CC Spin Title (and Summerbook #12 ): Our Mutual Friend

 Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

This doorstopper tome came in at over 800 pages!  So, clearly, this is a story that is going to have a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads.  Dickens does weave all of it together into a suspenseful and exciting pattern, and for the most part I enjoyed the novel and often kept reading to find out what would happen.

Our story revolves, mainly, around one hero and two heroines, but they are not in a love triangle.  In fact, we start with a murder; the body of John Harmon, heir to a large fortune and just arrived to claim it, has been found in the river.   Who killed him, and who will get the money?  It is not a spoiler to let you know that John Harmon is in fact alive, but is pretty iffy on whether he wants the money.  He definitely does not want to force Miss Bella Wilfer into marriage, which is what his father has ordained in the will, although the two have never seen each other.  So the family servants, the kind and relaxed Boffins, get the fortune.  John becomes John Rokesmith, secretary to the newly wealthy couple.

Bella is very angry about being 'sold like a dog,' and she's also angry about being poor.  Bella wants to marry money; but of her own free will.  She goes to live with the Boffins, which gets her away from her very difficult family situation -- Bella's real desire is not for money, but for a peaceful family life, but she doesn't realize that.  She thinks of herself as mercenary, and is somewhat spoiled.

Then there is Lizzie Hexam, the poorest of the poor, who helps her father drag the river for bodies.  She wants education and a respectable life, but loves her father too much to leave him, so she saves up to educate her younger brother.  At least he can have a decent life.  Lizzie's problem is that two men fall in love with her; one is rich and idle, with no thought of marriage, and one is respectable middle-class -- and also a terrifying stalker.  Lizzie finds refuge and work with a family out of town through her good friend, Mr. Riah.  

There are a zillion characters, with Dickens' trademark names and personalities.  Everybody from grumpy rich ladies to water-rat criminals are represented.  I will only comment on Mr. Riah, who I found an interesting character.  He's Jewish, and a very good and kind man who is forced to work as the face for a moneylending outfit run by the predatory Mr. Fledgeby, a Christian.  There is quite a lot of exploration of anti-Semitism and stereotypes; Dickens wants to make the point that  "a Jew may be kindly and a Christian cruel."  This being his last novel, perhaps he wanted to make amends for Oliver Twist.

A somewhat strange note is introduced with the little boy, Johnny, the Boffins wish to adopt in memory of the lost heir John.  Little Johnny meets Bella and calls her a 'boofer lady,' this being Dicken's rendition of 3-year-old language.  Johnny becomes ill and dies, leaving 'a kiss for the boofer lady,' and the phrase recurs several times.  Unfortunately, only a real live 3-year-old can get away with this awkwardly maudlin phrase.  It's awful to see an illustration actually titled "The Boofer Lady," and read it in a paragraph.  P. G. Woodhouse satirized it nicely in "My Man Jeeves."

The Boofer Lady

It's a very complex novel, and mostly contemplates money.  It's a rich man's world, and money can do anything...almost.  We also get a strong dose of the evils of the Poor Law and the fear most people had of the workhouse.  Dickens has much to say about the worth and dignity of poor people, and the corrupting influence of avarice.

The resolution to the central mystery was, to my mind, very strange and unsatisfying.  It was almost a Patient Griselda scenario.  The rest of the wrap-up was quite good and I enjoyed everything else, but...it was a pretty major problem to my mind.  Right up to then I was reading eagerly to find out what would happen.

Comments

  1. Like so many of Dickens' novels the plot is quite complex and its hard to keep track of it and all the characters. Sometimes I watch an adaptation just to get a feeling for the overall story before I read the book.

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  2. When I joined the CC I thought it would encourage me to read more Dickens, but instead, I have been steered into new territories, new-to-me classics and authors, while my Dickens languish on the shelves, patiently waiting their turn. At 800+ pages I now see them as my retirement reads :-)

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    Replies
    1. Brona, that's just about exactly what's happened to me too. OMF has been hanging around for YEARS and I'm pretty sure only a Spin made me read it!

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