Well, I had read a bunch of Dickens novels. Always a little ambivalent about Dickens. Had to admire the invention and the drive, but gagged on the sentiment. And the plots are shambolic. Like Trollope better. And Thackeray (Thackeray? Yes, Thackeray.). Anyway...
“Oh, you must read Our Mutual Friend!.”
Actually, I could believe it. I knew that OMF was Dickens’ last completed novel, and I had a vague sense that it was thought to be his most mature or complex—I had heard it called his Tempest. So we tackled it in the Mr. and Mrs. Buce home read-aloud club. An ambitious undertaking, I must say; it took is all the way through
In the end, I still can’t make up my mind. Or: I guess in the end, it is a little hard to see just how one could come off calling it the best Dickens; I certainly liked Little Dorritt better. I can’t quite get my head around Bleak House, but on the whole I would say that one is better, too. And maybe Great Expectations. And David Copperfield. And Pickwick.
Which seems to leave OMF fairly far back in the pack. It’s easy to specify reasons. Of course no one reads Dickens for the plot, but the plot of this one appears even more ramshackled than most. There was never, so far as I can grasp, any remotely plausible motivation for the protagonist’s having acted as he did. Another principal character makes a sudden, sharp, unmotivated, shift in personality—and then a few chapters later, another sudden, sharp, shift back. There’s some galumphing satire of the high life that tries for comedy and ends up with arch. There is a thread on which Dickens tries to make his peace with Jewish readers by seeking to paint a “sympathetic” Jewish character, and ends up with a Rube Goldberg creation who has no plausible humanity at all.
And yet, and yet. … And yet we kept reading, and enthusiastically. Somehow, in all this farrago, Dickens’ imagination keeps saving the day. He does indeed present a couple of characters so arresting that their names have passed into the language: Boffin, the golden dustman, and Podsnap, the avatar of Podsnappery—arresting, although I have to say, not quite as memorable as I might have expected, given their afterlife.
And there are others, less part of the common culture, but if anything more satisfying. That would include Silas Wegg, the villainous keeper of the dustheap; Mr. Venus, the taxidermist, who agrees as a condition of marriage not to stuff any more female humans; and perhaps most of all Jenny Wren, the “doll’s dressmaker,” one of the strangest and funniest grotesques in all of literature.
And there is more than just character. I’d have to concede that Dickens here does as well as he has ever done in painting “big-picture” London—all classes of society, from the mudlarks scrounging in the riverbed, up through to the grasping social climbers on the edge of riches and power. And the River: Dickens has never done better with his beloved
He’s got a good premise here, too, in “dust”—aka garbage, detritus, merde, not all that different from money which, one way or another, everyone seems to seek.
A good premise, but in the end, it doesn’t quite work. Sometimes it just gets lost in the teeming multitude. More tellingly, it comes to seem labored and overdone. For here we are back to a central truth about Dickens: he really doesn’t how the world works. He wants to believe he does, and I suppose he thinks he does. But the nearer he gets to the nuts and bolts of ordinary life, the further he descends into mawkish platitude.
So, at the end of the day, a mixed grade. The center doesn’t hold. But the edges—ah, they are often quite wonderful. At 800 pages, if he keeps you turning, and turning, and always coming back for more, why he must have been doing something right. And we did, and he did.