Our Mutual Friend and finding time to read…

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I’m rereading Our Mutual Friend. I’ve given up on two other books recently and this seems to be the only one that I’ve been able to settle into. You might have thought, given how much the new job has knackered me out, that I’d fancy something light-hearted and easy on the brain to read in my spare time, right? But no. Dickens it is.

“I shouldn’t care so much if it wasn’t so ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming over to marry me, whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough to know what an embarrassing meeting it would be and how we never could pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It was ridiculous enough to know I shouldn’t like him – how could I like him, left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons…?” 

Our Mutual Friend was one of the first Dickens novels I ever read. I was fifteen at the time and I remember being a little baffled by it, although I enjoyed it nonetheless. It was really not like anything I’d ever read before then and I’m now finding, all these years later, that I was completely right to be baffled: the cast of characters is overwhelming, the writing occasionally incomprehensible and Dickens frequently gets side-tracked making long points that could be made in just a few sentences. He also has an annoying tendency to carry his metaphors on for far too long, so he’s still referring to a very, very minor character as ‘the hammer-headed young man’ several chapters after he was first mentioned in passing. It would be more helpful to the reader if he could just call him ‘the coachman’ (on the rare occasions when he appears) which is what he actually is. Between ‘the hammer-headed young man’, the ‘analytical chemist’ (a footman) and the ‘the satellite’ (a policeman) it’s impossible not to get a little confused sometimes.

Having said all this, I’m also finding that I was quite right to enjoy this book and to remember it so fondly. The plot is carefully woven and wonderfully detailed. The ‘mutual friend’ of the title is the mysterious John Harmon, whose body washes up on the banks of the Thames in the very first chapter. Harmon, we are told, had been returning to England, after many years spent abroad, to marry a woman he’d never met and to claim an inheritance founded on dustheaps. His murder, and the attractions of his wealth, bind together a disparate group of characters from across the city; from the poor young woman who helps drag Harmon’s body from the water to the elderly dustman who inherits his fortune, they’re all pulled into the shadowy depths of the Harmon mystery. It’s a tale of greed, changing fortunes, spite and (this is Dickens after all) love. Throughout it all the river lurks in the background, uniting those who live and die along its shores and giving the whole book a dark, brooding sort of feel.

Of course, there’s all the usual social commentary and Dickens hasn’t yet been able to resist having a pop at workhouses, the education system, child poverty and the like. I particularly love it when he uses characters like the vile Veneerings to make a point about the sponging, snobbery and idleness of the rich. They really are repellent. One of my favourite bits of spitefulness is directed at dear Lady Tippins and her “immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon.” As you might expect, there are several voices of reason elsewhere in the cast to counterbalance all this pomposity.

My reading has been painfully slow going so far and, although I’ve been reading for over six weeks now, I’m only just getting into Book Two. But I’m hopeful that it’ll be the first book I actually manage to finish since We Need New Names back in April. Now that my journeys to and from work consist of long stretches on the motorway, I can only look back in fondness at all those lovely hours I used to spend reading on trains and in station waiting rooms each morning and evening. What luxury. And I didn’t appreciate it at all at the time.

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