As I am rereading Our Mutual Friend, I realize that part of the reason why I remember this novel so fondly is that I relate deeply to two characters. The two characters are Bella and her father, the “Cherub.” I relate to Bella because I understand her struggles with the unfairness of the world, the pull of greed and the confusion of not knowing herself. And like Bella, love made the difference in my life. But first, a little bit about Bella.
As a little girl, Bella is willed to marry a stranger in exchange for a rich inheritance. Her meek, adoring and poor father provides her family with just enough money to stay above abject poverty, but not enough not to have to rent out the nicer portion of their rented house, not enough to buy one new set of clothing all together–only a hat this year, a coat next and new trousers the following year. Bella is poor with an expectation of being rich, if she sells her soul to the unknown man who will inherit a fortune if he marries her. Being poor is not that bad, but poverty with expectations is grinding.
Bella’s family is a mess. Her mother is a nut case who has coped with her “diminished circumstances” by exaggerated good manners, imposing her oracular pronouncements on proper etiquette to all within earshot. Bella’s sister copes by being uncompromisingly selfish and mean in her speech, peevishly contradicting and insulting whoever does not immediately cater to her. Bella and her father have the only healthy relationship in the family; however, the stress at home is such that he often copes by just being absent. In this sick family, Bella imagines that money will be her ticket out.
I relate a great deal to Bella. There was a time in my life when I too imagined that wealth would be a ticket to a better life. Like Bella, I was confused by a sick family, confused by the unfairness of life, and confused by my own inability to make sense of what I saw and felt. Society (and in my case TV) portrays the wealthy as always happy in their bright carriages and brand new, beautiful clothes. It’s an easy myth to foster and believe–wealth will save me–until you actually get to know some wealthy people; or, as it was in my case, pay attention to what actually makes you happy.
Bella is adopted (as a young woman) by the newly wealthy, happy, quirky, and basically normal Boffins. But Bella sees wealth change Mr. Boffin. Wealth corrupts. Wealth turns a happy, generous man in to a cruel miser. And seeing this change, Bella repents, or rather, begins to repent. Like many of us, changing Bella’s mind and heart is a process that takes months, maybe years. Very few of us are granted instant conversions. Bella is confused. She recognizes her selfish impulses and confesses them unabashedly to her father, yet she is unsure. She calls herself mercenary, and even tries it on like an expensive silk dress to see if it fits: she looks beautiful, but is never comfortable. Yet she cannot deny the selfish greed she knows is in her breast. Who is she? Who is she to become? Who am I? Who am I to become? These are the questions of a soul beginning to repent.
Light shines into her darkness in the person of the Boffin’s secretary, John Rokesmith (who is really John Harmon, the heir she had been willed away to marry). Although he intrigues her, Bella early on rejects his proposal of marriage because of his (apparent) lack of wealth. However, over the next several months, she watches Rokesmith humbly and faithfully serve the Boffin family in spite of her own initially despicable treatment of him and Mr. Boffin’s increasingly demeaning and insulting behavior toward him. Not only is Bella frightened by the change she sees wealth produce in Mr. Boffin, but her heart is also drawn more and more to this man whom she rejected, a man who continues to serve with faithful integrity and quiet dignity even as he is treated with increasing contempt.
Bella not only grows to respect Rokesmith, but respect blossoms into love–a love that has been smoldering for a long time deep in her heart but had been smothered by the heavy silk dress of mercenary greed. Love, then, or the light of Rokesmith’s faithful integrity, becomes the force that finally helps Bella choose to forsake wealth as a means to happiness.
If I am not stretching things too much, I would like to suggest that in Bella’s life, Rokesmith is a kind of Christ, and that Bella’s struggle to find herself is the same struggle common to all of us. Bella knows all is not well and imagines that wealth gained at any cost will somehow right the wrongs that oppress her. But when she pursues what she hopes will be her salvation, she finds the same or worse demons following her. She is confused. She doesn’t know how to become herself. Then love breaks through. Someone loves her enough to be rejected by her and continue to serve and love in integrity. Love breaks through by enduring humiliation and insult without retaliation. Love breaks through by not demanding what is his own or his right, but by granting complete freedom to the object of his love. A love breaks through that can inspire the heart of a confused young woman to repentance, to finally take off the ill-fitting silk dress and put back on the comfortable, modest cotton frock that her father had bought her. Love breaks through.