I’m planning to read a lot of Victorian classics this year for the Victorian Literature Challenge (and because I love reading them anyway, of course) so I decided to start with one that has been on my TBR pile for a long time: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.
Last year I read Bleak House and although I didn’t love it, it didn’t put me off reading more Dickens. However, this one at first felt very similar and some of the aspects of Bleak House that I didn’t like were present here too (a huge number of characters were introduced within the first 100 pages and a lot of different storylines were begun then abandoned for several chapters). I wondered if I really wanted to continue, or if I should choose a different Dickens book to read instead. Then suddenly, things improved. The story started to make sense and I found I was enjoying it. Really enjoying it!
Our Mutual Friend opens with Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie discovering a dead body in the Thames. The body is assumed to be that of John Harmon, who was on his way to London to marry Bella Wilfer. John’s father had recently died and one of the conditions of his will was that unless John married Bella, he would not be allowed to claim his inheritance.
Bella is disappointed when she learns that he has drowned. It’s not fair: not only has she missed out on the money, now she’s going to have to wear mourning for a man that she’s never met and who died before they were even married! Mr and Mrs Boffin, the kind-hearted couple who inherit the Harmon fortune in John’s absence, feel sorry for her and invite her to stay with them. However, the Boffins soon become the target of fortune hunters and blackmailers such as Silas Wegg and Mr Venus.
Being almost 800 pages long, and being Dickens, this is only one small part of the story. There are several other plots and sub-plots which eventually become woven together – and some very memorable characters, including Jenny Wren, the ‘Dolls’ Dressmaker’, Mrs Higden, who lives her life in terror of the workhouse, and Bradley Headstone, a murderous schoolmaster who falls in love with Lizzie Hexam.
Although I did enjoy this book and found most of it entertaining and gripping, I did struggle with the chapters that took place in the ‘fashionable world’ of the Veneerings’ dining room. This world of dinner parties and politics contrasts sharply with the other main setting of the book, the River Thames, where most of the action takes place. We meet the people who earn their living from the river, we spend some time in the riverside inns and taverns, and in a way the river becomes the most important ‘character’ in the book.
And as the great black river with its dreary shores was soon lost to her view in the gloom, so she stood on the river’s brink unable to see into the vast blank misery of a life suspected, and fallen away from by good and bad, but knowing that it lay there dim before her, stretching away to the great ocean, Death.
I liked both of the two main female characters. Lizzie Hexam is a typical Dickens heroine, but she didn’t irritate me like Esther Summerson did in Bleak House. Bella Wilfer, though, turned out to be a surprisingly complex character. Although she was quite self-absorbed and materialistic, I liked her because she was warm-hearted and despite admitting she wanted to marry a man with money, she also seemed to feel genuinely guilty about it. Money, and how it can change people, is one of the main themes of the book, as Bella explains to her father here:
And yet, Pa, think how terrible the fascination of money is! I see this, and hate this, and dread this, and don’t know but that money might make a much worse change in me. And yet I have money always in my thoughts and my desires; and the whole life I place before myself is money, money, money, and what money can make of life!’
Fathers and daughters play a big part in the story and it’s interesting that with only a few exceptions, the relationship is always the same – a strong, loyal and loving daughter with a weak, villainous or child-like father. Mr Wilfer is described as ‘cherubic’ and devoted to Bella, who treats him like a baby. Then there’s Pleasant Riderhood and her criminal father, Rogue, as well as Lizzie and her father, Gaffer, who was a former associate of Rogue’s. And there’s Jenny Wren, who refers to her alcoholic father as her ‘bad child’ and makes him sit in the corner in disgrace.
Our Mutual Friend is such a big, complex novel it does require the reader to invest a lot of time and effort in it, but it was definitely worth it for me! I now feel much happier about reading more Dickens in the future.