A satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money, "Our Mutual Friend" revolves around the inheritance of a dust-heap where the rich throw their trash. When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap's expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights "Noddy" Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes "the Golden Dustman." Charles Dickens's last complete novel, "Our Mutual Friend" encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it. With its flavorful cast of characters and numerous subplots, "Our Mutual Friend" is one of Dickens's most complex--and satisfying--novels.
The novel starts with a powerhouse opening chapter; Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie are out on the river Thames in a rowboat. This is no pleasure cruise they are near the dock area and the half savage man is searching for corpses. The mud, dirt and grime are oppressive but they find a body, which could be the missing John Harmon. Mr Boffin old Harmon’s foreman inherits the fortune following the death of the son John and installs himself in the town house. His former place of business the Bower is home to three large mounds of dust which have also been left to him and which may contain further riches. The kindly Bowers take in Bella Wilfer who was mentioned in old Harmon’s will and sets her up as a lady. Silas Wegg an itinerant peddler is also befriended by Mr Boffin and is placed in the Bower as custodian of the dust heaps, he immediately starts plotting to embezzle his patron. A grand deception is played out on Bella, but she is not the only person to be deceived, as identities are concealed. There is murder, there is blackmail, there are rich society folk intent on squeezing the downtrodden poor for all they are worth. The need for money corrupts most people and even Mr Boffin starts to worship at the feet of mammon; becoming a miser, women are sorely tested as they attempt to take a step up in society, there are love stories; romantic love, obsessive love even homosexual love, but overarching everything is the love of money, and the central mystery as to who will gain control of the Harmon fortune and what role John Rokesmith; Boffins secretary will play in this drama.
Avarice and the relentless drive to make money in a society that seems threadbare of human virtues is a major theme and it brought to my mind the well known English aphorism “where there’s muck there’s money”. A juxtaposition that is evident throughout: from Gaffer Hexam picking the pockets of the muddy corpses hauled from the river to Silas Wegg and Mr Venus picking away at the enormous dust mounds in Boffin’s Bower. Dickens continually refers to Boffin as The Golden Dustman. The dirt and the grime of the city where the dark and gloomy counting houses are situated is home to the evil young money man Fascination Fledgely. He delights in using the good Jew Riah as a tool for calling in his debts. Dickens is not content to merely portray the winners and losers on the financial merry-go-round, this is not enough, these are nasty vindictive people and he wants his readers to be appalled by their actions. If money is dirty then so is the city of London and the Thames that flows through it is ugly and full of menace. Dust detritus and gloom is everywhere, everything and everyone is covered by it:
”The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and, as it sawed, the sawdust whirled around the saw-pit, every street was a saw-pit, and there were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer, with the sawdust blinding and choking him.
That mysterious paper currency, which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush. Flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders on every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails. In Paris, where nothing is wasted, costly and luxurious city though it be, but where wonderful human ants creep out of holes and pick up every scrap, there is no such thing, There, it blows nothing but dust. There sharp eyes and sharp stomachs reap even the east wind, and get something out of it.
The wind sawed, and the sawdust whirled. The shrubs wrung their many heads, bemoaning that they had been over-persuaded by the sun to bud, the young leaves pined; the sparrows repented of their early marriages, like men and women; the colours of the rainbow were discernible, not in floral spring, but in the faces of the people whom it nibbled and pinched. And ever the wind sawed and the sawdust whirled.”
This is typical of the some of the writing especially in the first half of the book. Dickens takes much delight in repeating a word or phrase to emphasise his point.
