Friday, 9 March 2001

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend (1865)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 777

Dickens' late novel is one of my favourites. It is a satire on hypocrisy and the British class system. John Harmon has made a fortune from the rubbish of others, collecting great mounds of dust which tower over London. On his death, his wealth is to pass to his son, also named John, who is murdered on his return to England. The money then passes to Harmon's foreman, Mr Boffin, who begins to take a new place in society and becomes known as "The Golden Dustman".

The melodramatic plot is more unified than most of Dickens', though it does have some holes. Coincidence plays a large part, with characters from unrelated strands meeting by accident. Occasionally, motivation is not quite clear, particularly for John Harmon's pretense that he has been murdered, and indeed for his changing clothes with the victim in the first place. (The motive might seem to be to test his bride to be, but he as yet knows very little about her.)

There is quite a wide variety of characters, both male and female, which are perhaps created less for grotesque effect than is usual in Dickens. Moreover, all the main characters present a different viewpoint on the subject of class, whether they are in their "rightful place" (as, say, the Podsnaps and Rogue Riderhood are) or out of it (like Headstone, educated out of his background or Lizzie Hexam whose birth is far inferior to her nobility of character). The novel does not posess the same immediate charm of some of Dickens' earlier writing, which may explain why many readers feel that it is well done without loving it, but to me it is right at the peak of his work.

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