Sunday 23 December 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 15 - "Our Mutual Friend"

Charles Dickens in 1862

After Charles Dickens completed Great Expectations in June, 1861, he moved down to Gad’s Hill Place – his house near Rochester in Kent – for the summer. He spent a lot of time preparing a new series of public readings that had been set for the coming autumn. He wanted to expand his repertoire of material, so he worked up readings from Nicholas Nickelby (“Nicholas Nickleby at Yorkshire Schools”), a short story from his former magazine Household Words (“Mr. Chops, the Dwarf”), Pickwick Papers (“Mr. Bob Sawyer’s Party”), and David Copperfield (“Storm at Yarmouth”).
Dickens used old copies of his magazine instalments of the novels, in order to cut and paste prompt-copies for each reading. He completely revised the book sections that he used. He would choose scenes that were powerfully dramatic, or very funny – removing any references to sub-plots or incidental characters. He would also excise any political or social references; he didn’t think they were appropriate for an event that was strictly “entertainment”. Dickens added stage directions in the margins – reminding himself about the physical gestures and vocal effects he wanted to use, in order to make his presentations more dramatic, more effective.
The autumn tour – his second major public-reading tour of England – ran from late-October to the end of January. It didn’t start well at all. There was less magnetic energy between himself and the audience than Dickens was used to. More importantly, his extremely competent manager, Arthur Smith – who had previously handled every aspect of these events with punctilious care – had suddenly died. His replacement, Arthur Headland, was incompetent – constantly making serious mistakes, which made Dickens mad, because he expected precision about these matters.

Hanover Square Rooms - an engraving from 1843

The following spring, Dickens did another series of readings. He was keen to earn more money, in order to defray the growing expenses he was incurring supporting his family and friends. He also thrived on the applause and adulation he received from his loyal fans. This new season of readings was done in London’s Hanover Square Rooms, instead of being spread around the provinces. Dickens eventually began organising and rehearsing the dramatic and gruesome scene from Oliver Twist which described the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes. The horror of the scene, and the intensity with which he delivered it, made Dickens think twice about doing it in public. He avoided it for five years; but when he eventually began performing it, he did it constantly, and it proved to be both physically and emotionally exhausting for him.
In June, 1862, Dickens began making regular visits to Condette – a village ten kilometres south of the town of Boulogne, in northern France. The reason for these regular visits – known to only a few of his most intimate friends – was to visit Ellen Ternan. He had set up Ellen and her mother in a small house there. They were close enough – only thirty kilometres south of Calais – to be readily accessible to Dickens, but far enough away to be safe from the prying eyes and ears of London society.

Ellen Ternan
The exact nature of the relationship between Dickens and Ellen Ternan is the subject of much conjecture. Clearly, Dickens was obsessed with this young woman. He pursued her; he financially supported her; and made all sorts of clandestine arrangements so that he could spend time with her – without arousing public suspicion. Claire Tomalin, author of a recent biography of Dickens – Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) – also wrote a book about their relationship, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens (1991). She is virtually certain that they had a sexual relationship, which resulted in a child (who died in early childhood). Other biographers, including Peter Ackroyd, are more cautious. Ackroyd concedes that it is generally assumed that their love was consummated, but he suggests that it is possible that they had a sexless union. He argues that purity and innocence was important to Dickens; and their liaison may have been similar to the love Arthur Clennam felt for Little Dorrit. Dickens would have considered his sexual passion for Ellen as illicit and, therefore, creating a strong sense of guilt. He was, after all, still married to Catherine, although they had been legally separated for about four years (since 1858). He was twenty-seven years older than Ellen, and would have viewed her like one of the young, idealised virgins in his novels. The rumours of an illegitimate child come primarily from Kate, Dickens’s favourite child. She and her brother Henry both claimed, long after their father’s death, that Dickens and Ellen had a son, who died in infancy.
Throughout 1861 and 1862, Dickens had plans to begin work on a new novel – a long novel, like Little Dorrit, that would be published in the familiar format of twenty monthly instalments. He had some ideas, but no clear plot. Things constantly upset any hope for the kind of sustained, settled period he needed to focus on a long campaign of serious writing: there was the constant travelling, the reading tours, several bouts of illness, and family and business obligations – not to mention the weekly chore of editing his magazine, All The Year Round. And, as he grew older, there were more and more deaths of friends and family to throw him off balance. In the second half of 1863, for example, both his mother-in-law, Mrs. Hogarth, and his own mother, Elizabeth Dickens, died. His mother’s death was somewhat of a relief to the family; she had been in a state of mental and physical decline for a long time.