Money would appear to be the root of most of the evil in this book and Dickens lashes out at the unfettered capitalism that drove the society he saw around him. This is Dickens though and there are good people who will shine through the gloom. Our Mutual Friend has two people with the moral fibre to assert themselves in this rapacious world. Betty Higden and Lizzie Hexam two of the poorest characters in the novel are prepared to make sacrifices for what they believe is right. There are other characters that have good qualities but they are slightly bent out of shape by the world in which they live. I am thinking of John Rokesmith who continues to test the worth of his wife beyond reasonableness, Bella Wilfer and Jenny Wren good characters but both have curious father child relationships a sort of role reversal which feels very odd indeed. There are the two solicitors Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn that are content to drift through life and finally Riah who finds himself blackmailed by Fledgely.
While Dickens is able to tie the greedy money men and women into his plot and uses their machinations to move the story along he is not so successful with his attack on the society of the nouveau riche. The second chapter after the excitement of the river scene with the Hexams takes the reader into the rather too stately world of the Veneerings. These are newly rich people who are buying their way into society. They gather around them like minded people who are selfish and snobbish in the extreme. Their conversation and their ideas are all based on how much people are worth and where they are placed in society. Mr Veneering manages to buy his way into parliament and while we can feel Dickens grievance about the corrupt way things are done, their actions add nothing to the development of the novel. Most of the characters around the Veneerings table remain a sideshow, but Dickens spends so much time with them in the first half of the novel that they are a drag on the story element. Dickens at this stage of his life had become bored with such society dinners and his wish to expose them for what they were threatens to sink his novel.
I do hope that my fellow book club members were able to grit their teeth and plough on through the less than vibrant story telling of the first part of Our Mutual Friend as there are rich rewards to come. Some wonderful characters are introduced: Mr Sloppy with his buttons and his mangling, Jenny Wren the little doll maker whose stock phrase “I know his tricks and his manners” is aimed at all the men she meets. The aptly named Bradley Headstone obsessed with Lizzie Hexam, Rogue Riderhood, Betty Higden who is terrified of the workhouse, and of course The Golden Dustman. There are also some brilliantly written dramatic scenes; Lizzie Hexams refusal to marry Bradley, The recovery of Rogue Riderhood in the Six Jolly Fellowships and the attempted murder of Eugene Wrayburn.
Dickens takes his readers into the world of greed corruption and desperate times in Victorian London. It is a dark world indeed almost becoming supernatural at times, but there are always people who can shine on through. Despite its imbalance in some parts this remains a great novel: there is so much to enjoy, a 4.5 star read
I liked Our Mutual Friend best of the three novels - and what a huge Howard Hughes-Spuce Goose of a novel it is...a wingspan of 42 characters. And made out of wood - good old fashioned Charles Dickens knotty, piney, planed, smoothed, polished, spit upon, rubbed against, all to your satisfaction sir! just knock it and see - Wood!
And, believe-it-or-not Ripley, it DOES lift off and fly. Eight hundred pages of wood, off the ground, and flying.
The only rough moment for me - and it is always take off - was in Book One, Chapter Two "The Man From Somewhere" when Twemlow is introduced as "an innocent piece of dinner furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street" I did stumble for several pages over inserted leaves until I realized that Twemlow was actually a human. The entire chapter introduces so many people in such a tongue in cheek fashion that I had to sit down in the nearest corner and fan myself, panting all the while. And come back and read the chapter again later.
All the old Dickens parts and pieces are assembled here - poor Charles went to his death flogging school teachers, saving young single women, and skewering the greedy - but the effect is not so cloying in Our Mutual Friend. There's sentimentality, but there's also salt, pepper, suspense, flavor, and sarcasm.
Dickens is Jenny Wren in this novel His dolls are as carefully crafted as ever, but the doll maker is there too, to laugh and carp and mock and tweak and hope, like us all, for love, and even fish for compliments. Consequently, the extremes in humor and pathos are more muted, the twists are more interesting, the personalities more complex, good and evil more blended and it all seems somehow more modern a novel. A Dickens novel, perhaps, for those who may think they don't like Dickens.
