Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The central plot of Charles Dickens last novel revolves around the inheritance of a dust pile. When Old Harmon dies he leaves his fortune to his estranged son John who must return from overseas to claim it, and must marry a young woman he has never met. Unfortunately, the body of young John is found drowned in the Thames and the inheritance passes to Old Harmon's clerk , Noddy Boffin who will become known as 'The Golden Dustman.'

The story begins on a sinister note in a seriously dark and atmospheric first chapter in which Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, are on the Thames searching for drowned bodies that are the source of their livelihood.
In sharp contrast is the next scene of a banquet being held by the social-climbing Veneerings..,
" bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new..."
No matter how often I go back and read chapter two it still has me laughing out loud.....very funny!

An introduction to how the novel will continue to swing between light and dark, life and death, tragedy and comedy, and how cleverly Charles Dickens has introduced the major themes in these opening chapters. The mystery of what lies beneath the surface, class divisions and social expectations, relationships in every imaginable form and money with its power for good and its power to corrupt.
" His arms were wet and dirty, and he washed them over the side. In his right hand he held something, and he washed that in the river too. It was money. He chinked it once, and he blew upon it once, and spat upon it once, - 'for luck,' he hoarsely said - before he put it in his pocket."
The first part of the book continuously introduces new characters, all with their own stories but with some small connection to the central plot. In time these seemingly separate threads are drawn closer together until they all become a part of the whole pattern.To avoid confusion I made sure to read slowly, very slowly and to take time out to assimilate what I was reading. 

So many wonderful characters, good and bad, vividly brought to life by finely detailed descriptions. Sweet Mr Twemlow ,cherubic Mr Wilfur and dear Mr Boffin...
" a broad, round-shouldered, one-sided old fellow in mourning, coming comically ambling towards the corner, dressed in a pea overcoat, and carrying a large stick. He wore thick shoes, and thick leather gaiters, and thick gloves like a hedgers. Both as to his dress and to himself, he was of an overlapping, rhinoceros build, with folds in his cheeks, and his forehead, and his eyelids, and his lips, and his ears....."
Unforgettable! As is the increasingly obsessive and sinister Bradley Headstone, and the conniving rascals Silas Wegg and 'Rogue' Riderhood.
Two fine heroines, Lizzie and Bella, and strange little Jenny Wren, the dolls dressmaker, whose 'tricks and manners' make up for her physical infirmity - 'my back is bad and my legs are queer.'
The very moving story of old Betty Higden, which gives the author an opportunity to express his views of the Poor Law, whose only wish is ' to earn a spare, bare living and quietly to die, untouched by workhouse hands.'

Ever present in the background is the river Thames, the source of life and death, of rebirth and renewal, and the ebb and flow of its polluted waters reaches out and touches and unites everyone whatever their circumstances.

Brilliant storytelling! I can see why my teenage self failed to appreciate it - too impatient and a lack of interest in the details that now delight me. 
I absolutely loved it!


  1. This is my favorite Dickens so far!!! I just love Bella and John and Lizzie and Eugene and the Boffins and so very very many characters :)

    1. It's been so long since I read Dickens I feel I'm starting all over again but I'm sure this one will always be a favourite.

  2. I read this last year and I loved it too. The characters are wonderful - I remember I really liked Bella and the Boffins, and felt sorry for poor Jenny Wren! I've only read a few of Dickens' novels so far, but this one is definitely my favourite.

  3. Dickens is a genius with characterization and they are wonderful - I love the names he comes up with.
    I have so much catching up to do and looking forward to more of CD.

  4. I'm so glad you loved this one. It's next on my list of Dickens and I'm really looking forward to it.