Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend
General Introduction to the Novel's Composition
Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) was Dickens’s fourteenth and last completed
novel, dark in its conception, panoramic in its observation of English
society, and containing some of the novelist’s most powerful images — especially
the river and dust-heaps. Biographical evidence shows that, in comparison
to previous projects, Dickens’s rate of production had slowed markedly.
He had conceived of many of the details as early as 1861; his correspondence
and Book of Memoranda demonstrate that he was thinking seriously about
the novel long before he began composition. In the succeeding years,
however, he suffered periods of illness and family anxiety, and in June
1865 was involved in an accident which shook him greatly: a train derailment
at Staplehurst, while returning from France in the company of Ellen Ternan
(the young actress who became his intimate friend, and possibly his lover).
In March 1862 he wrote, ‘I am trying to plan a new book, but have
not got beyond trying’; he also expressed fears of ‘never
beginning’ his new book, and of feeling ‘dazed’ by
the ‘large canvas’(Letters of Charles Dickens, British Academy-Pilgrim
edition 10 [Oxford: Clarendon, 1998], pp. 55, 281, 346). In fact he had
resolved not to commence publication before he had five monthly numbers
in hand, thus recognising his own impediments; this ample lead was gradually
Dickens’s early conception of the main elements of this complexly plotted tale is indicated in his Book of Memoranda:
‘Leading Incident for a Story. A man ? young and eccentric? ? feigns to be dead, and is dead to all intents and purposes external to himself, and for years retaining that singular view of life and character . . . A poor impostor of a man marries a woman for her money; she marries him for his money; after marriage both find out their mistake, and enter into a league and covenant against folk in general’ (Charles Dickens’ Book of Memoranda, ed. Fred Kaplan [New York: New York Public Library, 1981], entries 92, 93).
These notes describe the situations involving John Harmon/Rokesmith
and the Lammles. Within this framework, Dickens was able to introduce
Our Mutual Friend (the title he settled on in October 1862) the themes
of class, education, mercenary marriage, the waste of urban existence,
and the predatoriness of human beings. He also built upon literary antecedents
including Sheridan Knowles’s The Daughter (1837, concerning murder
and the salvaging of dead bodies) and The Hunchback (1832, featuring
disguise, deception, and tests of love). Our Mutual Friend covers some
of the same terrain as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, though it does
so from a darker, more immediate perspective: whereas in Thackeray’s
work the Napoleonic Wars form the backdrop to the action, in Dickens’s
work the focus is the author’s own time.
The novel did not find favour with all of Dickens’s contemporary
readers and reviewers (indeed John Forster, on whom Mr. Podsnap is said
to be based, concluded that ‘it wants freshness and natural development’ and ‘will
never rank with his higher efforts’). It presents a rather grim
and disturbing picture of poverty, murders, blackmail, and bankruptcies.
While the young Henry James found it ‘the poorest of Mr Dickens’s
works’, the Athenaeum considered it ‘one of Mr Dickens’s
richest and most carefully-wrought books’, and The Times declared
that it was ‘infinitely better than Pickwick in all the higher
qualities of a novel’. It has struck chords with modern critics,
who consider it one of the great social novels of Dickens’s late
period. It opens with the words ‘In these times of ours’,
and shares with works like Bleak House and Hard Times a profound commitment
to contemporary issues. Unlike those novels, however, Dickens does not
here focus on a central symbolic institution, such as Chancery, or a
single location, like Coketown; instead he disperses the characters and
events across the grotesque and blighted landscape of dust-heaps, riverside,
backstreets, and city suburbs. Part of the challenge of Our Mutual Friend
is to give the imagination sufficient rein to embrace and transfigure
this fictional world of chaos.
This project gratefully acknowledges the support of the Arts & Humanities Research Board (AHRB) and the British Academy.
|© Leon Litvack 2006|