Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 5: Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend has one major flaw, for which I can’t quite forgive it. But it also has some of Dickens’ strangest, most haunting characters.

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When I was living abroad after college, my Aunt Helen, who is the most well-read person I know, used to mail me secondhand copies of her favorite novels. I suspect she thought that the only way she was going to get me to fall in love with Henry James was if his were the sole English-language books in my possession.

But once I had done due diligence with The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove, she sent me Our Mutual Friend. I liked the look of it — so pleasing, with its orange Penguin binding and its affable title. I imagined, rather literally, that there’d be a lot of Pickwickian amiability in Our Mutual Friend. I did not imagine it would open with a boat on the Thames at night, a hook trailing through the sludge and snagging on the waterlogged body of a dead man.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 7: The Pickwick Papers)

Our Mutual Friend was Dickens’ last completed novel, serialized in 1864-65. Henry James, who reviewed it for The Nation, hated it. It is “the poorest of Mr. Dickens’ works,” he writes — “poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” James was right about one thing: Dickens was exhausted. He was suffering from poor health when he began the novel, then he endured a traumatic railway accident in June 1865, and five years later he died of a stroke, at age 58. But Mr. James, if you think this is Dickens’ poorest novel, then I have a paperback called Barnaby Rudge to sell you.

Our Mutual Friend has one major flaw, for which I can’t quite forgive it. (More on that later.) But it also has some of Dickens’ strangest, most haunting characters. It groups these characters in some of his strangest, most haunting constellations. And it is a marvel of psychological interrogation tempered by structural discipline. As far as it reaches into the dark recesses of human experience, it always circles back to the river, and the bodies that are fished from its depths.

The older Dickens grew, the fonder he got of overarching metaphors, so make what poetic assumptions you will of the fact that John Harmon, the rich man at the heart of Our Mutual Friend’s inheritance plot, made his fortune as a dust contractor. (Think of it as the Victorian version of waste management.) When to dust Mr. Harmon returns, his will reveals that he has left his money to his estranged son, also named John, but only on condition that this son marry a girl the father has chosen. She is Bella Wilfer, the pretty, spirited, slightly petulant daughter of a humble clerk. But whether young John Harmon would have consented to marry her is a mystery, because the body dragged to shore by Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie in the novel’s macabre opening scene is identified as his.

The exposition above is delivered not by an omniscient narrator but as gossip. The denizens of high society are very interested in the fate of John Harmon’s fortune, and led by a glittering nouveau-riche couple called the Veneerings, they question Harmon’s solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood, at the first of a seemingly perpetual sequence of banquets and drawing-room gatherings. This device runs through the book, allowing the John Harmon plot to perform double duty. For the reader, it is the main, twisting thrust of the narrative, and its characters are the heart of the story. For the Veneerings it is a running soap opera, peopled by two-dimensional players of salacious interest: the boatman and his beautiful daughter, bereft Bella and the “golden dustman” Mr. Boffin, the elder John Harmon’s humble servant, who inherits in place of the son and scales the social ladder by virtue of his windfall. Mortimer and his friend and fellow solicitor, the moody Eugene Wrayburn, travel between the two worlds; they are called from the Veneerings’ home to view John Harmon’s drowned body in the morgue, which begins a connection to river society that alters their lives.

You don’t have to guess whether Dickens prefers the air at the high altitude of the Veneerings or at sea level. He is in great sardonic form describing the newly rich:

In the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings — the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle stickey.

Dickens doesn’t mind wealthy people in principle — he needs a few kindly philanthropists around, to adopt stray orphans and such. He minds wealthy people behaving badly, assuming airs and authority they haven’t earned either through good works or strong moral fiber. One of his dark triumphs in Our Mutual Friend is the awful couple the Lammles, who begin the book as newlyweds, a match made by the Veneerings. It turns out, though, that the Veneerings deceived themselves and both parties as to the other’s wealth — Mr. Lammle is not a man of property; Mrs. Lammle does not possess a fortune — and so the pair spend the rest of the novel leeching money from their social peers, all the while hiding their debts and despising each other for their mutual fraud.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist)

Now, for that flaw. I am hampered by the irrational desire not to spoil a novel that’s been around for nearly 150 years, so I’ll be vague. The goodhearted Boffins embrace the disappointed Bella and take her in as a ward, making a pet of her, outfitting her with the best their money can buy and hoping to help her make a prosperous, happy marriage. But in the course of events, it becomes clear that Bella is being tricked — and tested — on several counts that affect her choices significantly. This is arguably done for her own good. But I like Bella, and it galls me that she is expected not only to endure this hoop-jumping but to be thankful for it. Perhaps more to the point, it galls me that on some of these counts the reader too is kept in the dark — and that once the deception is revealed, it seems implausible and out of character. Writers routinely withhold information, but in Our Mutual Friend Dickens walks the fine line between withholding from his readers and manipulating them. I’d prefer it if the Lammles were the novel’s only conspirators.

And yet. I can’t stop thinking about those bodies in the river. Count them at the novel’s end — the ones who drown and the ones who survive — and you’ll see what a feat Dickens has performed, how intricately he has plotted (in both senses, writing and scheming) his resolution. Consider the fascinating Lizzie Hexam, how she unwittingly draws two men into violent passion and rivalry; consider the friendship of Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn and all that goes unspoken between them. They are among Dickens’ greatest creations. They are the reason that for many people, Aunt Helen included, Our Mutual Friend is not no. 5 but no. 1. And I totally see their point.

There is a terrific BBC production of Our Mutual Friend (it ran on Masterpiece in 2000), for those who want to see for themselves. As for Henry James, The Golden Bowl has become one of my favorite novels. I just wanted to mention it, so you wouldn’t think I held a grudge.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ fourth best novel.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 6: A Tale of Two Cities

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success