I have to work myself up to reading him. Come on, I tell myself. You know you always enjoy it when you get into it. And I do. It just takes a bit of mental limbering up before I plunge into one of his tomes. Not because of the length in and of itself—if a story is good, the longer the better!—but because Dickens can be unnecessarily wordy, and also because some of his characters are grotesque, and I don’t enjoy reading about the grotesque.
However, as I said, when I do knuckle down to the task, I have a lot of fun, and that was certainly the case with Our Mutual Friend. Part of the fun is Dickens’ sense of humour—sometimes enough to make me snigger or giggle out loud. Mrs Wilfer, for example is described as “much given to tying up her head in a pocket-handkerchief, knotted under the chin. This head-gear, in conjunction with a pair of gloves worn within doors, she seemed to consider as at once a kind of armour against misfortune (invariably assuming it when in low spirits or difficulties), and as a species of full dress.”
Another part of the fun is the gripping plot line. There are secrets—a lot of secrets—in Our Mutual Friend. There’s faithful love and bitter hate and magnanimity and murder and suspense. And there are characters as vivid and varied as the colours of the rainbow.
If you want to see what good and evil characters look like, you will find them on striking exhibition in Our Mutual Friend. Both good and evil wear many faces. The badness of Mr Lammle looks very different from the badness of Rogue Riderhood. The goodness of Mrs Boffin looks very different from the goodness of Lizzie Hexam. But whatever faces good and evil may wear, Dickens makes us turn in disgust from the one and admire the other.
I particularly appreciated, however, that in Our Mutual Friend Dickens does not simply present characters whose natures are set in stone. Two of his most important characters—Eugene and Bella—begin the story very flawed indeed, in their different ways, yet they end it as characters whom we can admire. This is especially true for Bella, a mercenary, pettish girl who becomes a noble, devoted woman. “I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house”, she declares, and indeed she is. Yet (and I know Lewis would approve of this!) becoming good does not mean no longer being Bella. She is still delightfully herself—still not confusable with Mrs Boffin or Lizzy—but herself refined and beautified.
Of course, there’s much, much more that could be said about Our Mutual Friend than can be said in one blog post, and I won’t even try to say it. But… if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out!