I have decided that I want 2022 to be a Year of Re-Reading — it would be rash for me to say that I won’t read any new books, but I really want to focus on returning to books that I want to know better. (I realized some years ago that I don’t really know the value and use of a book until I read it three times.)
But I decided, before the new regimen begins, to read Our Mutual Friend — one of the three Dickens novels (the other two being The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit) that I had never read. Having now completed it, I find that it’s one of the most complex and profound of Dickens’s novels but also surely the least enjoyable.
I was therefore taken aback when I saw what Chesterton said about it:
Our Mutual Friend marks a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’s life. One might call it a sort of Indian summer of his farce. Those who most truly love Dickens love the earlier Dickens; and any return to his farce must be welcomed, like a young man come back from the dead.
Did he read the same book I read? “Farce”? The humor in this book — and there is of course a lot of it — is not farcical but savage. Insofar as the book marks a return to an earlier Dickens, it’s not a happy-go-lucky farceur but rather a bitterly angry social critic. Peter Ackroyd, in his great biography of Dickens — one of the finest biographies I have ever read — gets this right:
In fact this is the first novel in which he directly confronts and attacks contemporary English social behaviour (Little Dorrit had been much more concerned with its institutions and its bureaucracy), all the marriages, arranged or otherwise, all the dinner parties and Commons business now seeming quite false and unreal, in a world of morbid vacancy, stale routines and universal hypocrisy. Social events are depicted as occasions of torment and even the act of eating and drinking in company, so joyful a social ritual in Dickens’s earlier novels, is now seen as no more than another twist of the knife. And the gossip, the dreadful gossip, the gossip of which Dickens was so often the subject and which he truly feared and hated, is also anatomised. There is here, then, a general hatred for society; a hatred which he had as a child and young man but which now returns in a savage attack upon the world in which he lived and moved and of which he was, indeed, a principal ornament. That is why his sympathies in Our Mutual Friend lie with the odd and the outcast; those who, as it were, are forced to clean up and live off the waste and detritus of the rich (such large dust heaps, in reality dominating the landscape of Battle Bridge and Liverpool Street!). And perhaps that is also why, in the figure of the distressed Betty Higden running from the spectre of the workhouse, he returns to the attack he had made upon the New Poor Laws twenty-seven years before in Oliver Twist. All the radicalism of his youth is returning again, in his last finished novel.
If this was a man who could glance once at a row of shops and remember the details of every one, how could he do otherwise than instantaneously recognise and understand the contemporary life around him? Not just the filth and wretchedness which persisted in London through the years of reconstruction — Hippolyte Taine said of Shadwell in this decade, “I have seen the lower quarters of Marseilles, Antwerp and Paris: they come nowhere near this.” But Dickens sensed and recognised something else as well; he sensed in the change of London a change in the nature of civilisation itself. A civilisation that he anatomised in Our Mutual Friend with the Veneerings and the Podsnaps. Speculation. Peculation. Overseas investment. Short-term money markets. Brokering. Joint stock banking. Discount companies. Limited liability. Credit. A world in which human identity was seen in terms of monetary value. A world of barter and exchange. And thus, in the houses of the middle-class and upper middle-class, the fake “marbling”. Veneer. Imitation wood. Chinoiserie. Exaggerated ornamentation. Blankets of fabric. Stifled silent rooms. Death. Gold. Filth. This is the world of his last completed novel.
What a troubling book. You laugh, but you laugh uneasily; you laugh to keep from raging. It’s a brilliant performance but one that I admire far more than I enjoy — as, I am sure, Dickens intended.
I think maybe it’s an especially apt book for our own moment. It does much of what what John Lanchester tried to do in his novel Capital but didn’t have the bitterness to pull off.
And with that … Happy New Year! A toast: Good health to local cultures and confusion to surveillance capitalism!