Dickens is an author who can take you through a wormhole or down a rabbit hole. In the former voyage you get out on the other side after 600-800 pages...moreDickens is an author who can take you through a wormhole or down a rabbit hole. In the former voyage you get out on the other side after 600-800 pages (some of it skimmed in parts because of dialect) a little misty eyed and generally pleased, but in the latter you rarely make it past the bottleneck. I have been a fan of Dickens since my first rapturous reading of A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens experts may opine here that this is hardly one of his more mature works, but I don't care its glorious. I had always looked forward to, when I got to that point in my life, taking on Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. I thought I would probably sit down to them some time after by 50th birthday with a glass of port.
Alas I have absolutely no patience, which--it turns out--is fine in this case.
If you can say a novel is "about" money Our Mutual Friend is about money. Dickens sets Old Mr. Harmon in the background, soured by all his money, and moves his characters through the fore-ground showing their little dances with cash and loans. In general the book reveals all the negative ways money changes people though, through his well known sleight of hand, Dickens manages to make sure none of his favorite poppets are hurt. (I don't say this with 100% seriousness though there is occasionally some element of exasperation in my dealings with Dickens.)
The plot is pure Dickensian-fantasy, a missing heir, his beautiful inteded (whom he has never met) his loving guardians mixed in with Dickensian hilarity: the bone articulator Mr. Venus who is madly in love with Pleasant Riderhood. Some of the jokes fall a little flat at first, Bradley Headstone, but even *that* one pulls through in the end. I won't spoil what any of these creatures have to do with one another. It's easy enough to find out if you must know and I'm more focused on their sharp bright figures from a different light.
Because while Our Mutual Friend has much that sets it apart from Dickens and his annoying habits (to this reader) what that mostly adds up to is pulling off all his Dickensian tricks with a much lighter hand than usual. This little redundant conversation for example,
'I am sure you look so, Ma. But why one should go out to dine with one's own daughter or sister, as if one's under-petticoat was a blackboard, I do NOT understand.'
'Neither do I understand,' retorted Mrs Wilfer, with deep scorn, 'how a young lady can mention the garment in the name of which you have indulged. I blush for you.'
'Thank you, Ma,' said Lavvy, yawning, 'but I can do it for myself, I am obliged to you, when there's any occasion.'
Here, Mr Sampson, with the view of establishing harmony, which he never under any circumstances succeeded in doing, said with an agreeable smile: 'After all, you know, ma'am, we know it's there.' And immediately felt that he had committed himself.
'We know it's there!' said Mrs Wilfer, glaring.
'Really, George,' remonstrated Miss Lavinia, 'I must say that I don't understand your allusions, and that I think you might be more delicate and less personal.'
strikes me as hilarious and insightful into the hearts of all the characters and their complex relationship. But similar ones in Oliver et al do not strike me so. Even if you don't like Dickens, I think Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend would be difficult but worth the read.
Two final points, as a Trollope reader I found the Veneerings especially hilarious and pointed. Also, how can you not love that title? "Our Mutual Friend." Not all of Dickens works have such wonderful names, (Oliver? really, it's about Oliver?) but here there's pure magic in terms of language. What sometimes feels contrived in Dickens here is only light and airy and--oddly enough-- *romantic*. Yes, there is a love story and it doesn't feel *drowned* in Victorian qualities. (Though other parts of the book surely enough are but thats no great complaint.) (less)
Watson has a gift for producing vibrant, elucidated, quotes--from other people's arguments. About 1/10th of the way through his 900 page long volume (...moreWatson has a gift for producing vibrant, elucidated, quotes--from other people's arguments. About 1/10th of the way through his 900 page long volume (happily I'm reading this on my kindle...) I've already started to notice what may turn out to be this book's main flaw, rhetorical reliance on other authors. I'm not sure that this needs to be as much of a problem as it's feeling like. In theory there's nothing wrong with the book collecting and gathering a lot of research, it's a more histiography like argument anyway--but with a book this long the author's voice is going to have to hold the argument together, and I haven't seen evidence of that yet.
This isn't really something I am holding against this book. There's a large difference between collections of unsourced quotations (Reality Hunger) and thoughtfully collected and sourced arguments. There's a wealth of information I hadn't heard before starting this book and the opening segments on Holocaust, wwii, european education and Germany was "enlightening" (har har har) and to someone like me (who gets a holocaust refresher course in every single German lit class I take!) the information made me actually want to talk about the holocaust and theory of german memory, something I haven't wanted to do since sophomore year of high school. (less)