I am rereading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I read it about ten years ago, and I remembered it as one of my favorite, if not my favorite Dickens novel. However, when I said I would review it for Ancient Faith Radio’s “Speaking of Books” podcast, I had to read it again. Boy was I disappointed. The impression in my memory was quite different from my impression as I was rereading it–at least for the first half.
I always have to tell myself that with most of Dickens’ novels that it takes a good third to half of the novel to get into it. In this last of Dickens’ novels–the last one he completed–this dictum holds particularly true. There are so many characters and sub plots that it does take about half the novel before one starts to see how things hold together.
It’s a dark novel, much darker than his earlier works. The novel opens in the boat of Jesse Hexam, a river scavenger, rowed by his daughter, and carrying a dead man whose pockets Hexam has rifled for cash. Soon Hexam is confronted by Roger Riderhood, his former partner, who had been accused of picking the pocket of a living sailor and so Hexam refuses any longer to be called his partner. In the course of the conversation about the difference between stealing from a living man and a dead one (which is not stealing–how can a dead man own anything, argues Hexam), Riderhood insinuates that Hexam’s luck in finding so many dead bodies in the river is based on more than his skill as a dredger.
Chapter two contrasts the cold, dirty, thieving, and perhaps murderous world of the waterfront with that of Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, of the newly rich, whose deepest and longest friendships have nothing to do with time of acquaintance and everything to do with perceived wealth and social status. The subplots relating to the Veneering crowd really have nothing to do with the main plot of the novel. They act as a kind of Greek Chorus, but not a very good one in my opinion. However their shallow relationships and mercenary behavior and complete ignorance (and ignoring) of anything in the world below their sphere does act as a comic satire on the dark reality of those who squeeze pennies and shillings out of the waste of others.
And money from waste is one of themes of the novel: how people on the bottom of the social heap pull a living out of the dust (rubbish), sewage, and amputated body parts of those further up the ladder. And for those in the right place, a lot of money can be pulled out. John Harmon Sr. held the dust trade for London and over his lifetime accumulated mountains of rubbish, which when sifted by the lowest wage workers in London, resulted in quite a profit for Mr. Harmon in used stuffs that could be resold. But Mr. Harmon was a harsh man and drove away his only daughter and son. As a cruel joke, he stipulated in his will that for his son to inherit his fortune, he must first marry a woman whom he had chosen for him: a woman whom he had met only once, a child throwing a temper tantrum in a park. The son had spent most of his life abroad, and upon the death of his father returns to England with a plan to spy out this young woman he is supposed to marry.
But from the dank morgue near the river, a message is sent to the Veneerings “dear” friend and Harmon’s lawyer, Mortimer Lightwood, that the dead body found in the river that morning is none other than the young John Harmon.
[To Be Continued]