I’ve made a big fuss in the past about how irritating I find some of Dickens’ female characters. Rereading Our Mutual Friend has reminded me that I haven’t always felt this way, that there are some occasions when he almost gets them right. For every awful Lucie Manette flinging herself about and sobbing everywhere, or for every Little Nell pathetically submitting herself to death’s embrace, there’s a thoughtful, rational equivalent to soften the blow. In my hurry to find fault with Dickens I sometimes forget this.
There are two characters in Our Mutual Friend that I’m thinking of here. The first is Bella Wilfer, John Harmon’s intended bride and ‘widow’. On the face of it, Bella is spoiled, vain, self-entitled and petulant. She’s a far cry from your usual Dickens heroine. I think it’s important to remember, though, that her engagement to a man she’s never met offers an escape from a poor and unhappy home, although she’s bitterly conscious of how embarrassing the arrangement is for them both. Harmon’s sudden death humiliates her, deprives her of the comfortable future she’d been looking forward to, and makes her all the more determined to find a rich husband. In her own words, she’s become a ‘mercenary wretch’.
“Talk to me of love!” said Bella contemptuously, though her face and figure certainly rendered the subject no incongruous one. “Talk to me of fiery dragons! But talk to me of poverty and wealth, and there indeed we touch upon realities.”
I have a lot of sympathy for Bella. She knows she’s not an angel but for all her faults, she’s grateful for her later good fortune, loyal to the Boffins and genuinely keen to see her long-suffering father made happy through her success. Those close to her know that there’s a kind heart in there somewhere but it takes a while for her to see it in herself.
Lizzie Hexam is the other character to spring to mind here, mainly because the Lizzie/Wrayburn/Headstone triangle is one of my favourite plot strands in this novel. When I first read this novel fifteen years ago I was a little dismissive of Lizzie, mainly because at first glance she appears to be one of those too virtuous Dickensian characters I hate: born into grimy poverty and tainted by her father’s involvement in the Harmon murder, she works hard to send her obnoxious brother to school and tries to rise above her past. So far so yawn. If this was in fact the sole substance of Lizzie Hexam I probably wouldn’t be writing this but I’ve been struck on this reading by her insistence on making her own decisions. Whether it’s the warnings of a well intentioned neighbour, or her own brother pressuring her into marriage with a respectable schoolteacher, Lizzie stands her ground… (at least until Eugene Wrayburn turns up). For an apparently meek and friendless young woman she knows her own mind and sticks to it, whatever the consequences for her reputation and her relationship with her beloved brother. And when things take a dark turn she has the good sense to remove herself from the situation.
On a side note, I also don’t think it ever really occurred to me just how murky Wrayburn’s intentions towards Lizzie are until now. He manipulates her into accepting his help (for not entirely selfish reasons) but doesn’t really consider the harm her does her. Although he clearly cares for her he appears to be mystified by his own intentions towards her.
“Eugene, do you design to capture and desert this girl?”
“My dear fellow, no.”
“Do you design to marry her?”
“My dear fellow, no.”
“Do you design to pursue her?”
“My dear fellow, I don’t design anything. I have no design whatever….”
God knows I love Eugene Wrayburn, but there’s definitely something a bit selfish, a bit cruel even, in his power over Lizzie. Is he just toying with her? Does he plan on seducing her and then bolting? Lizzie’s a bit of a dreamer but thankfully I don’t think she’s entirely naïve here.
My progress through this book continues to be slow but I am now finally into the second volume. Hurrah!