Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Listening to an Old “Friend”

When I went through my Dickens period thirty years ago, buying a complete edition and reading it all but cover to cover, I developed a strange favorite. I read all the best-loved titles, from The Pickwick Papers (begun 1836) to Great Expectations (completed 1861), but the book I loved more than all was one I had literally never heard of. It is Dickens’s last complete novel and his darkest, Our Mutual Friend (1865)

We’ve now entered Charles Dickens’s bicentennial month (he was born February 7, 1812), so I thought I would use my monthly credit at to listen this old Friend again. On my morning walks, I have been reintroduced to a small galaxy of great characters: the river rat Gaffer Hexam, who may or may not have found the body of wealthy heir John Harmon; a couple of nouveaux riches  with one of those amazing Dickens names, the Veneerings; the one-legged “literary man” Silas Wegg; . . . and most especially, the dumpy but incorruptible Nicodemus “Noddy” Boffin.

As caretaker for the dead man whose estate Harmon may or may not have inherited, Noddy has come into an extraordinary fortune worth £100,000. He and his wife reside in Boffin’s Bower, a small dwelling sitting amid piles of highly valuable “dust.” Today, we might say that the Boffins life smack in the middle of a junkyard. With her new wealth, “Henrietty” Boffin has gone in “neck and crop for fashion,” but Noddy continues to boast of her moral rectitude.

I walk with my head down, smiling to myself and laughing out loud. Our Mutual Friend is great entertainment, but why should a Catholic care about Charles Dickens?

This Catholic cares, for starters, because this Catholic is a writer and Charles Dickens is the greatest writer of English literature since Shakespeare. And prolific! He churned out his novels in monthly installments, forced to make 20,000-word deadlines with ferocious, clocklike regularity. Yet he had so much energy that he walked over ten miles a night through the streets of London so that he wouldn’t explode. The walker in me likes that about him too.

Dickens was the father of ten children but, in the end, not a perfect husband. Late in his marriage, when he was falling madly for a young actress half his age, a crush he probably did not consummate, Dickens built a brick wall down the middle of his bedroom and had his wife sleep on the other side. There is a wonderful early scene in Boffin’s Bower where Noddy explains the arrangement of the sitting room to Wegg, who has been hired to read aloud from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The two men sit on rough wooden settles to either side of the fire, with sawdust between them, as in a pub. Meanwhile, Henrietty sits on an upholstered sofa facing the fire, with a carpet under her feet, as in a posh drawing room. The carpet ends where the sawdust begins, and so the Boffins avoid the Dickenses’ marital fate.

Dickens was brought up in the Church of England, but said and wrote little about religion. There are few religious characters in his novels, with the exception of overzealous evangelicals like Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations. (Most Dickens characters are over-something.) Still, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both considered him a role model and a great Christian author, and he occasionally let his private thoughts be known. In a letter to an Anglican priest, he wrote,

With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion; but I must admit that to a man (or a woman) they all arise and wash their faces, and do not appear unto men to fast. 

For me, Dickens succeeds in reflecting “our great Master” in all of his “people,” good and bad. Not even his worst villains are evil through and through; each has his or her touch of humanity—or has loved ones who recognize their humanity. Gaffer Hexam makes his living rowing the Thames while looking for corpses floating there. Another character has cornered the market on human skeletons, which he reconstructs from body parts acquired legally and otherwise. So you see, Our Mutual Friend is a dark book, and in it London’s great river is a smear of slime and sludge.

But even a character like Gaffer Hexam can be redeemed, as Charles Dickens writes him. Gaffer’s daughter Lizzie is one of the virginal angels who populate Dickens’s novels like a heavenly host, and her love for her father, for whom she keeps house, may or may not be redemptive.

In fact, I do not remember how it all comes out. I will let you know. But meanwhile I know this: Like the Christian life, a novel by Charles Dickens offers wonderful surprises.

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