Wood engraving by E.G. Dalziel (1911)

In the late autumn of each year, Dickens exerted a special effort on his magazine’s Christmas edition. This was an important annual source of income for him; the Christmas editions usually sold about 200,000 copies. In the 1863 version, he wrote a Christmas story for the Magazine called “Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings”. The portrait he gave of its title character was a fictional tribute to his mother. It was similar to his early work – poignant and very funny. It was one of the most popular things he ever wrote, and that Christmas edition sold over 200,000 copies.

Dickens began thinking about his novel again. He entered into negotiations with the publishers Chapman and Hall about the terms for this new work – his first long novel for seven years. He wanted £6,000 for half of the copyright. And he was given it. He began writing Our Mutual Friend in November, 1863. There were some characters and themes that had been in his mind for several years. He had written notes on a character called Podsnap way back in 1855. He had used the phrase “our mutual friend” three times in Little Dorrit. But, as his first biographer and confidant, John Forster, would recall later, there were three main sources for the foundation of this new novel.

Opening Scene: Jesse Hexam & Lizzie Hexam retrieve a body from the Thames

The first source, Forster wrote, came from wanderings that Dickens had made during the writing of his previous book, Great Expectations. He had been strolling down by the bank of the Thames, when he saw handbills posted, which provided “dreary descriptions” of people who had drowned in the river. This suggested to Dickens the characters of Hexam and Riderhood, the waterside men who made a “ghastly calling” by fishing corpses out of the river at night. “I think,” Dickens had written, “a man, young and perhaps eccentric, feigning to be dead … and for years retaining the singular view of life and character so imparted, would be a good leading incident for a story.” That young man would be John Rokesmith, aka John Harmon.
The second source Forster mentioned were ideas Dickens had for other major characters. He planned to make greed and social position central themes of the book. He had the notion of a man and woman who both married each other primarily for their money, only to discover soon after the wedding that neither of them, in fact, had any money. After finding out their mistake, Dickens recalled, they would “enter into a league and covenant against folks in general.” These would become the Lammles. Dickens also planned to create a couple he thought of as Perfectly New people – what we call today nouveau riche. “Everything new about them,” he wrote, “… new like the furniture and carriages – shining with varnish, and just home from the manufacturers." And these would be the Veneerings; like veneer – all surface, no depth.

Mr. Riah and Jenny Wren

The final thing Forster talks about is Dickens intention to put a benevolent old Jew in his new story – called Mr. Riah, a generous and noble character who works for a villain named Mr. Fledgeby (“Fascination Fledgeby”). Dickens’s motivation was to make amends – long after the fact – for his portrait of Fagin (“the Jew”) in Oliver Twist. In the midst of the monthly run of Oliver Twist – back in 1838 - he had received a letter from a Mrs. Eliza Davis complaining about his characterisation of Fagin. She argued that he “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people. In a letter back to Mrs. Davis, Dickens replied in some detail that she had misinterpreted his real attitude – that he bore no ill-will or prejudice toward Jews. His immediate response had been rather defensive, but he must have thought long and hard about her opinion, though, because in the final sections of Oliver Twist he drops the constant use of the term “the Jew” – favouring simply the name Fagin. And in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens not only includes the upright and kind Mr. Riah, who works for a nasty ‘Christian’ money lender, he also has Lizzie Hexam working for Jewish employers. When a clergyman expresses concern about her remaining with them, Lizzie says: “I think there cannot be kinder people in the world.”

Dust heap at King's Cross - watercolour from 1837

Another major source for the new book was an article that R. H. Horne had submitted 13 years earlier (13 July, 1850) to Dickens’s former magazine Household Words. The article was titled “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed”. It was about so-called “dust heaps” – huge piles of residue from coal fires mixed with domestic garbage. Elements of Horne’s attitude towards these heaps – especially the notion of them as places of decay, death and resurrection (the phoenix rising out of the ashes) – would emerge in Dickens’s novel.
By late January of 1864, Dickens had written only the first two monthly issues. He planned to have at least five instalments completed before publication began. That would be a lot more than usual, but he realised that he was not writing as quickly and as easily as he had in the past. He also had anticipations of being regularly interrupted by social events. Posters, handbills and advertisements promoting the book were spread throughout London by the end of April. Its first issue appeared in May.

