Sunday, December 17, 2023

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Over a series of long drives and shorter washings-up, I've worked my way through this 35+ hour reading of Our Mutual Friend, the novel by Charles Dickens first published in 1864-65, and the last novel he completed. The audiobook version was brilliantly read by David Troughton.

Lizzie Hexam is scared of the Thames but dutifully joins her father in his boat to scour the water for valuable jetsam. One night her father finds the body of a dead young man, identified as John Harmon. Harmon is the heir to a fortune, conditional on his marrying a Miss Bella Wilfer - who he has never met. With Harmon dead, the fortune passes to an eccentric but kindly couple, the Boffins. And they feel they ought to do something by Miss Wilfer, so take her in as their own. But Bella, the Boffins and lots of people around them are affected by this new-found wealth, and not always for the better. The Boffins have also taken on a secretary, John Rokesmith, who has a mysterious past...

I first read this novel in 1998 having loved the BBC TV adaptation starring Keeley Hawes as Lizzie Hexam and Paul McGann as the aesthete Eugene Wrayburn who falls for her, Anna Friel as Bella Wilfer and Steven Mackintosh as John Rokesmith. The thing that struck me then was the book's attention to water - the river Thames, the locks and canals, the connections afforded by its flow. 

In part, I think that chimed with me because of other depictions of the Thames from the same period - namely by the Impressionists, which I studied at A-level. Here's "The Thames below Westminster" by Claude Monet, painted 1870-71, and now in the collection of the National Gallery. I had this sense of Dickens producing a similarly vivid, dashed-off impression of the river in prose.

Except that's not what he did at all, as I learned in 2015 from "Charles Dickens and Science", a talk given at Gresham College by Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for which the video and full transcript are still available. It turns out that engineer John Scott Russell, who identified in his designs for ships that waves have an associated force, worked for Dickens as the railways editor at the Daily News and provided the technical detail in Our Mutual Friend, where the behaviour of the water of the Thames articulates the science of fluid dynamics decades ahead of its time. 

Rereading the novel now, what struck me most was the number of subterfuges involved. Rokesmith and the Boffins deceive Miss Wilfer. Though they claim this is for her best interests, and things all work out in the end, I can't imagine anyone would really accept such deception so readily. Yet Miss Wilfer is also involved in deception: she gets married without telling her busy-body mother and sister, while her father has to pretend he wasn't at the ceremony. 

These are all good people lying for good reasons but there are deceptive villains, too. The Lammies marry thinking that one another is rich;  when they realise they have no money between them, they must continue to hide the truth from everyone else. Roger Riderhood and Bradley Headstone both attempt to leave false trails to incriminate others. Then there are characters who deceive themselves: Headstone over Lizzie's affections, Silas Webb over his rights to the Boffins' fortune.

At the heart of all this is the difference between the 'mask' we present to other people and society as a whole, and the importance of being true to ourselves and our loved ones. And yet that truth is not the same thing as honesty. A lie is okay, even virtuous, when it is meant to aid someone else. The morality here isn't simple black and white, one thing or the other. The dynamics are more fluid.

See also: 

No comments: