The story opens with a man in a boat, who apparently makes his living by fishing things out of the river, finding a man’s body. The deceased is identified as John Harmon, the son of a rich, peculiar miser who had stipulated in his will that John would only get his inheritance if he married a Bella Wilfur, whom John did not know. If he refused, the inheritance would go to Mr. Harmon’s faithful servants, the Boffins. Since he was found dead, the money goes to the Boffins anyway.
The Boffins are kindhearted, yet a bit naive. They do use some money to bring themselves “into fashion,” but they want to take Bella under their wing, since they feel she was “cheated” out of her part in the inheritance. They also want to take in an orphan boy and give him John’s name in his honor, feeling that it would be good “to think that a child will be made brighter, and better, and happier, because of that poor sad child…And isn’t it pleasant to know that the good will be done with the poor sad child’s own money?” But their sudden wealth also brings out people who want to take advantage of them. I love this description of the Boffins:
These two ignorant and unpolished people had guided themselves so far on in their journey of life, by a religious sense of duty and desire to do right. Ten thousand weaknesses and absurdities might have been detected in the breasts of both; ten thousand vanities additional, possibly, in the breast of the woman. But the hard wrathful and sordid nature that had wrung as much work out of them as could be got in their best days, for as little money as could be paid to hurry on their worst, had never been so warped but that it knew their moral straightness and respected it. In its own despite, in a constant conflict with itself and them, it had done so. And this is the eternal law. For, Evil often stops short at itself and dies with the doer of it; but Good, never.
Through his most inveterate purposes, the dead Jailer of Harmony Jail [a nickname for their boss] had known these two faithful servants to be honest and true. While he raged at them and reviled them for opposing him with the speech of the honest and true, it had scratched his stony heart, and he had perceived the powerlessness of all his wealth to buy them if he had addressed himself to the attempt. So, even while he was their griping taskmaster and never gave them a good word, he had written their names down in his will. So, even while it was his daily declaration that he mistrusted all mankind–and sorely indeed he did mistrust all who bore any resemblance to himself–he was as certain that these two people, surviving him, would be trustworthy in all things from the greatest to the least, as he was that he must surely die.
Bella was disturbed and miffed by being named in someone’s will in that way, especially someone she doesn’t know. But she’s is discontent with her poor home and lack of money and nice things, and the invitation from the Boffins is a welcome one.
As usual with Dickens, there are a plethora of characters and subplots which intersect through the novel and come together in the end. Among them are:
Lizzie Hexam, whose father originally found the body in the river. She desires a better future for her brother, Charley. She has tried to teach him what little she knows, but her father is against education, feeling that a desire for it means they don’t think well of him in his uneducated state. Lizzie finds a way to save up enough money to send Charley off to a school. She’s being pursued by two unsuitable suitors: a lawyer named Eugene Wrayburn, who is above her in station, and Bradley Headstone, Charley’s schoolmaster, who comes across as stiff and strange and has a violent temper.
The Veneerings are among the upper crust of society and constantly host dinner parties for others in their echelon. They are aptly named, as they seem all surface and no depth. Some of Dickens’ most biting sarcasm is reserved for the members of “Society” and their judgments.
The Lammles are newlywed friends of the Veneerings. Alfred and Sophronia Lammle had each deceived the other about the amount of property and money they had, and after they are married they find the other has nothing. So they devise schemes to acquire money to support not only themselves but his gambling habit. I’m not a big fan of sarcasm, but I thought Dickens was pure genius with some of their dialogue when they pretended to be oh, so in love in front of other people. For instance, when Mr Lammle begins a question with, “Could you believe…,” Mrs. Lammle responds, “Of course I could believe, Alfred, anything that you told me.” He responds, “You dear one! And I anything that you told me.” And later:
“I give you my honor, my dear Sophronia—“
“And I know what that is, love.”
Fledgeby is a friend of the Lammles. He secretly runs a business that seems to be primarily involved with money-lending. He operates behind the scenes while his servant, the much-maligned Jew, Mr. Riah, does his dirty work and is sometimes portrayed as the head of the business. Fledgeby delights in getting people in tight places and then calling for their loans.
John Rokesmith comes from seemingly out of nowhere to offer his assistance to the Boffins as a secretary. Despite their lack of knowledge of him, they hire him on, and his expertise is just what they need. He’s attracted to Bella, but she is not at all interested in a mere secretary.
And those are just a handful of the many. I don’t know if Dickens had the specific verse in mind about the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, but it is an apt theme for this book. A couple of characters have little and are content; a couple have much and aren’t corrupted. But most of the others are either coveting or scheming to increase their wealth, usually at someone else’s expense, or being corrupted by having it or desiring it.
There are also quite a lot of people pretending to be what they’re not. The Lammles and Mr. Fledgby I’ve already mentioned, but there is one character with two other identities and personas besides his real one, another who disguises himself for a time, and several who misrepresent what they’re about.
There is a mystery involving the body found in the river (which I would dearly love to discuss but I don’t want to give it away.) There are detestable villains and truly kind, decent and good characters. And there are a few who start out one way and then go the other.
And Dickens, as a master weaver, brings the tapestry together as a whole. In an introduction by an Andrew Sanders to a 1994 Alfred A. Knopf edition, he deftly defends criticisms by Henry James towards this book, particularly that Dickens “was a tired old man playing tired old literary tricks” by recycling certain types of characters. Sanders points out definite differences in many of them: for instance, “Who, persuaded to believe in the virtues of poor-boys-made-good by Oliver Twist or in social liberation through education by David Copperfield, is ready for the distortions of Bradley Headstone and Charley Hexam?” He also discusses the different portrayals of London in Dickens’ different works and other things going on in his life at the time of his writing this book. It was very helpful that he explained how someone could become rich in that time by collecting and distributing people’s household waste, as Mr. Harmon had done. Evidently that was not at all uncommon then. I’m glad I happened upon this edition in the library: Mr. Sanders’ introduction greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the novel.
I had been told that the audio recording by Mil Nicholson was excellent, so I looked for it and could only find it at Librivox. Mil’s narration was indeed superb. I primarily listened to the recording but used the library paper copy to refer back to certain sections. I think this may have been my first Librivox recording, which specializes in books in the public domain and offers them for free, which I much appreciate. However, there were some annoyances with the recording. When I was out, either in the car or at the gym, two times I most listen to audiobooks, sometimes a new chapter would not download until I got back to my Wifi at home. And at the end of every chapter the narrator said something like, “End of Book 1, Chapter 1,” then there would be a long pause, and then the narrator would say, “Book 1, Chapter 2 of Our Mutual Friend. This Librivox recording is in the public domain. Recorded by Mil Nicholson. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Book 1, The Cup and the Lip. Chapter 2: The Man From Somewhere.” Hearing all of the between every single chapter got on my nerves quite a lot at first, but after a while I got used to it. Plus I didn’t see any way to bookmark a favorite spot or quote one might want to note, as Audible recordings have. So Audible is still my first love as a source for audiobooks, but Librivox is good for free recordings, especially if the book or, in this case, the narrator, is one that can’t be found somewhere else. I am not opposed to trying them again some time.
I very much enjoyed the story and loved many of the characters, particularly Lizzie, Bella, John Rokesmith, and Mrs. Boffin. I’ve been on a quest to read the Dickens books I am not familiar with, and am glad to now have this one completed. I don’t think it quite ranks up there with my favorites of his, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but it is still a wonderful story well told.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)