Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens is one of those books that was just meant to be read aloud. Literally. Dickens considered himself the novelist of the common man and his works were originally published in the relatively inexpensive serialized form. I heard that in nineteenth century England, whole neighborhoods would go in together to purchase a copy for the local pub, and that families would crowd in expectantly in anticipation of a fabulous rendition compliments of the designated reader—that being, someone that could actually read.

Reading Dickens quietly to oneself is a fantastic journey into an exquisitely plotted world. But reading Dickens out loud is the actual living in it. Philip and I read Our Mutual Friend together last winter and it was a magical few weeks of fireside evenings and theatrical voices and frenzied breakfast table speculations. I even found myself so carried away by the quandaries in which all our new friends had found themselves that I hastily appended Philip’s suppertime grace one night with a quick appeal for their fates.

Our Mutual Friend is characteristically peopled by a cast of remarkable (and aptly-named!) characters, from the little crippled doll-maker, Jenny Wren to the wolf-like longshoreman, Rogue Riderhood. Who can forget the newly-risen society couple, the Veneerings? Or their adorable counterparts, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin? “Fascination” Fledgby or the indefatigable Podsnaps? At it’s simplest, Our Mutual Friend is the story of a young heir presumed dead and given the unique opportunity to observe the impact of such upon those affected by the redistribution of his fortune—including the lovely Bella Wilfer, whom he was literally willed to marry. But no story of Dickens is simple. He will move heaven and earth to weave together every single echelon of society, interconnected and interdependent, into an absolute miracle of coincidence and chance and glorious intention, taking his readers from the slums of London to the glittering drawing rooms of would-be MPs to the haunts of ‘waterside characters’ along the Thames.

I have always adored Dickens. I have always been mesmerized by his plots. But it wasn’t until a respected and learned friend pointed out to me that every one of his stories has a distinct and deliberate form that I really began to fully appreciate his genius: source material that was easily recognizable to his original audience, masterfully recreated into a performance all Dickens’ own. (Think Frankenstein for Great Expectations. And Jane Eyre for Bleak House.)  But when she explained what was the source material for Our Mutual Friend, I knew why this book appealed to my heart in every particular. Why of all Dickens’ books that I have read, this one stands out from the crowd as my very favorite.

For it’s none other than the Fairy Tale.

Looking back over the novel I could see it all: fairy godmothers; an ornery mother and sisters set against a princess-in-exile; wolves that can’t quite keep to their disguises. There’s even the thread running through it of my most favorite fairy tale of all, Rapunzel. (High marks to those who can identify it ;)) And like all true fairy tales, Our Mutual Friend confronts the problems of evil and pain. The characters suffer—both by their own hand and by the consequences of others’ actions. There’s anguish and growth and excruciating choices. But the ennobling power of love flaps over the story, like a standard straight against the wind.

And that makes all the difference.

So, she leaning on her husband’s arm, they turned homeward by a rosy path which the gracious sun struck out for them in its setting. And O there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is, that O ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round!

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

6 Responses to “Our Mutual Friend”

  1. I haven’t read much Dickens, but this is the one I would try due to the fact that it played a prominent role on LOST. You certainly make a good case for reading Dickens, though!

  2. Jodi Lenz says:

    Lanier,

    I LOVE “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”! Last year my daughter Joy gave me my own copy for Christmas, as I am not quick enough to read Dickens on library time :) Masterpiece Theatre on PBS did a film version of the book that was quite good. If you’ve never seen it you might enjoy it.

  3. Catherine says:

    Lanier,

    I am slowly making my way through Mr. Dickens’ work…I say ‘slowly’, because I love taking my time with each and every chapter of his novels, sometimes reading and re-reading certain passages that resonate with me. Thank you for your beautiful synopsis of “Our Mutual Friend”, which I will add to my must-read list. And might I recommend a gem for you? “Little Dorrit”…I am certain you will enjoy it immensely!

    Thank you for your lovely and insightful posts…may God continue to sweetly bless you and Philip, now and always.

    Warmly,
    Catherine

  4. Josie Ray says:

    Great insight into Dickens. And I didn’t know that about his writing “forms.” I used to start a new Dickens every September, and used to just glory in the length, depth, intricacy, and beauty of what was before me. His every phrase is so richly composed. That was when evil didn’t seem to be winning as much as it is now. Now I can’t bear to read him because the strength of evil in the bad guys–their tenacity and power–disturbs me too deeply because it’s so true to the times. But I do still read his Christmas tales! I just recently picked up a volume in fact that has several I’ve not yet read. And I hope to be able to return to his novels one day.

  5. Kate says:

    I’ve just started reading “Our Mutual Friend.” My sister and I are having a race to see who can plough through all 822 pages the fastest! =)

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