Tag Archives: Victorian Literature

Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens last completed novel (he would die before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood), serialized in 1864-65. My first introduction to the story came with the 1998 BBC adaptation, which is excellent, and it has remained one of Dickens’ novels that I enjoy the most.

Some critics have said that the River Thames (always just called “the river” in the story) is the true main character of the book. Filthy and polluted, the river is a source of both life and death. People earn their living on the river, drown and are resurrected in the river, follow the river towards their destination. It seems to contain all that is both good and horrible in England and much of the story and characters are connected to it in one way or another.

On the death of the old miser John Harmon, who made a fortune with dust mounds (he basically collected, removed and recycled rubbish), his long-banished son, also called John Harmon, must return to collect his fortune. But in order to inherit, the will indicates that he must marry a young lady called Bella Wilfer, whom he has never met. But a body is found in the river and it is believed to be his body. The money then passes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, good and unpretentious servants to Harmon.

As in all Dickens novels, it’s difficult to summarize his books because there are so many characters, whose plots weave in and out of each other’s. The body in the river is found by Gaffer Hexam, who earns a living stealing from the bodies he finds in the river. His daughter is Lizzie, who attracts the interest of the usually bored gentleman, Eugene Wrayburn. Lizzie also attracts the interest of her brother’s “decent” headmaster, a man who has been called the Norman Bates of Victorian literature: Bradley Headstone. Everything about him is described as decent, yet nearly everyone who comes into contact with him can palpably sense that something is off.

Mr. Boffin soon acquires a mysterious secretory named John Rokesmith, who falls in love with Bella Wilfer. Rogue Riderhood, who claims to be “a[n] honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow” working on the river, in reality lives up to his name of Rogue. The Jewish Mr. Riah is Dickens’ attempt to atone for creating the evil Jewish Fagin. Riah is kind and sympathetic and becomes the surrogate father to Jenny Wren, a friend of Lizzie’s. Mrs. Higden is the poor woman who possesses a horror of the workhouse. Con artists, villains, innocents, and unforgettable characters abound.

Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie look for bodies in the river – illustrated by Marcus Stone

Besides the river, another theme that seems to be consistent throughout the entire story is that of stalking. Everyone seems to be stalking someone, whether for good or ill. Stalking them, watching them, loving them from a distance, resenting them, searching for them, testing them. At one point Bradley Headstone is stalking Eugene Wrayburn, who is looking for Lizzie. The line between love and obsession seems a thin one at times.

Another theme, of course, is that of greed and the corrosive effect of it on people. Greed and lust for money – miserliness once one has money. Not to mention murder, jealousy, lust, greed, hatred, obsession, indifference…

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the novel is this quote from Mr. Twemlow, an insignificant member of Society (Society being an entity that requires capitalization) who startles everyone by bursting forth at the end of the book after spending eight hundred pages being passed over and ignored and used more as a useful appendage at Society gatherings. I like this quote because it provides a more expansive definition of love. Love is a word used so often that it becomes nearly meaningless, but Mr. Twemlow inadvertently provides a beautiful description of love’s varied facets (which I will put in bold letters). Mr. Twemlow is referring to a marriage contracted by a gentleman to a woman from the bottom of society that has turned Society aghast (operating like a sort of hollow Greek chorus providing commentary on the events of the story, but woefully out of touch and bound by their rules and self-congratulations).

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

Gratitude, respect, admiration, and affection live on, though Society is too blinkered to notice.


Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Books


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Charles Dickens


original illustrations by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes

I have a goal to read every novel written by Charles Dickens and when I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood last week, I came within three books of that goal: Nicholas NicklebyThe Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. I must say, however, that I did not anticipate how frustratingly tantalizing it would be to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I knew it was an unfinished novel, but somehow it didn’t register in my brain that it would not be satisfying to be left hanging in the middle of a book, especially a mystery.

Charles Dickens began The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870 in serial form, but died unexpectedly before the book was complete. What is frustrating is that he got far enough to generate sympathy and interest in the characters and far enough to set up his mystery, but not far enough to tip his hand as to the final outcome.

The story is set in Cloisterham, a cathedral town, where John Jasper is the choir master, though also an opium addict with some inner demons and in love with his nephew’s fiance, Rosa Bud. His nephew is Edwin Drood, who believes, along with everyone else, that Jasper is completely devoted to him.

Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies. Both their fathers were widowed and good friends and hoped their respective child would find happiness with the other. But because Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies, they don’t view each other in a romantic light. They quarrel and tease and only stay engaged because they are so used to the idea that it doesn’t occur to them that they need not marry.

John Jasper at an opium den

John Jasper at an opium den

But into this state of affairs comes the Landless twins, Neville and Helena. Neville is instantly smitten with Rosa and resents Edwin because he does not properly appreciate Rosa. They quarrel and their quarrel is exacerbated by Jasper, who drugs their drinks and gets them so heated up that Neville tries to attack Edwin. Jasper then tells people how he fears for Edwin’s life, so violent is Neville’s temper. Meanwhile, Jasper is engaged in some odd nocturnal activities, roaming the cathedral at night with the vagrant stonemason Durdles, stealing keys to the cathedral from Durdles, learning how Durdles can find dead bodies in the cathedral, learning about the quick lime that supposedly can eat even the bones of a body. It’s extremely suspicious.

He then has both Neville and Edwin over for dinner so the two of them can make up their quarrel, but that night Edwin disappears. Jasper accuses Neville of killing him and most of the town believes him, because of Neville’s temper and because he’s an outsider from Ceylon. Only Rosa suspects Jasper – who she does not like or trust – and seemingly her guardian Mr. Grewgious, though he doesn’t say so. Also, a mysterious stranger named Dick Datchery comes to Cloisterham and seems keenly interested in Jasper.

John Jasper declares his somewhat violent love for Rosa

John Jasper declares his love for Rosa

Who is Dick Datchery? Is he someone we’ve already met or an entirely new character? Is Edwin Drood really dead? Could he be Dick Datchery? Is John Jasper really the killer or did someone else do it? I suppose it depends on how tricky you think Dickens was trying to be, though I think it’s a mistake to analyze the mystery in the same way you would an Agatha Christie novel, where the killer could literally be anybody. Dickens, I wouldn’t think, would be that devious.

It is commonly accepted that John Jasper is indeed the killer – it would seem like a waste, all those unforgettably atmospheric clues indicating Jasper – and that Drood is dead. Where there is more controversy is Dick Datchery. The 1935 Universal movie -with Claude Rains as John Jasper – has Neville Landless be Datchery, but that only made sense because in the movie Rosa was also in love with Neville and there is no evidence in the book that she is. She seems more interested in another character who comes into the story late, Mr. Tartar, a former sailor. There is also no opportunity for Neville in the book, since he is in London and Datchery has taken up residence in Cloisterham.

Tartar is also often suggested as Datchery, but because he is introduced so late in the story, he seems to have no reason to be interested in Jasper and he only meets Rosa after Datchery arrives in Cloisterham. One person has suggested Helena – she used to disguise herself as a boy when she and Neville would try to run away from their step-father when they were children – but it seems harder to believe her disguised as an old man.

Jasper has fainted after learning from Mr. Gregious that Edwin and Rosa had decided - just before Edwin disappeared -not to marry. His extreme reaction seems to indicate distress that he killed Edwin needlessly

Jasper has fainted after learning from Mr. Gregious that Edwin and Rosa had decided – just before Edwin disappeared – not to marry. His extreme reaction seems to indicate distress that he didn’t need to kill Edwin

The other popular surmise is that Datchery is really Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious’ clerk. He’s absent during the latter half of the book and so in a position to play Datchery in Cloisterham. Also, if Mr. Grewgious suspects Jasper, it would make sense for him to send somebody to investigate. Objections to Bazzard are that his own droopy personality is too much at odds with Datchery’s more robust manner and that we know and care for Bazzard too little to make it interesting to the reader if he were Datchery.

The original consensus after the death of Dickens was that Drood was not dead at all. Somehow, Jasper failed to kill him and Datchery is really Edwin Drood. This finds some support in drafts by Dickens were he refers to Edwin in hiding. Datchery, then, could really be Edwin. G.K. Chesterton points out that if Edwin was dead and Jasper killed him, there seems to be little mystery, but only a matter of time before the characters find it Jasper out. Conversely, if Edwin is not dead, then there is still some mystery regarding Edwin. However, Charles Dickens’ son said that his father had told him that Jasper was really the killer and other people said that the story Dickens’ described to them unequivocally had Edwin dead.