Front cover of Our Mutual Friend
Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens’s fourteenth novel. It was his last complete novel. It was published in nineteen monthly instalments from May 1864 to November 1865 by Chapman and Hall. Each issue, as usual, had 32 pages of text and two illustrations, and cost one shilling. The final instalment was of double-length and was priced at two shillings. The illustrations were not done this time by Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’), but by Marcus Stone. Dickens had fallen out with Browne (who had been his artist-collaborator for about 27 years – since the very first novel, The Pickwick Papers). The problem went back to Dickens’s separation from his wife, Catherine. He had severed his relationship with the publishers Bradbury and Evans because Frederick Evans had had the temerity to criticise Dickens’s behaviour towards his wife. Dickens not only transferred the publication of his novels back to Chapman and Hall, but he also closed up the magazine Household Words – which had been a nine-year partnership with Bradbury and Evans – and started a new periodical called All The Year Round. Dickens had not been best pleased when ‘Phiz’ began doing illustrations for the magazine that Bradbury and Evans had set up as a rival to Dickens’s All The Year Round. So he switched to someone else to illustrate Our Mutual Friend. Hablot Knight Browne was terribly offended. Marcus Stone was not as good as Hablot Browne. He was younger and keener, and certainly more contemporary. But his style was so different: Browne had been vivid and often grotesque, working with steel etchings; Stone favoured wood prints, and his approach was naturalistic and rather sentimental. Dickens had always conferred closely with Browne about which scenes to illustrate, so it was rather odd that he showed a much more casual attitude with this younger, less-experienced artist. He simply invited Marcus Stone to choose his own “good moments” from each month’s instalment. Dickens was getting older. Other non-writing concerns were wearing him down – and there seemed to be a decline in his enthusiasm and concern for the many details of novel-preparation. The first issue of Our Mutual Friend sold about 35,000 copies. Interest in the book waned, however, during its run; by the end of its serialisation, it was only selling about 19,000 copies.
Dickens's working notes for the first section of  Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend is the final book of Dickens’s so-called London Trilogy – the three late-period books centred on a critique of society in the English capital. Bleak House had fog as its dominating symbol; in Little Dorrit it was the prison. For Our Mutual Friend, Dickens used the gigantic dust heaps – the mounds of coal-fire residue and domestic detritus collected from London’s residents – as the book’s defining image, suggesting rot, ashes, mud, decay, death and resurrection. But he also used water as an important symbol, with the ambivalent notions of life and death being tied up in it – life emerging from it, being dependent on it, and succumbing to it, through drowning. Dickens was focused on a change he sensed in civilisation – the growing attachment to financial speculation, foreign investment, and the idea that the worth of everything lay in its monetary value. The city was now a world primarily of barter and exchange.

Dickens photo from 1865

Dickens’s writing came much slower these days. He found it difficult switching back to monthly instalments, after producing his previous two novels in weekly issues. He said the effort left him “quite dazed”. Dickens’s notes show how he built each new monthly instalment carefully from the last. He planned a more unified structure. His narrative style was a lot more fanciful than usual – similar to what he did in Bleak House.

After the self-revelation of his previous book, Great Expectations, Dickens turned his attention back to a sharp attack on English life. The book is full of derision for English social behaviour. In fact, most of social life in Our Mutual Friend is seen as nothing more than a game, tainted by pretension and false values. Dinners are an empty ritual. Dickens, who had always been a life-of-the-party type, began to hate parties. As he put it, he would invariably “bolt” very early, or, when the time was right, he would “slip away”. This formerly gregarious host had now become primarily a self-contained man. He hated all of the dreadful gossip; and he must have feared inadvertent comments about his wife Catherine and rumours spreading behind his back about his relationship with Ellen Ternan. His general hatred for this social scene shows in the book – his sympathies generally are with the odd characters and the social outcasts. The radicalism of his youth seemed to have erupted in his last novel.

Staplehurst Train Crash of June, 1865

Charles Dickens looked much older than his 53 years. He had aged rapidly during the last few years. His face betrayed the conflicts and anxieties which beset him. And he began to suffer episodes of gout – one of his feet began to swell because of vascular degeneration. And then came a traumatic event that had a major impact on his physical and emotional health. He was coming home from France in June, 1865 with Ellen Ternan and her mother, Mrs. Ternan. They were on the Folkestone-to-London train; and, just before reaching the station at Staplehurst, a signalman mistakenly directed the train to proceed ahead, even though a section of rail had been removed for repairs. The train was going about 50 mph and derailed at a bridge. It jumped a forty-two feet gap in the rail. Seven of the eight first-class carriages plummeted down from the bridge into the riverbed below. Dickens’s carriage was half off the track, but it didn’t fall with the others. He helped get the Ternans out of their carriage, and then he climbed down to assist with the care of the wounded and dying. He spent a long time helping, and witnessed several individuals die of their wounds. And then he clambered back up to his precariously-balanced carriage in order to retrieve the manuscript of his latest monthly instalment of Our Mutual Friend, which he had left in his overcoat pocket. The later inquiry into the accident was a big worry for Dickens; he was anxious that it not be revealed publicly with whom he had been travelling. He managed to have this information kept secret. More important than this immediate anxiety, however, were the long-term physical and psychological effects. From now on, Dickens – who travelled a great deal for both business and private reasons – suffered intense anxieties about travel.