In the opening chapters of Our Mutual Friend, a body is fished from the Thames and wrongly identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to claim his inheritance. According to the terms of his father’s will, John is required to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful mercenary girl whom he has never met, in order to inherit his enormous fortune. Fearing (no doubt correctly) that Miss Wilfer would marry him solely for his money, John takes advantage of the misidentification and assumes the alias, John Rokesmith. Can he get the lovely Bella fall in love with him without the lure of his great wealth? In the meantime, Harmon’s inheritance passes to the working-class Boffins, a decision which has wide-ranging consequences for various corners of London society.
The parallel love story of another young couple has much in common with that of John and Bella: handsome society lawyer Eugene Wrayburn falls in love with Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of a corpse robber. Eugene, previously world-weary, comes alive when he meets Lizze for the first time. Of course, such a marriage is impossible. Isn’t it?
Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ last complete novel, is replete with his usual social criticism: mainly the power of money to impact people’s lives for good or ill, mostly the latter. Expect a Dickens-size cast of eclectic characters, including various villains, the pair of young couples aforementioned, and a pint-size doll’s dressmaker who will completely win your heart.
Recommended: Highly! Particularly, of course, for lovers of the classics. This audio
The only characters with a little complexity are (1) Sophronia, the wife of Alfred Lammle and his accomplice in con games, but with qualms of conscience; (2) Mr. Venus, the "articulator" (he assembles miscellaneous bones to construct whole skeletons of men and beasts), who also finds he has scruples after having allowed himself to be dragged into a nefarious plot; and (3) Twemlow, a poor relative of an aristocrat, who never understands what is going on and is frightfully timid, but who acts on an independent code of honor in the end.
I was glad when Dickens finally got so enraged at one of his ineffectual characters, Eugene Wrayburn, that he broke him to pieces. It was distressing to learn later that Wrayburn had survived and was likely to recover. But Wrayburn was not the most annoying character. I would have preferred that Dickens commit some mayhem on obtuse, saccharine-sweet Bella Wilfer and shut her up -- but that was too much to hope. The author seems actually to have liked that character.
The key to Dickens' clumsiness is the medium he chose: Monthly installments over 19 months, the author keeping only a little ahead of his readers. Thus, by the time he had sickened of Wrayburn, a professional failure who becomes a stalker of a pure-hearted poor girl (daughter of a river scavenger), it was too late to go back and rewrite his story to make him more interesting or attractive; all of London (the novel-reading part of it, that is) had read those earlier chapters, and Dickens was stuck with him. The author's only recourses were either to let Wrayburn's ineffectualness continue to slow down the story, or to do him violence. The violence is stunning, and quite a bit more than would be necessary for the plot. The villain -- another stalker, more infuriated by Wrayburn's behavior than even I was -- doesn't merely knock him out and try to drown him; he cudgels him, breaks his arms and wrists and cracks his skull before hurling his limp, barely pulsating body into the river. Dickens was really pissed off.
But then, to please his sentimental readers (he could hardly have had any other kind), he lets Lizzie Hexam (the stalkee) rescue him and nurse him back to life. She even marries him! And all the nasty bad guys (who all dress badly) are duly punished, and the sweet-natured good gals and guys (they're the ones who have good grooming) live happily ever after. Ugh.
This is very Dickensish Dickens indeed. He delves into the littlest-known professions of London's economic underbelly, makes endless and intricate mock of the empty hearts and minds of the money- and status-obsessed nouveau riche, weaves a terrifically complicated plot, and engages in all the heart-rending melodrama for which you either hate or love him. He makes some amends here -- Riah, a noble Jewish character unable to escape the stereotypes others lay on him seems a clear apologia for Fagin. Jenny Wren's complex and fallible character may comfort a few who find the saintly Tiny Tim, Dickens's most famous disabled child, hard to take. (Jenny Wren has her twee moments as well: troops of angels visiting her in her worst childhood moments, Boz? Really?)
