I read almost all of Our Mutual Friend back in graduate school. I took a class in Charles Dickens where we read all of the later novels in a semester from Dombey and Son to Our Mutual Friend. It was awesome. But I confess that I only made it halfway through Dombey and Son and I can’t remember if I actually finished Our Mutual Friend.
After reading eight Charles Dickens novels in a semester (five of them monthlies–the monthlies were all much longer than the weeklies) maybe you’ll forgive me if I’ve been known to get the details mixed up a bit ever since. It was easy to see why some critics make the case that Charles Dickens should really be read as having written a single great novel divided into a series of books.
In any case, inspired by the recent spate of Wilkie Collins blog posts, I went back to the lower part of my TBR bookshelves and found my copy of Our Mutual Friend. (I’ve nothing by Collins on my TBR shelves and I’m staying true to the TBR Triple Dog Dare until April 1.)
This is what I remembered about Our Mutual Friend in the years since grad school:
- There is a couple who married because each thought the other had money and property only to discover on their honeymoon that they booth have no income forcing them to find a way to live on nothing a year.
- There is a good Jewish character in the book, to make up for the bad Jewish character in Oliver Twist along with a good dwarf to make up for the bad one in Old Curiosity Shop. My professor, Dr. Solomon, had read all of Dickens multiple times, and advanced the idea that he always made up for the bad characters in later novels.
- There are two young men, good friends and colleagues, who are engaged in a typical marriage plot where one of them helps the other one get married.
- It’s a really good read.
That was it. The rest of the book so far has come as a delightful, if very dark, surprise.
Because I need regular posts for the new blog, how’s that for outright honesty, I’ve decided to break up my re-read of Our Mutual Friend into sections, one post per book. The novel has four books. I think this is the best way to read Dickens because it’s much closer to the way it was originally read, as a monthly serial over a year and a half in the case of Our Mutual Friend.
This time around, the book is all about the Boffins as far as I’m concerned. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin are two long-time servants in the employ of Mr. Harmon who dies just before the novel opens. Mr. Harmon made his considerable fortune from the “mounds” which are huge heaps of garbage that cover his estate. I imagine Mr. Harmon was paid to take away the garbage which his workers then scavenged to find whatever could then be sold for reuse.
The terms of Mr. Harmon’s will say that his estate will go to his estranged son John on the condition that he marries Bella Wilfer the daughter of a very poor couple who rent out rooms in their home to make ends meet. However the Boffins will receive a single ‘mound.’
When John Harmon’s body is discovered floating in the Thames in the book’s opening pages, old Harmon’s plans are disrupted and the entire estate goes to the Boffins. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin are the kind of wonderful people one only meets in Charles Dickens novels, alas. They move into fancy digs because Mrs. Boffin wants to take a place in society and join the world of fashion. Mr. Boffin hires a man off the street, Silas Wegg, to come read to him each night as he cannot read and has just purchased a complete edition of Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire with his new found wealth.
The Boffins take Bella under their wing, as they want to help the poor girl who was meant to marry John Harmon which would have bettered her position substantially. They also begin the search for a suitable boy to adopt and raise up as a sort of replacement for John Harmon, the son of their former employer whose death made their own wealth possible.
Enter Mr. Rokesmith, a mysterious young man who rents a room from Bella Wilfer’s parents. He insinuates his way into the Boffin’s lives securing a position as Mr. Boffin’s secretary. Up to this point in his life, Mr. Boffin understood a secretary to be a piece of furniture, but he now sees the usefulness of a human model and hires Mr. Rokesmith to be his, immediately entrusting him with his finances.
This can’t end well for Mr. Boffin if you ask me. But he’s too nice a man. Mr. Dickens couldn’t possible bring him to a bad end. I don’t think he ever deals a truly bad end to a major good character, not after the reaction he got to the death of Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop.
I think this scene is key to understanding Mr. Boffin. After hiring Mr. Rokesmith, Mr. Boffin takes him on a tour of the Harmon estate:
“The room was kept like this, Rokesmith,” said Mr. Boffin, “against the son’s return. In short, everything in the house was kept exactly as it came to us, for him to see and approve. Even now, nothing is changed but our own room below-stairs that you have just left. When the son came home for the last time in his life, and for the last time in his life saw his father, it was most likely in this room that they met.”
As the Secretary looked all round it, his eyes rested on a side door in a corner.
“Another staircase….leading down into the yard…. When the son was a little child, it was up and down these stairs that he mostly came and went to his father. He was very timid of his father. I’ve seen him sit on these stairs, in his shy way, poor child, many a time. Mr. and Mrs. Boffin have comforted him, sitting with his little book on these stairs, often.”
“Ah! And his poor sister too,” said Mrs. Boffin.
Mrs. Boffin then shows Mr. Rokesmith the place where the two children measured themselves one day and wrote their names on the lines in pencil. The Boffins pledge to protect the names and the house the rest of their lives and to ensure they are both kept as they are for as long as they can afterwards.
Mr. Boffin then shows Mr. Rokesmith the mounds, great heaps of garbage from which Harmon made his fortune. He points out the particular mound that Harmon left him before John Harmon’s death made him the heir to the entire estate of giant heaping piles of garbage. In Dickens time you paid the dustman to take your garbage away. His employer then went through London’s trash and sold all that he could. This business became one where the “manufacturer” was paid to take the raw materials he needed to make the “product” he could then sell. If huge piles of unusable refuse was left behind despoiling a neighborhood, well, it wasn’t really that nice of a neighborhood to begin with. Was it?
The mounds are a brilliant device for social commentary in a novel that will be largely a critique of society. They foreshadow the ash-heaps in The Great Gatsby by several generations. And Mr. Harmon’s house, kept as it was on the day of Mr. Harmon’s death echoes Miss Havisham’s wedding party, kept as it was on the day she was to have married. Great Expectations preserved what should have been the start of a happy life while Our Mutual Friend preserves the scene of an unhappy life’s end. Havisham sought out a girl she could train to exact her revenge on men, while the Boffins seek a boy the can raise up to help right the wrong done to young John Harmon.
I can so see what Dr. Solomon meant about Dickens writing one single great novel, they all fit together so well.