Tuesday, 22 April 2003

Our mutual friend

Listening to:

Bach, Christmas Oratorio.

Just read:

Charles Dickens, Our mutual friend. This is Dickens’s last complete novel, and it's a great big 800 page wodge of a book. It’s also great fun to read and very engrossing. I would definitely rank it up there with my other favourite, Bleak House. In a story of this scale, Dickens has plenty of time to weave together a great many threads, and the plotting is very good. There are two principal story arcs, but these combine with a number of other story-lines to great effect. Lots happens, and it happens to lots of different characters. Even the two heroines are interesting and not just virtuous saps.

I’d admit that you can see models for both heroines in the two wives of David Copperfield (flighty beautiful idiot & quiet saint), but they both get to do interesting things on their own behalf, and at least one of them develops in a significant way. Both are the subject of much sentimentality in the later stages of the novel, and I learnt that I can handle saintly sentimentality a lot better than I can deal with cutesy endearingness.

Just as happened in Bleak House (where the main characters are pretty unmemorable), the various minor characters really make this novel. The Boffins, Silas Wegg, Mr. Venus, and Jenny Wren are all larger-than-life, often funny and definitely memorable. They may be unrealistic grotesques, but that doesn't make them any less compelling. When Jenny Wren repeatedly calls “Come and be dead”, a superficially prosaic scene becomes quite spooky. Dickens also has great fun with a story strand featuring Society and its affectations, including a Pecksniff like character (from Martin Chuzzlewit) tellingly called Podsnap. This strand seems to mainly give Dickens a chance to be satirical, but does also provide one ultimately important character, and a number of plot twists and turns.

The plot is good and has one particular twist that caught me completely by surprise. It did feel as if it was slightly cheating on Dickens’s part (a little like the way in which David Copperfield’s first wife conveniently died), but it did allow that nice cheerful, wrapping-up-all-the-loose-ends ending, and it even made me smile because it's written up so well. There are villains and heroes, and their conflict holds your attention. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that that villains are interesting in their own rights. Sure, Fascination Fledgeby (what a name!) is a bit one-dimensional, but he fills his minor role brilliantly. So, I can only say that I definitely recommend this classic novel.

To read next:

Philip Lieberman, Eve spoke: human language and human evolution.