The story is sprawling, of course, but its central theme is the corrupting effect of money. I found the central story and the characters of the Boffins effective and surprisingly poignant. The nouveau riche storyline, featuring the Veneerings and Lammles, was the least appealing to me. The descriptions of the Veneerings and their doings were so stylized as to occasionally lose focus, I thought, and I found Georgiana Podsnap frustrating to the point of apathy.
This is late Dickens, and while as I say his melodramatic tendencies are in full force, there are more variations in moral fabric, more surprises about people's true natures and capacities, than I feel I find in some of his earlier novels. It's a rich book, full of unhappy love, fierce determination, human folly, and of course startling evocations of Victorian London. It's huge and complicated, but full of memorable images and people. A necessity for Dickens lovers.
“Our Mutual Friend” is a thick novel about thin lines. Throughout its (in my paperback edition) 800 pages of small print, Charles Dickens ponders those narrow lines that separate the living from the dead and people of different stations and conditions.
His main plot involves the supposed drowning death of John Harmon, a wealthy young man returning home to claim his late father's estate. He was also to claim the hand of the beautiful Bella Wilfer as required by the terms of his father's will. Not wanting a bride who might marry him only for his money, Harmon fakes his death and returns as John Rokesmith, becoming secretary to Mr. Boffin, a man of modest means who inherits the house and the fortune in his place and then invites Bella to live with him and his wife.
So already we can what Dickens has on his mind. Harmon is dead, but not really. Will Bella love him and consent to marry him when he is a poor man? Will she be changed by living in that great house and wearing the finest clothes? Will the fortune change the Boffins?
These concerns are echoed in the novel's various subplots and in the lives of its many characters. Other men are dragged from the Thames presumably dead, yet they survive. Other characters seemingly die only to come back to life. There are even dolls treated as living persons and living persons treated as if dolls. References to death and tombstones return again and again in this novel that celebrates life.
Another young couple consists of a man and woman of different social classes, and that difference threatens to keep them apart. Another couple, the opposite of John Harmon, pretends to be wealthy when they are impoverished. One boy, raised in poverty, struggles to rise in the world, yet as he rises his character lowers. Another poor boy finds contentment in his situation and maintains his strong character as that situation improves.
This novel, the last one Dickens would complete (1865), is not a favorite of many readers because of its length, complexity and contrived plot. Yet there is much to admire here and much to think about. It makes a reader realize that those tombstones, even when not lying, do not tell the whole truth about those who lie below.
Second: Who would like this book? Well, it's one that readers of Dickens will certainly enjoy; there's enough action and enough of a "mysterious" subplot to keep you reading. But be prepared; this particular version came out 801 pages, therefore it will take you some time. So don't think you'll get through it quickly.
What can I say? It's Charles Dickens, and it's awesome. The basic story is this (no spoilers, don't worry): John Harmon has inherited the fortune of his father, who was a dustman; his whole inheritance stems on him marrying a woman (Bella Wilfer) who John has never met. On his way to London, after his father's death, there is a boating accident and a corpse, identified as that of Harmon, is fished out of the river. So the inheritance goes to Nicodemus (Noddy) Boffin and his wife who were the only examples of love and kindness in John's childhood. While Bella, whose sole ambition in life is to marry money and be rich, is dismayed by losing her fortune, The Boffins take her in as their own, so that she could have the life of luxury she was going to get had Harmon fulfilled the terms of his father's will. It is at the home of the Boffins that Bella meets the rather reclusive secretary to Mr. Boffin, the "our mutual friend" of the title, a Mr. John Rokesmith. Meanwhile, back at the river Thames, Gaffer Hexam, who has pulled the body of Harmon out of the water, comes to a parting of the ways with his partner, one Rogue Riderhood, and at the same time, denounces his son for wanting to move up in the world and gain an education. Gaffer's daughter, Lizzie, knew the boy's potential and had arranged for his schooling. After a time, the boy's teacher, one Bradley Headstone, falls for Lizzie, but it's more of an obsession than true love. Both of these plots interweave (along with some minor subplots) to create a wide-ranging novel.
