Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”

This took a while to read, I began it way back in June 2019 (shortly after finishing The Old Curiosity Shop” and finished at the beginning of February – on the palindromic 02 02 2020 (granted I was reading other books concurrently). My copy weighed in at a hefty 777 pages. It is the first book where I have had both the paperback copy and a Kindle version. I read a lot when I am travelling the city (Tbilisi, not smoky old London) and the paperback seemed a bit bulky to lug around. Aside from the issue of weight, the paperback (Wordsworth Classics Edition) is preferable as it includes notes and some charming illustrations absent in the free Kindle version I have. It was easier finding my place when I switched to the Kindle version than when I switched back to the paperback, the Kindle having a handy search engine.

Our Mutual Friend
my paperback copy

The River Thames, shown on the front cover, plays an important role in the novel. The novel opens with Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, dragging a corpse out of the river, identified as John Harmon. “But it’s well known to water-side characters like myself, that him as has been brought out o drowning, can never be drowned.” Our Mutual Friend is Dickens final complete novel, it is complex and echoes themes of earlier Dickens work. It is critical of child exploitation, three of the characters: Pleasant Riderhood, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam are daughters looking after abusive fathers. There are complicated romances alongside a social and an economic critique and satire of the times. Dickens is kinder to Jews this time around; Mr Riah, a Jewish moneylender, is frequently slandered by his evil Christian master Fascination Fledgeby, but is shown to be a very sympathetic character, looking out for Jenny Wren, the fascinating doll’s dressmaker.

‘Do you not, sir—without intending it—of a surety without intending it—sometimes mingle the character I fairly earn in your employment, with the character which it is your policy that I should bear?’ Mr Riah pleads with his employer Fascination Fledgeby

There are many strong and intriguing female characters, Lizzie Hexam, for example,  goes against expectations when she refuses to marry Bradley Headstone. Lizzie is a strong independent woman, who worked in a paper mill. Headstone would have been an excellent match for her by social class, according to norms of the time, however, Lizzie does not love him. Bradley Headstone is a schoolmaster, with a very dark side.

Our Mutual Friend Miss Wren and Riah
Mr Riah and Jenny Wren, two of the more sympathetic characters in the tale.

John Harmon, whose corpse was supposedly fished out the Thames, was returning to England for his inheritance, his father having made a fortune out of dust, literally. The Harmon estate had mounds and mounds of dust accumulated over the years. The fortunes of the estate go to two faithful servants of the Harmons, Mr and Mrs Boffin. Mr Boffin is ill educated but known as the “Golden Dustman” because of his newly gained wealth. This wealth attracts those who may have earlier shunned the Boffins. There is a lot of hypocrisy about and Dickens coins a term “Podsnappery” – an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts, epitomised by his character Mr Podsnap. Like latter day Brexiteers, the Podsnaps look down on foreigners  who can’t speak English well ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.”

There is a wonderful array of truly Dickensian characters. There are also lovely descriptions “the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses ‘looked,’ said Eugene to Mortimer, ‘like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses.’ Dickens would famously take long walks like Eugene Wrayburn in the novel, around the London streets after dark and this undoubtedly inspired his writings.

The novel is both dark and comic, like the best of Dickens works.

“Being an orphan of a chubby conformation, he then took to rolling, and had rolled into the gutter before they could come up.”

London is dark and foggy, like in the Sherlock Holmes films: Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City—which call Saint Mary Axeit was rusty-black.

There is something for everyone in Our Mutual Friend, as a collector, I enjoyed the passages where Mr Boffin and Bella would search out books on misers; he pursued the acquisition of those dismal records with the ardour of Don Quixote for his books of chivalry. I made a post about this in another blogpost: Collecting Mania and Charles Dickens
Katie Lumsden, who is an avid reader (she read an incredible 194 books, last year!), particularly of Victorian literature, has a YouTube channel entitled Books and Things. She gushes about “Our Mutual Friend” being her favourite book of all time.

I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels,

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) This was the only Dickens novel I read in school, I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840),  I finished in May 2019 just before starting Out Mutual Friend.

I now have nine left to read:

Oliver Twist —(1839)

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

which do you suggest I read next?

 

 

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens – Blog #2

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens – Blog #2

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