August 9th, 2020

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Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Second paragraph of third chapter:
'Whose writing is this?'
A year or so ago, the group of friends with whom I had previously read War and Peace and Anna Karenina at the rate of a chapter a day decided to give Charles Dickens’ last complete novel a go, but with the twist of reading each of the monthly installments of four to six chapters at the start of each month, simulating how the book’s original readers would have encountered it.

I bought it then, but failed to get with the programme when it started; then a couple of months ago Our Mutual Friend bubbled anyway to the top of two of my lists (books bought in 2018, and non-genre fiction) and so I joined the party rather late, catching up to where everyone else in the group had reached and then doing the monthly thing until we finished last week. I must say I did appreciate this format - the book was originally written to have mini-cliffhangers every few chapters, and saving the dénouements for four weeks does mean you savour them a bit more.

However, I confess I did not really get as much our of Our Mutual Friend as I did from our previous reads. None of the characters and little of the writing particularly grabbed me. The core plot is a chap who fakes his own death and then deceives his wife about who he really is, partly to test her character, which I find utterly repulsive behaviour, presented by Dickens as moral courage and heroism. (She passes the test, of course; Dickens is reticent about what would have happened if she had not.) The lower-class couple who had accidentally become rich joyfully surrender their undeserved fortune to our hero, which again I found rather grating. There are some meandering side plots on the banks of the Thames, upstream and in London, but they seemed to me both moralising and far-fetched.

There was one bit of writing that particularly caught me in Book 4 Chapter 11:
Then, the train rattled among the house-tops, and among the ragged sides of houses torn down to make way for it, and over the swarming streets, and under the fruitful earth, until it shot across the river: bursting over the quiet surface like a bomb-shell, and gone again as if it had exploded in the rush of smoke and steam and glare. A little more, and again it roared across the river, a great rocket: spurning the watery turnings and doublings with ineffable contempt, and going straight to its end, as Father Time goes to his. To whom it is no matter what living waters run high or low, reflect the heavenly lights and darknesses, produce their little growth of weeds and flowers, turn here, turn there, are noisy or still, are troubled or at rest, for their course has one sure termination, though their sources and devices are many.
In the middle of writing Our Mutual Friend, Dickens was caught up in a major train accident, escaping with only minor injuries himself but rescuing other victims, some of whom died in front of him. I found it really interesting that in this imagery of the train of agent of destruction and destiny, it is not the Christian God but the abstract Father Time who is invoked in the end.

This is not one of Dickens’ better-known works, and there’s good reason for that. But you can get it here.

(Our group will tackle the Gormenghast trilogy next, going back to the chapter-a-day paradigm.)