You can tell that this was intended to be a story that looked at how money changes people; it's also a great satire on "the voice of society" and class rigidity and the importance of knowing one's station.
I can HIGHLY recommend this book -- don't miss it if you're looking for a classic.
Dickens creates stories with a huge cast of supporting characters and half a dozen overlapping plots. His work was originally serialized, so imagine watching a complicated television drama. Each week there’s new twists and turns, but rarely are things resolved or revealed until those final chapters. His work is the same. You spend the first third of the book just trying to keep everyone straight and it was slow-going for a bit.
This novel, more than his others, starts off with an incredibly gripping scene. Lizzie and her father are rowing around the River Thames looking for dead bodies. They find a drowned man named John Harmon who is the heir to his grandfather’s fortune. From that moment on things become much more complicated.
There are the Boffins, an older couple that inherits the money when Harmon is declared dead. Then we meet Bella, the young lady who was destined to marry Harmon, even though they had never met. There’s a little crippled woman named Jenny Wren who makes clothes for dolls and a shady man named Silas Wegg with a wooden leg and a pile of schemes to get his hands on the inheritance.
When John Rokesmith’s true identity was revealed I was so surprised! What an impossible situation to find yourself believed to be dead and then to realize that the woman you were supposed to marry didn't want to marry you. Then to fall in love with her without meaning to, even though you know she won’t love you because you’re “poor” now. If you tell her who you are she’ll marry you, but she won’t love you. Or you can walk away and lose your love forever.
The scene where Mr. Boffin tells him off and humiliates Bella was such a great one. I loved that they fell in love and he knew that she truly loved him and not his money. At the same time, I couldn’t believe he took so long to tell her who he was. I understand that she had seen something nasty in herself that scared her, but at some point you have to be honest with your spouse. I loved watching her transformation. She was such a frivolous creature and she found out what was really important to her when it was almost taken away.
A Few Highlights:
- The friendship between Lizzy and Bella, I love that relationship.
- I was so glad the Boffins were in on it and that he hadn't really turned miserly.
- The sweet scene towards the end with Sloppy and Jenny Wren was just the best.
- How perfect that the novel comes full circle for Lizzie. In the beginning she finds the dead body in the river and at the end she saves Eugene by pulling him from the river. No one does a full circle like Dickens!
- The schoolmaster was such a creepy stalker. That whole love story was sad an twisted. Eugene is so selfish and oblivious, Lizzie so hopeless, and Bradley is just aggressive and awful.
BOTTOM LINE: In Our Mutual Friend Dickens explores social classes, the dangers of greed, a twisted love triangle, and so much more. It was definitely one of my favorites of his books. This was his final completed novel, but I still have quite a few left to read. I’m sure I’ll pick a new one next year when the weather turns cold. There’s something about the first snow that always makes me want to curl up with his work.
"There's no royal road to learning and what is life but learning."
I read some Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Steinbeck and Hemingway with mixed success before reading Great Expectations. I liked it enough to read David Copperfield, and I was hooked. A Tale of Two Cities followed and then Oliver Twist (not my favorite), Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son and Little Dorritt before taking on this door stop of a novel.
Much of Dickens’s work tends to be lengthy and excessively wordy, perhaps due to their nature of having been serialized prior to being printed in a single volume. Truth be told, after having read Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities I confess to being disappointed with several of the following Dickens novels, particularly Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised with Little Dorritt, and this novel, while not the equal of some of the best, is only a notch below.
While Dickens is certainly famous for character development, and I’ve found no one better, the novels that I’ve truly enjoyed have been those that also feature an advancement of story line and this one is no different in that regard. It is simply an excellent story, with several divergent threads that come together nicely in the end. It also boasts the kind of outrageous characters that you’ve come to expect in any Dickens work.
