Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

1865. Penguin Classics. Paperback. 884 pages.

From: I purchased this book.

In a nutshell:

Can a Dickens book be summarized in a nutshell? So many characters, so many plotlines. Our Mutual Friend concerns the sensational murder of John Harmon, the sole son of a capricious, harsh man, and heir to that man’s fortune. Part of the sensation is that John Harmon would only have inherited if he married a girl named Bella Wilfer, both of them strangers to each other. The Harmon litigator, Mortimer Lightwood, oversees the transfer of the inheritance to a pair of humble servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. The Boffins take Bella Wilfer to live with them in their newly affluent life. Their mysterious secretary, John Rokesmith, seems to take an interest in Bella.

Meanwhile, Mortimer Lightwood’s friend, Eugene Wrayburn, sets his eye on Lizzie Hexam, daughter of the man who discovered John Harmon’s body. In this, his rival is the creepy schoolteacher, Bradley Headstone. Other characters include Silas Wegg, peg-legged shifty hanger-on of the Boffins; Mr. Venus, proprietor of a shop selling bones; Rogue Riderhood, wharf-dwelling low-life who is disliked and distrusted by everyone else in the novel. “Higher” society is represented by the shallow Veneerings; the pompous Mr. Podsnap and family; the ridiculous Lady Tippins and the scheming Mr. and Mrs. Lammle.

Review:

Of the books by Charles Dickens, I’ve read David Copperfield and didn’t like it much, and I’ve read Bleak House, which I loved. As similarly happened with Bleak House, I saw the BBC miniseries of Our Mutual Friend before I read it. Knowing and liking the story and characters influenced my choice to make Our Mutual Friend my third Dickens book.

I had such a fun time reading Our Mutual Friend. I think Dickens is popularly known for his social commentary but his sense of humor is top-notch, and of course humor plus social commentary equals splendid satire. He just has a way of nailing a particular type of person or type of society. And even if I didn’t know anyone in real life as ridiculous as some of Dickens’ characters, they are funny all the same. Dickens also has the gift for translating physical comedy into words, which is no small feat.

I love Dickens’ descriptions. In a recent review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One by Jenny’s Books, Jenny remarked on how the descriptions in that book didn’t do anything. Although I haven’t read Zone One, I identified with what she said; that kind of inert, ornamental description bores me stiff. In Dickens, objects have definite character and places like London and the Thames assert themselves strongly.

Here is an excerpt that combines the humor and terrific description all in one:

On such an evening, when the city grit gets into the hair and eyes and skin, and when the fallen leaves of the few unhappy city trees grind down in corners under wheels of wind, the schoolmaster and the pupil emerged upon the Leadenhall Street region, spying eastward for Lizzie. Being something too soon in their arrival, they lurked at a corner, waiting for her to appear. The best-looking among us will not look very well, lurking at a corner, and Bradley came out of that disadvantage very poorly indeed.

p. 386

Regarding the characters of Our Mutual Friend, I liked reading about nearly all of them, even the awful people. But my favorites included Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood. I loved these two men’s self-awareness and snarkiness (especially Eugene’s). Their close friendship also touched me, whereas some of Dickens’ more overt sentimental moments failed in their intent to move me. For instance, I found Bella’s cutesy doting on her father to be silly, and were probably the scenes I liked the least in the novel.

John Rokesmith was a character who faced a conundrum that I found sympathetic, although the resolution to his problems wasn’t without its moral gray areas for me as a reader, particularly in his relationship with Bella. *Slight spoiler here* Bella was rather manipulated by several of the characters, which she accepts as being for ‘her own good’ but had the effect of tarnishing my opinion of all characters involved. *End spoiler*

But the fact that I don’t agree with some of the moral judgments the book implies or states didn’t make me dislike the book. Maybe I gave it a pass because of its age, but these problematic areas actually made Our Mutual Friend an even more intriguing read, as I sorted out how I felt about a particular development or character. Strangely, having seen the miniseries helped me like a few characters more while reading the book; the performances of the two actors playing John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer come to mind.

Steven Mackintosh as John and Anna Friel as Bella

It took me a little less than a month to read Our Mutual Friend and it was a ‘monogamous’ reading relationship for that time period. I didn’t want to pick up any other book, both for the practical reason for keeping characters straight, and also because it so thoroughly delighted me. I loved when I could read it for long stretches, but carried it around with me almost at all times in case I could snatch a moment to read some more.

My sights are now set on Great Expectations, which I actually do not know much about (as I haven’t watched any of its film adaptations). I don’t think I’ll be picking it up any time soon, but it’s likely to be the next Dickens book for me.

Excerpts from other reviews:

BookRabbit – “Our Mutual Friend may not be his greatest novel, but in some ways it is his most compelling. From the opening paragraph, the dark imagery comes straight off the page and into your visual imagination . . .”

Dead White Guys – “Take the sillinesses with a grain of salt, like you have to when reading anything from this time period. BUT it’s a fantastically suspenseful story, and Dickens is really at his best here.”

Jeannette’s Books – “This was the most tedious and at times confusing Dickens novel I’ve read but it was still Dickens and therefore in the end, looking back over the novel as a whole, well worth the time and effort. Definitely the darkest Dickens novel I’ve read.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

  1. I have a love/hate relationship with Dickens. I loved Bleak House and Great Expectations and strongly disliked David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (and can’t get past the first few chapters of A Tale of Two Cities). I’ve been told that Our Mutual Friend is one I’d probably like, given that I like Bleak House and Great Expectations, so I intend to read it someday. It does sound good!

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