I unexpectedly found myself at home alone on Saturday night and was able to devote the whole evening to finishing this book. I had the radio on, a cup of tea on the coffee table, a cool summer breeze through the window, and a whole evening of Our Mutual Friend. It’s been ages since I was last able to spend so much time reading so it felt like quite a luxury.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I first read this nearly fifteen years ago and loved it from the start. My tastes have changed a little since then so I was concerned that on second reading it might not be quite as good as I remembered. Would it fall flat compared with some of the other Dickens novels I’ve now read? (As an aside I can only say again that I blame The Old Curiosity Shop for casting these doubts in my mind. It’s not even that bad a book but I seem to have lost all my enthusiasm, and all my faith in Dickens, since then). I’m relieved to say, however, that I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend even more the second time so I think it’ll remain a favourite.
There were a couple of things that struck me particularly this time round. Firstly, it’s interesting that this feels so much darker compared with some of his other novels. At its simplest, Our Mutual Friend is a novel about wanting things you can’t have (whether that’s the immense Harmon fortune or the love of a woman who despises you) and the awful, spiteful things that people do when they can’t have what they want. It certainly feels like there’s a lot of death in this one so, combined with the absence of the usual comedy interludes, it’s a bleaker, gloomier read. This was Dickens’ last completed novel before his death so I wonder if maybe he was just feeling a bit curmudgeonly by this time in his life. You certainly get the feeling throughout this novel that he’s frustrated by the injustices he sees around him and increasingly bitter towards the Veneerings and the Podsnaps of this world.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about my love of two of the female characters in the book, Bella and Lizzie. This time, I found myself ever so slightly disappointed by Bella’s passive acceptance that a secret must be kept from her, at least for the time being. I know Dickens’ aim is to show that she’s changed for the better, that her contentment with her new life has driven away all that ambition, but it’s a little out of character. (Plus, if I was Bella I’d be bloody furious if I found out that I’d been lied to. It seems weird that she isn’t). But really, this is quite a small thing. On the whole I think Our Mutual Friend contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters, from poor Jenny Wren to Mr. Venus, articulator of bones. Like many readers, I have a particular soft spot for Eugene Wrayburn, the silent, bored barrister who gets dragged in to the Harmon saga on the coattails of his lawyer friend.
Composedly smoking, he leaned an elbow on the chimneypiece at the side of the fire and looked at the schoolmaster. It was a cruel look, in its cold disdain of him, as a creature of no worth. The schoolmaster looked at him and that too was a cruel look, though of the different kind, that it had a raging jealousy and fiery wrath in it.
While I like his healthy cynicism about the world around him, I found his treatment of other people more intriguing than I remembered. I suppose you could argue that it’s his cruel mockery of the unfortunate schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, who happens to be his love rival, that sets them all on their dangerous path. I wonder whether, if he’d been a kinder man, a less selfish one, Headstone’s obsession might not have taken such a grim turn.
I know a lot of Dickens fans have mixed feelings about this particular book and I know it isn’t perfect. There are a few too many characters than are probably really necessary and of course he does go on and on about stuff that really isn’t important to the story. But still, I do think it’s an example of Dickens at his best. It’s so carefully plotted and there’s so much depth to the characters that I think you can probably overlook some of the finer complaints. There’s nothing quite like it.