As in other Dickens works, a period of acclimation is required to become comfortable with the vocabulary and social conventions of the era. For some reason, perhaps the length of time since my last Dickens novel, it took me a little longer this time. Having read almost all of Dickens’s work, I place this novel just behind David Copperfield, Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorritt, roughly on a par with Great Expectations.
A majestic, dark, swirling novel, this. I'm not quite sure it's a Dickensian masterpiece on the level of Great Expectations or Bleak House, nor perhaps is it as dear to my heart as Little Dorrit. Nevertheless, it slots nicely into fourth place for me. Dickens' last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend is a thematically unified treatise on money, death, transformation, and the ways in which humans can never truly know one another. As expected, the novel bursts with memorable characters: the lowlife Rogue Riderhood, the even worse Silas Wegg and his Decline and Fall of the Rooshan Roman Empire, the giddy Boffins and the scheming Lammles, the doll's dressmaker Jenny Wren and the determined septuagenarian Betty Higden, the tormented Bradley Headstone and the great, interminable Mrs. Wilfer. They are all characters at the service of two richly symbolic legacies: the death of John Harmon, Sr, and his fortune founded (quite literally) on piles of dust, and that of Gaffer Hexam, the "waterside character", fisher of dead bodies from the Thames, whose life and death on that swirling, copper river seems to embody Dickens' thoughts on life, regardless of one's "station".
Being a Dickens acolyte sometimes means accepting that his main characters are going to endure external transformations, not internal ones. No shades of Tolstoy here, thankyou very much. And while John Rokesmith is little more than a tormented plaything of the fates, we at least get some satisfying development in the determined, put-upon Lizzie Hexam, the gruff and sometimes pseudo-villainous Eugene Wrayburn, and that devastating creature, the mercenary Bella Wilfer. Readers' tolerance will vary as to how convincing any of the character's transformations are, and the practice of publishing the novel in 20 serialised parts of the same length means that sometimes one feels like Dickens has cut short important moments, while other character moments seem to go on for a few too many pages.
Nevertheless, there's little to complain about here. Like most artists in their old age, Dickens' work is a lot more richer here than in the early novels like Nicholas Nickleby although at the same time, his situations have lost some of their carefree pizzazz and even his grotesques are - in order to be more shaded-in - less outright comical. But CD's tongue remains firmly lodged in his cheek here, particularly in his dealings with the Lammles and Mr. Wilfer's thoughts on his home life. The symbolism at play in this book, exemplified by those mounds of dust on which fortunes depend, are particularly interesting given that, just months after the book was completed, Britain would face a financial scandal that would bring down many. Best of all, Dickens' descriptive powers have never been better. The night walks of Wrayburn, and Headstone, and Riderhood along the country river compete with a sequence of death and resurrection in a low-end pub, a children's hospital of great sorrow and compassion, the "bran' new" dinner parties of the Veneerings, and - most unforgettable of all - the darkened rooms of London's most prolific and talented anatomist (to judge from his own opinions), Mr. Venus. As the smile on Venus' alligator seems to say, "All of this was quite familiar knowledge down in the depths of the slime, ages ago."
Delightful, although I don't think I'd recommend it to newcomers to Dickens. It's a more rarefied example of his work that probably tastes better once the palate has grown accustomed.
It still has Dickens’ exceptional treatment of the characters. There are many scenes in which the reader can revel in the details of character and setting – the first scene in the bone articulator’s shop, for instance.
But the part of the novel that exasperated me was the plot to test the moral character of Bella Wilfer carried out by Rokesmith and the Boffins. It borders on lying to the reader. It is an intentional deception, at least. Such a deception should be accompanied by clues and symbolism that allow the reader to have a chance at predicting where the plot will turn. I don’t think there are any clues here. The Harmon/Handford/Rokesmith complication is amply telegraphed to the reader – it does not come across as an unexpected plot surprise. But the deception to fool Bella also fools the reader and leads to a certain amount of disgust – at least for me.