Personally, I find it most appealing to imagine that Edwin is really alive and masquerading as Dick Datchery. My reason is partly wish-fulfillment. I was just starting to like Edwin when he disappeared. He and Rosa have a very touching scene when they discuss the novel fact that they do not need to marry. It’s touching because it signals that they are both maturing, actually viewing the other person and not just themselves. When he disappears, it’s like his character arc gets cut off half-way. Also, I am attracted to the idea because I don’t find the idea of anyone else creditable, except Bazzard, but since I don’t know Bazzard very well, the idea that he is really Dick Datchery doesn’t strike me as very interesting or satisfying.


Neville Landless stands by the piano, Jasper is playing the piano, Helena Landless is watching him play, Rosa has blonde hair and stands behind her and is singing, Miss Twinkleton looks on while Edwin plays with the fan and Mr. Crisparkle and his mother are seated to the right

Likewise, it seems most satisfying if John Jasper was – or attempted to be – the killer of Edwin Drood. Otherwise, all the apparent set-up would be nothing but a red-herring. His climbing the cathedral tower on a moonlit night portended no murder? That seems lame. I don’t like plot twists merely for the sake of plot twists unless they are set up properly so that it makes sense and doesn’t nullify everything that came before.

I already want to read the book again and see if I can garner more clues. I can see how people get obsessed with the mystery. My only concern is that I will over-analyze a book that probably cannot bear such close scrutiny. One critic pointed out that whatever Dickens may have intended, he often changed his mind while writing and there is infinite variety in how the novel could be resolved. When Rupert Holmes wrote the musical “Drood” he gave the musical multiple endings, with multiple killers of Edwin, which the audience could then choose.

And despite being unfinished, I did enjoy The Mystery of Edwin Drood apart from the tantalizing puzzle. I was interested in the story and Dickens’ still has his delightful array of eccentric characters. Mr. Grewgious talks mechanically like a clock and speaks of his “Angularity,” but underneath he is a sentimental, kindly and shrewd lawyer. Billickin (she never specifies whether “miss” or “mrs” but prefers to sign her name simply as Billickin) always speaks the truth with magnificent candor and develops a rivalry with Rosa’s school mistress, Miss Twinkleton. Durdles is a stonemason who hires a young boy to throw stones at him if he is out after a certain point at night (and it seems likely that this boy might know something about Jasper). Mr. Tartar is a breezy sailor who offers to share his window flowers with Neville, who feels low while living in London. Mr. Tartar also seems likely to make off with the affections of Rosa.

I just wish I knew what happens to all these characters!


Posted by on October 12, 2015 in Books


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens

0192545124Charles Dickens’ novels are almost impossible to summarize and Little Dorrit is one of his longer ones, serialized between 1855 and 1857. There are, however, several themes that emerge, themes that I largely missed when I first read Little Dorrit years ago, apart from the obvious prison metaphor. People are either in prison physically or mentally through their attitudes and beliefs. But this time around I also noticed how important deception is in the novel: both the deception of self and the deception of others. Appearances are everything to most of the characters. The character Mrs. General calls it, in all seriousness, the “formation of a surface.” But at the same time, Dickens’ heroine, Amy Dorrit, offers an alternative form of living, one that is as free from deception as it unselfish.

Actually, there are two main heroes. Arthur Clennam is a middle-aged man who returns to London from China after working twenty years in business with his father. His father is now dead and he returns to tell his mother that he feels that he has discharged his duty to the family and wishes to resign from the business. His mother, self-righteous, cold and implacable, is not very understanding.

Meanwhile, Arthur Clennam begins trying to help the Dorrit family. William Dorrit has been in the Marshalsea – a debtor’s prison (where Dickens’ father spent time) – for over twenties years and is looked after by his daughter, Amy Dorrit, also known as Little Dorrit. Little Dorrit is twenty-one, but so tiny that from a distance people mistake her for a child. But though slight in appearance, she is mighty in goodness and steadfastness. In fact, Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam stand out in a selfish and grim world, in their steadfast attempts to help others and maintain their friends.

