This is my review of Our Mutual Friend (Wordsworth Classics) by Charles Dickens.
What would I make of the first novel by Dickens that I have read for years? I was struck by how much it is Victorian soap-opera-cum-sitcom.
At times, I found almost unbearably irritating the hammy theatrical caricatures, the convoluted prose with catchphrases, the mawkish sentimentality over children particularly when sick, deformed or about to die, the patronising treatment of a plump, dimpled young heroine over-attached to her father, and the probably unintentional anti-semitism in that the Jew in this case is portrayed in a sympathetic light. These are all modern-day criticisms of an accepted Victorian style, yet I am sure that George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and even Wilkie Collins, were not quite so "over the top".
Beneath all this, there lies an intriguing main plot. John Harmon returns from years spent abroad to claim the inheritance left by his harsh and uncaring father. Reluctant to comply with the odd condition of the will that he must marry Bella Wilfer whom he has never met, he decides to "go missing for a while" to gauge what sort of person she is. Then, a body dragged from the river by Gaffer Hexam is identified as John Harmon's.
The main plot is enmeshed in a series of interconnecting sub-plots with different degrees of parody, likely to appeal to a variety of readers. I was most taken with the effete Eugene Wrayburn's attraction to a beautiful working class girl, much to his own surprise and that of his close friend Mortimer Lightwood. Eugene's rival in love, the similarly wonderfully named Bradley Headstone is an overintense schoolmaster, driven to madness by jealousy and frustration over Eugene's superior, mocking wit and contempt.
I found other threads laboured and tedious, such as the socially aspiring Veneerings with their "bran new" possessions and their endless dinners for suitable members of society, including Twemlow, invited so often because of his social connections that he is likened to one of the spare leaves in the dining table. I realise that this is part of Dickens' attacks on the snobbery and false values of the middle and upper classes. His ranting over the rigid workhouse system, which frightens away "the deserving poor" who prefer to die instead in proud destitution, hits home.
Dickens gives us vivid descriptions of how ordinary people lived in Victorian times, and may in fact have known more about this firsthand than some of the other famous contemporaries noted above.
He also produces striking evocations of the choking London fog and the unspoilt beauty of the countryside surrounding the city. The opening chapter conveys a strong sense of the sinister, Hexam finds a body in the Thames without this being spelt out specifically, "the ripples passing over…what he had in tow……were dreadfully like changes in expression on a sightless face". Dickens writes some profound studies of the shifting emotions of most of his main characters although some, like Mrs Wilfer, her daughter Lavvy and sidekick suitor George Sampson remain increasingly tedious pantomime parodies.
The changes in popular language are also fascinating: "shepherds both" meant inexperienced, "hipped" was depressed, "galvanic starts" were electric shocks, and so on.
Trollope parodied Dickens as "Mr. Popular Sentiment" and an anonymous critic found "Our Mutual Friend" to be "wild and fantastic, wanting in reality, and leading to a degree of confusion which is not compensated by any additional interest in the story…..the final explanation is a disappointment". Yet there is no denying Dickens' ability to appeal to a mass audience and become over time the best-known English novelist.