John Rokesmith & Bella Wilfer
By August, Dickens was working on the novel’s final issue – the usual double-number. When he had it finished, he wrote – for the very first time – a Postscript for the novel, in which he justified the narrative method he had adopted in the book, and provided a brief description on the Staplehurst crash. He also mentioned the problems of serialising a novel in monthly sections. It sounded rather defensive – as though the author was anticipating a critical backlash. The response was mixed. One of the worst comments came from the young Henry James, who called the book “the poorest of Mr. Dickens’s work. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but a permanent exhaustion.”

Noddy Boffin looks for miser books
Of the three large, late-period novels dubbed the “London Trilogy”, Our Mutual Friend was my least favourite. The plot is an odd contrivance. The mystery of John Harmon’s fate is, strangely, revealed rather early to the reader. And then the change of character that Noddy Boffin goes through – tainted by the money he inherits and the social position it gives him – is later revealed as a sham, and a subterfuge planned with his secretary, Mr. Rokesmith. As G. K. Chesterton points out, in his 1907 introduction to the Everyman Edition, the original change of attitude seems to be Dickens’s original intention – another example of the corruption brought by money – but then altered later because of difficulties that Dickens had resolving the plot in the limited space he had available.
The portraits of the various social hypocrites that make up the circle of self-centred acquaintances that meet for dinners throughout the book – the Veneerings, the Lammles, the Podsnaps – are intitially of interest for the broad, satirical swipe Dickens aims at them. This is the social realism that Dickens aimed for in this book. But they don’t do much of interest, and they don’t advance the main plot. Mr. Podsnap – whom Peter Ackroyd identifies as a less-than-subtle portrait of Dickens most intimate friend and business advisor John Forster – serves as a representative of that disdainful society which condemns the relationship between Eugene Wrayburn – “one of their own” – and the low-born Lizzie Hexam - daughter of the apparently disreputable waterside man Jesse Hexam. Silas Wegg, who enters the story as a “balladmonger” and the keeper of a very small fruit-stall, is intended by Dickens to be one of his larger-than-life comic rogues. I found him actually to be quite tiresome, and the extended scenes between him and his taxidermist friend Mr. Venus seemed to drag on with little import or entertainment.

Bradley Headstone and Roger Riderhood

Of much more interest in this book are several of the female characters – and the love-interests they provoke. Bella Wilfer is the woman whom John Harmon was supposed to marry upon his return to England, in order that they both benefit from the will of the wealthy Mr. Harmon. She enters the story as a self-regarding and rather shallow person, but as the story progresses, she develops into an admirable character with whom, sure enough, John Harmon falls in love, regardless of any financial consideration. She has a close, rather flirty relationship with her father. Lizzie Hexam is one of those Dickens innocents who spend most of her time trying to protect her virtue. She is attracted to the high-born Eugene Wrayburn, but also runs from him, fearful that he is only interested in using her for his own satisfaction. She later heroically saves his life – using her skill as a boater to pull his battered body from the river Thames. She is also pursued by the schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, who is so obsessed with her that he attempts to kill her upper-class admirer. Headstone is an interesting character – one of those fevered criminal minds that Dickens puts us inside. And then there is Fanny Cleaver (“Jenny Wren”), a crippled young woman, who has successfully established a small business as a dolls’ dressmaker. She is linked to Mr. Riah, the noble and kind employee of the nasty Mt. Fledgeby. Jenny is another of those interesting characters who are physically weak, but actually very strong emotionally.

In Our Mutual Friend, London is an ugly and corrupt place. It’s a scene of moral and physical degradation – fog, rain, mud, decay, and death. It’s still the prison environment of Little Dorrit, a sad and depressing place. Is it any wonder that Dickens spent most of his time now either at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, or near Boulogne in France. At the conclusion of Our Mutual Friend – which would turn out to be his last complete novel, Dickens was already thinking about his next book. And that one would be set again in the Rochester area – the milieu of Great Expectations – the scene that had inspired him to create a much more popular and successful novel.

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the fifteenth of a series.]

Next: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Our Mutual Friend by Andrew Sanders (1994); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin (2011); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]


  1. A very good, detailed review Clive. There are echos of characters and situations from little Dorrit in there by the sounds of it. I loved reading Little Dorrit but it exhausted me emotionally from it's shear scope and range and intensity. I'm not ready for another on such an emotional scale. I would love to read it but sometime in the future, next year when I have got over my Dickens exhaustion. You must have a great capacity to absorb all that. I think you achievement in reading and reviewing all of Dickens novels is amazing. So, is it only Edwin Drood to go?

    The dust heeps reminded me of Wimbledon Common. There are some small hills or rather large mounds in one corner of Wimbledon Common next to the Putney Wandsworth roundabout that were created in Victorian times. When they were tunneling under London to create the underground system they had to put the excavated earth somewhere. Hence the mounds, now covered in grass, shrubs and trees, on Wimbledon Common.

    All the best,

    1. Thanks, Tony!

      Yes, only Edwin Drood to go - and it's relatively short, since Dickens died half way through writing it!