their circumstances. His novels are works of observation and the result of a determination to represent the harsh reality of a Victorian society predicated on inequality and industry. There is absolutely no author who captures, as Dickens does, the hardship and heartache suffered by so many as a consequence of class divisions.

Of the Dickens works that I have worked through to-date, none speak more truly to the beauty of Dickens' prose and insight than Our Mutual Friend. Although one of his lesser known works, this novel is a gem that far surpasses the infamous and celebrated works in  both its accessibility and relatablity. The plot is shared among a variety of characters, with their narratives intersecting at numerous points throughout the novel. Our Mutual Friend opens, in classic Dickens style, with a scene on the Thames - as Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie row out to dreg up a body from the river's depths. The body is that of John Harmon, a young man returning to London to claim an inheritance and marry the beautiful, but superficial, Bella Wilfer. The unravelling of the mystery of Harmon's murder is Our Mutual Friend's central plot line, around which the stories of each of the central characters eventually converge. The novel also follows the fantastically hilarious and larger-than-life Mr and Mrs Boffin, rising through society after inheriting the substantial fortune of a misanthropic miser. Attempting to put their new riches to good use, they take the young Bella Wilfer under their wing, and simultaneously recruit a Mr. Rokesmith as personal secretary to manage their affairs. The inevitable love story proceeds as Rokesmith falls for Bella, who refuses to acknowledge his declarations due to the perceived inferiority of his status. 

Our Mutual Friend is undoubtedly a book with which you must be fully engaged. The number of plot lines and characters operating within its pages are a recipe for confusion if you fail to read with adequate attention. But given the perception of Dickens' prose as uninviting and headache-inducing, Our Mutual Friend is not a difficult read. Much of this is owed to the wonderful and vivacious characters that Dickens presents to his readers. From the kindly and misguided Boffins, to the sinister schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, these are characters that are consistently engaging and always entertaining. None more so than the wooden-legged Silas Wegg, a ballad-singer set on cheating the Boffins out of their new-found wealth:

"Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman's rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected - if his development received no untimely check - to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months."

Dickens has a way with descriptive prose that I have yet to see matched in the works of any other author. He writes always to the advantage of his readers, with characters and settings depicted in a manner that requires no efforts of visualisation. These are characters that come to you fully-formed, detailed with utter precision and the most effective of metaphors. While tending towards a dearth of description (with some descriptive, scene-setting paragraphs running for pages), nothing that Dickens puts into his work is arbitrary. Rather, it reflects a knowledge of his settings and an impressive attention to character and plot development.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Our Mutual Friend, other than its fantastic characters, is the underlying social narrative at work. This novel, more than any of Dickens' others, is used as a stage from which the author launches a condemnation of the frivolity and excess of the upper classes. Depicted through the greed of the Lammles and the ignorance of the Podsnaps and Veneerings, Our Mutual Friend is unrivalled as a work of insightful and entertaining satire. The scenes at the Veneerings' dinner parties are, in my estimation, among the best written by Dickens in the length of his career:

"For, it is by this time noticeable that, whatever befals, the Veneerings must give a dinner upon it. Lady Tippins lives in a chronic state of invitation to dine with the Veneerings, and in a chronic state of inflammation arising from the dinners. Boots and Brewer go about in cabs, with no other intelligible business on earth than to beat up people to come and dine with the Veneerings. Veneering pervades the legislative lobbies, intent upon entrapping his fellow-legislators to dinner. Mrs Veneering dined with five-and-twenty bran-new faces over night; calls upon them all day; sends them everyone a dinner-card to-morrow, for the week after next; before the dinner is digested..."

This post may not read so much as a review, but rather as a defence of Dickens. And you would not be wrong to reach this conclusion. But the reason for this is simply that I am aware of how much I have missed by holding Dickens at arms-length for so many years. His work is unlike that of any other - a mixture of social statement and satire, entertainment and tragedy. It is Shakespearean in its scope and insight into human nature, but utterly personal in the characters that it offers to represent the broader messages that Dickens communicates. Read Dickens not in an effort to meet an assumed intellectual standard, and do not avoid him for fear that there is no enjoyment to be had from his works. Because I promise that if you pick up Our Mutual Friend, you will feel the better for it. Dickens may not be easy, and he may be the sort of man who gave his children truly atrocious names, but reading his work is an enriching experience on so many levels. And it is with that in mind that I take up this attempt at a defence of Dickens. More than just the stuff of nightmares for schoolchildren the world over, these are books that deserve to be read, remembered and celebrated by bibliophiles everywhere.



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