I am reading the Vintage edition of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.
I bought it because of the beautiful cover and the introduction by Nick Hornby. If you are a notes aficionado, however, you’re out of luck: there are no notes. But that hasn’t made the slightest difference to me, because I am on my fourth reading of the novel, and I am enjoying it so much more than when I dutifully perused every note that I am not sure this isn’t the best way to do it.
If you aren’t constantly checking the endnotes, you notice patterns you might not otherwise perceive.
For instance, many of the characters in Our Mutual Friend have doubles.
Literacy is an important issue.
And a fortune deflected has a domino effect on a huge cast of Londoners. After the supposed murder of a rich dustman’s heir, two of the dustman’s employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, inherit.
The financial corruption starts with the discovery of the body supposed to be John Harmon’s: it is actually his double’s. Gaffer Hexam, the waterman who found the corpse in the Thames, is paid a fee for it by the police; Gaffer’s doppelgänger and ex-partner, the dishonest Riderhood, tries to sell out Gaffer for a reward by claiming Gaffer is the murderer. After Gaffer’s death, the accusation leaves a stain on the character of his beautiful daughter, Lizzie, and his son, Charley.
And literacy is tangled up with all of this: when Riderhood tries to collect the reward, he insists that two lawyers “take down” his account of Gaffer’s alleged murder of John Harmon: he believes writing will protect him. Lizzie makes sacrifices to send Charley to school, against the wishes of her father; later, two of Lizzie’s aspiring boyfriends want to educate her, and they are each other’s doubles: languid but good-natured Eugene Wrayburn, and intense, violent Bradley Headstone.
After the innocent, illiterate Mr. Boffin, the Golden Dustman, inherits the fortune, he becomes obsessed with books. He buys a set of Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and hires a one-legged balladmonger and fruit stall owner, Silas Wegg, to read aloud to him in the evening.
Wegg is semi-literate, and there is much comedy as Wegg reads the verbose Gibbons. Wegg pronounces Polybius as Polly Beious, “supposed by Mr. Boffin to be a Roman virgin.”
When the money begins to corrupt Mr. Boffin, he goes to bookstores with his informally adopted daughter, Bella Wilfer, and asks her to pick out all the books about misers. His corruption actually improves Bella: she realizes how ugly her own obsession with money has been.
The one-legged Wegg’s double is Jenny Wren, the doll’s dressmaker, a 13-year-old crippled girl who sews doll clothes for a living and takes care of an alcoholic father. She is eccentric, sharp-tongued, witty, and absolutely principled: she calls herself “the Person of the house” and her father her “child”; she insists that he hand over his wages, and sends him to a corner or his room if he has spent them. Her back is crooked and she has trouble walking, but she is very brave, and her friendship with Lizzie, who comes to room with them, softens her.
A great book, one of my favorite Dickens!