There are so many other, vibrant characters, and secrets, reversals of fortune, revenge and hatred and blackmail and lost hopes and bitterness and love, debt and poverty and excess wealth. One of the great creations of Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, the supreme example of bureaucracy, where the goal is “how not to get things done.” Arthur Clennam must repeatedly venture into the Circumlocution Office in an effort to look into things, only to be defeated by rounds of paperwork and idiot officials. You have to read the book to really appreciate it all and it’s a brilliant book. It unfolds slowly, as many disparate characters are introduced, only to be brought together in the end in the kaleidoscopic way that Dickens often employed.


original illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne

Along with the monolithic Circumlocution Office is monolithic Society, which engages in the most shameless deception, both towards itself and others. The swindler, Mr. Merdle, deludes Society, but Society also deludes themselves, so worshipful are they of anyone who has the appearance of making a lot of money. The bitter Miss Wade deceives herself by believing that no one really loves her and that whenever people are trying to be kind, they are actually lording it over her because she does not know who her parents are.

Arthur Clennam’s mother deceives herself and others. Not only is she hiding a secret from Arthur about his father, but she is so dogmatically convinced of her own wrathful righteousness that it affects her health and she becomes essentially imprisoned in a wheel chair, always in the same room of her house. Mr. Dorrit knows that his children – Amy, Tip and Fanny – must earn their living, but prefers to pretend to himself and everyone else that he is still a gentlemen and they are just out making social calls. And when the Dorrit family does come into money, he likes to pretend that the entire twenty years of living at the Marshalsea never happened at all. Not to mention overlooking how much his daughter, Amy, has done for him. Even good Mrs. Flora Finching (who brings an entirely new dimension to the phrase “motor mouth”) likes to delude herself that Arthur is going, at any moment, to renew his romance with her from twenty years ago.

And the aggravating thing is that there is no reasoning with these kinds of people. Miss Wade cannot be persuaded that there are genuinely good people in existence. When Mr. Dorrit’s brother, Fredrick, remonstrates with him and Fanny and Tip for overlooking how much Little Dorrit pulled them through their years of poverty, they refuse to see his point, instead imaging themselves unreasonably abused.

Little_Dorrit_-_Rigour_of_Mr._F's_AuntThis phenomenon is perfectly demonstrated in one maddening scene between Arthur Clennam and the socially well-connected, though relatively impoverished, Mrs. Gowan. She insists that it was she who did not approve of her son’s marriage to the daughter of Arthur Clennam’s friends, the Meagleses, when the truth is that the opposition to the marriage was coming from Mr. Meagles. But because they have money (earned from trade) that will benefit her son, she prefers to pretend that her son is the one conferring a favor on the Meagleses and slanders them by saying they were out to catch her son because of his good family connections. No manner of protestation by Arthur can convince her otherwise and she sweeps away in haughty condescension. Utterly irritating and entirely typical of many of the characters in Little Dorrit.

But that is the profound truth of Dickens. People are not swayed by reason or truth or facts when they find it convenient to believe something else, whether for pride or self-interest or some other self-absorbed motive. The primary objective for those people is putting on a good front and rationalizing themselves to themselves and others.

Mrs. General – hired to be a companion to Amy and Fanny Dorrit – tries to instruct Amy (Fanny needs no instruction on this point) on how to form “a surface.” “Nothing disagreeable should ever be looked…A truly refined mind will seem to be ignorant of the existence of anything that is not perfectly proper, placid and pleasant.” Mrs. General likes words that begin with “p.” She believes the letter ‘p’ is uniquely designed to cause the mouth and face to be formed in the most ladylike and pleasing expression and will repeat to herself at proper intervals, “Papa, potato, poultry, prunes and prism.”

downloadBut if there is no reasoning with people or getting past their surfaces and their self-absorption, what is to be done? Dickens’ doesn’t exactly offer a solution. Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam’s response is primarily simple acceptance (they are not usually blind to other people’s faults and frequently look at things that are “not perfectly proper, placid and pleasant”). They accept people as they are and try to do the best they can, especially Little Dorrit. Dickens’ says quite explicitly that Amy is never ashamed of her father; she loves him. She loves her entire family, no matter how they treat her. Her secret seems to be an acceptance of the fact that she cannot change people, and she never tilts at windmills (though Arthur occasionally does, especially with the Circumlocution Office); she merely works with what she’s got and there’s something heroic and inspiring about her never-ceasing efforts for good.

Dickens’ ends the book with this line about Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. He, too, seems to have accepted that the world is going to remain the way it is. The only thing that makes it bearable is the presence of people like Amy and Arthur.

They went quietly down into the roaring streets; inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.


Posted by on August 24, 2015 in Books


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: