Karl Steel's Reviews > Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
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Jan 02, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: postmedieval_fiction
Read from January 02 to 20, 2011

If you've read it, you know that the ending runs counter to the whole theme of the universal infection caused by money. Dickens gets his liberal umbrage and his liberal cake. I'm sure Eagleton et al. have done this to death, so there's no compulsion to repeat. Let me just comment on Riah, via this complaining nineteenth-century note, a wonderful symptom of the medievalism (Isaac of York! Hugh of Lincoln) at the heart of 'Englishness' of this period and indeed the present day (looking at you Morrisey)
The Jew.
Mr. Forster says "the benevolent old Jew, the unconscious agent of a rascal, was meant to wipe out a reproach against his Jew in Oliver Twist, as bringing dislike upon the religion he belonged to." Dickens had written to a remonstrating Hebrew lady, "Surely no sensible man or woman of your persuasion can fail to observe, firstly, that all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians; and secondly, that he is called 'the Jew,' not because of his religion, but because of his race." That scarcely comforted the Hebrew lady, perhaps; but "no sensible man or woman" should be so sensitive. Riah scarcely obliterates Fagin, and, when he talks of "the damsel," he relapses into the style of Isaac of York. "To every man a damsel or twain." The modern Semite, however benevolent, does not affect the phraseology of the Authorised Version of the Old Testament [Comment from Karl: !!! the 'Jewishness' of the font of modern English prose!]. Friendly and appreciative renderings of Jews have never been quite successful in our fiction, and Riah is at least as agreeable as Kingsley's Raphael, or George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Perhaps Sidonia, in Codlingsby, is the most réussi. All this is the sheer result of Hugh of Lincoln, and literary tradition, and secular prejudice, which hampers the author who is trying to overcome it. Would Riah, in real life, have turned the national "Goddam" into "they curse me in Jehovah's name"? Would he "draw folding tablets from his breast," or take a pocket-book out of his pocket?
No doubt Dickens scholarship has done this character equally to death; but perhaps not?

A handy epigraph for my paper in St. Erkenwald (look for it in some journal somewhere in about 2013), here:
when Riah, who had been sitting on some dark steps in a corner over against the house, arose and went his patient way; stealing through the streets in his ancient dress, like the ghost of a departed Time.
Do read this with The Typological Imaginary.
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