I really enjoyed the rest of the novel, though. I think it would be much more popular if the unfortunate deception had been altered by Dickens.
On the other hand, there is one of the silliest and least plausible plot devices in the whole canon of Victorian fiction, we get two "good deaths" so sentimental they will make you feel physically sick, and there are a couple of father-daughter relationships that are almost as bad. Members of the teaching profession might also be forgiven for feeling a bit hard done by: apparently Dickens had not said all the nasty things he wanted to about education in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times, so he thought of a few more for this book...
Although I have been listening to and enjoying Mil Nicholson's free narrations of various Dickens classics (available from Librivox.com) for several years now, I was still impressed by the wonderful variety of voices, accents, and emotions she displayed in this particular recording. I strongly recommend her audiobook editions if anyone is the least bit interested in classic (especially Victorian) literature!
The opening scene shows Dickens at his best, with Gaffer Hexham, a waterman from Rotherhithe, out in his small boat on the Thames with his beautiful daughter Lizzie, retrieving a corpse form the water. We soon learn that this is not as unusual an occurrence as might be supposed, and that Hexham is known as a finder of corpses. Papers on this particular corpse suggest that it is John Harmon, heir to the estate of his father, ‘the Golden Dustman’, who had made a fortune out of marshalling and removing the capital’s rubbish. John Harmon had been estranged from his father who had, as a consequence, attached some unconventional conditions to his will, including the unexplained requirement that, to inherit his legacy John Harmon would have to marry Miss Bella Wilfer, daughter of a nearby clerk. In the apparent absence of John Harmon, the whole estate reverts to Mr and Mrs Boffin, former servants of the Golden Dustman
Interleaved with the developing story of the corpse in the river is an account of the Veneerings, a wealthy family with a complacent circle of acquaintances. Dickens uses the Veneering sand their circle to lampoon social mores among the caste of newly prosperous businessmen and their families, and also to compare the comfort and ostentation of their existence with the poverty rife around the city. They indulge in prurient discussion about the disposition of the estate of the Golden Dustman, and enjoy a good laugh at the prospect of the Boffins struggling to adjust to their new found wealth. In fact, the Boffins seem surprisingly unaffected by their good fortune, and are principally concerned at how they might help Miss Wilfer, and what other good works they might undertake.
Dickens always tries to provide hefty doses of light relief (most notably to my mind in the person of Jerry Cruncher in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’). In ‘Our Mutual Friend, the comedy derives from Silas Wegg, a one-legged purveyor of fancy goods, whom Mr Boffin, recognising his own lack of education, commissions to read Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ to him. Wegg is a great opportunist, and drives a hard bargain, eager as he is to earn sufficient money to buy back his missing leg which has been preserved by Mr Venus, a prolific taxidermist.
The plot is far too complex for me to attempt a synopsis here. There are, however, some of Dickens’s more common themes such as the gulf between the rich and poor, social pretension, the redeeming power of education and also rebirth and reinvention. I feel that Dickens let the gravity of his themes overwhelm him to the extent that he lost control of the plot. There are more unresolved threads than is usual for Dickens, and a lack of coherence within some of his principal characters. I enjoyed the book over all but felt that this was Dickens slightly overreaching himself.
This story had all the elements of a great Dickens novel - quirky but lovable characters, lots of twists and turns in the plot, and plenty of laugh out loud moments. Unlike some of his other novels, there were really no deep dark elements - more of a feel good happy ending type of book. I didn't find this to be as life changing or memorable as A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House, but enjoyable from beginning to end. Definitely one of my favorite Dickens novels. I loved the narration performed by Simon Vance!
Despite it being an assigned book in Freshman English I have kept it with me all these years because I treasure it as one of the great books to sit on my library's shelves.
I recently read how John Irving considers it to be the best of Dicken's.