Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens is one of those books that was just meant to be read aloud. Literally. Dickens considered himself the novelist of the common man and his works were originally published in the relatively inexpensive serialized form. I heard that in nineteenth century England, whole neighborhoods would go in together to purchase a copy for the local pub, and that families would crowd in expectantly in anticipation of a fabulous rendition compliments of the designated reader—that being, someone that could actually read.
Reading Dickens quietly to oneself is a fantastic journey into an exquisitely plotted world. But reading Dickens out loud is the actual living in it. Philip and I read Our Mutual Friend together last winter and it was a magical few weeks of fireside evenings and theatrical voices and frenzied breakfast table speculations. I even found myself so carried away by the quandaries in which all our new friends had found themselves that I hastily appended Philip’s suppertime grace one night with a quick appeal for their fates.
Our Mutual Friend is characteristically peopled by a cast of remarkable (and aptly-named!) characters, from the little crippled doll-maker, Jenny Wren to the wolf-like longshoreman, Rogue Riderhood. Who can forget the newly-risen society couple, the Veneerings? Or their adorable counterparts, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin? “Fascination” Fledgby or the indefatigable Podsnaps? At it’s simplest, Our Mutual Friend is the story of a young heir presumed dead and given the unique opportunity to observe the impact of such upon those affected by the redistribution of his fortune—including the lovely Bella Wilfer, whom he was literally willed to marry. But no story of Dickens is simple. He will move heaven and earth to weave together every single echelon of society, interconnected and interdependent, into an absolute miracle of coincidence and chance and glorious intention, taking his readers from the slums of London to the glittering drawing rooms of would-be MPs to the haunts of ‘waterside characters’ along the Thames.
I have always adored Dickens. I have always been mesmerized by his plots. But it wasn’t until a respected and learned friend pointed out to me that every one of his stories has a distinct and deliberate form that I really began to fully appreciate his genius: source material that was easily recognizable to his original audience, masterfully recreated into a performance all Dickens’ own. (Think Frankenstein for Great Expectations. And Jane Eyre for Bleak House.) But when she explained what was the source material for Our Mutual Friend, I knew why this book appealed to my heart in every particular. Why of all Dickens’ books that I have read, this one stands out from the crowd as my very favorite.
For it’s none other than the Fairy Tale.
Looking back over the novel I could see it all: fairy godmothers; an ornery mother and sisters set against a princess-in-exile; wolves that can’t quite keep to their disguises. There’s even the thread running through it of my most favorite fairy tale of all, Rapunzel. (High marks to those who can identify it ;)) And like all true fairy tales, Our Mutual Friend confronts the problems of evil and pain. The characters suffer—both by their own hand and by the consequences of others’ actions. There’s anguish and growth and excruciating choices. But the ennobling power of love flaps over the story, like a standard straight against the wind.
And that makes all the difference.
So, she leaning on her husband’s arm, they turned homeward by a rosy path which the gracious sun struck out for them in its setting. And O there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is, that O ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round!
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend