Our Mutual Friend is Dickens’s last completed novel. The story revolves around the Harmon fortune. Old John Harmon, a cold-hearted miser, has died leaving his fortune to his estranged son, also John Harmon, on condition that he marry Bella Wilfer. If he does not, the fortune is to go to a faithful servant, Mr. Boffin. The surviving John Harmon has lived abroad for fourteen years — ever since breaking with his father at the age of fourteen over his father’s ill-treatment of his sister who had recently died. He returns to England, shrinking from his father’s memory and money and mistrustful of his father’s intention in thrusting a marriage with a perfect stranger on him.
John Harmon does not claim his fortune, for, upon his arrival in England, his body is found dead in the river, and the fortune passes to the unsophisticated Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, the only friends of his and his sister’s childhood. The kindly Boffins determine to do something for the disappointed Bella Wilfer, opening their now-grand home to her. Bella is a charming and loving, but spoiled girl. Old John Harmon had seen her when she was a little girl, stamping and screaming and “laying into” her father with her bonnet. She detested being poor, and is more than happy to move to the Boffins’ splendid home. She grows to love them, but she admits to her father, of whom she is the pet and favorite, that now being able to see what money can really do, she has determined that she must have, and therefore must marry it.
A part of the Boffins’ household is Mr. Boffin’s new secretary, John Rokesmith. And, if John Harmon “had a twin brother upon earth, Mr. John Rokesmith was the man”, for they are one and the same person. In transit to England, John Harmon had met George Radfoot, whose slight resemblance to himself had led to them occasionally being mistaken for each other. Together they concocted a plan. Upon arriving in England, they will change identities, so the real John Harmon can see what Bella is like, whether for any reason she would be unhappy marrying him and whether he for any reason would be unhappy marrying her. At least, this was John Harmon’s plan. George Radfoot’s plan was to double-cross John Harmon. In the event, however, they are both double-crossed, beaten, and thrown into the river, and it was George Radfoot’s body with John Harmon’s effects on it that was found dead in the river. John Harmon himself managed to survive, although somewhat befuddled by a poison that had been given him. In this condition, he decides to take advantage of being thought dead to carry out his plan to test Bella. Thus, he becomes secretary to Mr. Boffin.
This deception causes some unexpected problems. First of all, John Harmon, now John Rokesmith, discovers that Bella Wilfer is as mercenary as he feared she would be, but falls in love with her anyway. Because he is thought to be dead, his fortune passed to the Boffins’, who are now enjoying it and doing good with it, believing it to be their own. And then, an innocent man, Jesse Hexam, is accused of murdering John Harmon. Hexam dies before the accusation can be investigated, but his children, Lizzie and Charley, live under the stigma. This circumstance leads Rokesmith to consider of himself, “He would obtain complete retraction from the accuser, and set the wrong right; but clearly the wrong could never have been done if he had never planned a deception. Then, whatever inconvenience or distress of mind the deception cost him, it was manful repentantly to accept as among its consequences, and make no complaint.” (Book II, Chapter 14). He disguises himself and gets a written retraction from the man responsible for the false accusation. He then considers the other consequences of his deception. If he “comes back to life”, he either takes his fortune, in effect buying Bella, who he now knows does not care for him, and disinheriting the Boffins, now in possession of the fortune, or he is forced to punish Bella by refusing to marry her and thus denying her his wealth and leave the fortune to the Boffins. Seeing this, Rokesmith resolves to remain unknown, first proposing to Bella, that he may know for certain that she would not have had him for himself alone, which she confirms. He resolves to stay with the Boffins until he has been able to give them a grasp on caring for their new fortune, so that they won’t become prey to money-grubbers, and then leave.
Unfortunately, the previously generous Mr. Boffin becomes spoiled by his fortune, becoming more and more tight-fisted and hard. He becomes domineering to Rokesmith and finally dismisses him after discovering that he proposed to Bella. This treatment of Rokesmith opens Bella’s eyes to how wrong her mercenary ambitions really are, and she leaves the Boffins defending Rokesmith, whom she has grown to love. Shortly afterwards, she and Rokesmith marry. They live together quite happily and contentedly. Sometime after their baby is born, the couple meet with Mortimer Lightwood while out walking. Lightwood was the lawyer in the Harmon case. He had seen Rokesmith soon after the supposed murder of John Harmon, only at that time Rokesmith called himself Julius Hanford. Hanford had behaved in such a way as to arouse the suspicions of the police, and another result of Rokesmith’s deception now comes out: he is suspected of murdering himself. He is able to easily prove his identity to the police, still without telling his wife who he really is. Not long afterwards, he tells Bella that he has a new job with a new house attached to it. He asks her to come inspect it, and takes her to — the Boffins’. And the whole story is told.
Apparently, Boffin never really became a miser. It was all an act, of which Rokesmith was a part, to help Rokesmith gain Bella. Mrs. Boffin discovered Rokesmith’s true identity and they hatched this plot of Mr. Boffin becoming a miser and mistreating Rokesmith to open Bella’s eyes to her greed and get her to defend Rokesmith. But now, the play is played out and they all live happily ever after together.
This deception is the biggest weak point of Our Mutual Friend. I dislike it and find it very improbable for two reasons. First, it is very unlikely that John Harmon would have planned and carried out another, even more elaborate, deception so soon after discovering the unexpected, terrible consequences of his last deception. This second deception involved Rokesmith marrying Bella under “false pretences”, with her thinking him poor and ill-used by Mr. Boffin. Another marriage contracted earlier on in the book also involves marrying under “false pretences” (Book I, Ch. 10). It is the marriage of the unlikeable Alfred and Sophronia Lammle, who marry each believing that the other is possessed of a fortune. With them Dickens’s makes no bones about portraying the deceit as distasteful, making the two fully deserving of the bad bargain they made. This twist of Dickens’s does disservice to John Rokesmith, an otherwise honorable character, quite intelligent and upright enough not to take part in another big deception after realizing the terrible consequences of his first (for which he at least had the excuse that his mind was confused by the poison he had been given).
Besides putting John Rokesmith in a bad light, Dickens’s end plot twist involves turning the unsophisticated Noddy Boffin into an excellent actor. I read once that Dickens critic G. K. Chesterton also found this plot twist very unlikely. “It might have taken years to turn Noddy Boffin into a miser; but it would have taken centuries to turn him into an actor,” he wrote in his Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (Chapter 21). I completely agree. Chesterton thinks that Dickens originally intended to have Boffin slowly develop into a miser and then reform, but that he ran out of time for the needful development and so fudged it over by making up the unlikely deception. Whether this is the case or not, I prefer to think of this as the culmination of Our Mutual Friend rather than the ending as it stands, as both more likely and more honest.
Bella Wilfer is a charming character. Despite being pettish and spoiled, she is also true and affectionate. Her loving relationship with her father is delightfully portrayed. John Harmon is a gentle, restrained, upright man. I particularly liked his self-examination on the subject of his deception and the portrayal of his relationships with Mrs. Boffin and little Johnny. The Boffins are fine for their type. They are of Dickens’s good, unselfish, and simple variety. Their affection for and devotion to one another is pleasing.
Bella’s mother and sister, Lavvy, add some comedy to the story, though Dickens’s draws them so well that I sometimes found them as “wearing” as Bella and her father did. Still, they had a couple of very amusing exchanges, such as:
“You incarnation of sauciness,” said Mrs Wilfer, “do you speak like that to me? On this day, of all days in the year? Pray do you know what would have become of you, if I had not bestowed my hand upon R. W., your father, on this day?”
“No, Ma,” replied Lavvy, “I really do not; and, with the greatest respect for your abilities and information, I very much doubt if you do either.” …
“The mind,” pursued Mrs Wilfer in an oratorical manner, “naturally reverts to Papa and Mamma—I here allude to my parents—at a period before the earliest dawn of this day. I was considered tall; perhaps I was. Papa and Mamma were unquestionably tall. I have rarely seen a finer women than my mother; never than my father.”
The irrepressible Lavvy remarked aloud, “Whatever grandpapa was, he wasn’t a female.” (Book III, Chapter 4)
Another storyline in Our Mutual Friend (this is Dickens — so it has to have several storylines) follows the daughter of the man accused of murdering John Harmon, Lizzie Hexam, and the friend of the lawyer Mortimer Lightwood, the idle, thoughtless Eugene Wrayburn. Wrayburn and Lizzie fall in love, but cannot marry because of their widely different social positions (Lizzie worked with her father as a waterman, afterwards working as a seamstress and then at a paper mill). Wrayburn offers to hire a instructress to teach the illiterate Lizzie and her friend Jenny Wren. After some hesitation, Lizzie agrees. Unbeknownst to her, her brother who she had caused to be taught at a school and who has risen to be a student teacher, also has plans for her advancement. His teacher, Bradley Headstone goes with him to see Lizzie and falls instantly in love with her. This passion brings out the intense emotions of the heretofore very restrained and respectable Bradley. Seeing her lack of education as a drawback, Mr. Headstone helps Charley (Lizzie’s brother) to design a plan for educating her, only to find themselves forestalled by Mr. Wrayburn, to their great indignation.
When Lizzie refuses his offer of marriage (given in a graveyard; a word to the wise: never propose in a graveyard if your name is Headstone — it doesn’t sound good), Mr. Headstone becomes insanely jealous of Mr. Wrayburn. When Lizzie disappears, he begins shadowing Wrayburn, despite realizing that if he ever sees them together, he will kill Eugene, who has taken pleasure in humiliating him. Mr. Wrayburn finally tracks Lizzie down and Mr. Headstone follows him. After seeing them together, he attempts to murder Eugene, beating him and then throwing his body in a river. Hearing the commotion, Lizzie runs to the place and uses the skills learned with her father to recover the body. Eugene hovers between life and death for a long time. As soon as he is able to make the wish known, he marries Lizzie. Thus, Bradley’s act, instead of separating them, brings them together.
Lizzie is a strong and kind girl. She raised her younger brother Charley, who is a perfectly selfish boy, whom nobody can care much for. Lizzie has some fanciful notions of wishing to make amends for her father’s way of life (although otherwise respectable, he robbed corpses), which lead her to befriend young Jenny Wren, the granddaughter of one of the corpses her father hauled out of the river, and be kind to her. She chooses to leave London to avoid Eugene, whom she loves, though knowing he will not marry her. Her friend Jenny is an odd, but likable little person. She is sharp-witted of necessity, having become the “person of the house” from a very young age and having to take care of her drunkard father. But she has a very pretty voice and an amusing habit of talking about “him who is coming to court and marry” her. She staunchly refuses to give Lizzie’s address to Eugene after Lizzie flees London.
Eugene Wrayburn is a very interesting character. He is flippant, lazy, and inconsiderate, and consequently usually bored. He is also a clever and whimsical gentleman. His interest in Lizzie rouses him to take more effort than he probably ever has before. He thoughtlessly pursues her, refusing to think of any consequences. It is not until he is nearly murdered that he finally begins to think of what he is doing, and to repent the harm he did Lizzie. He does his best to make reparation by marrying her. After the wedding and while his recovery is still uncertain, Eugene tells Lizzie that he thinks the best thing he can do for her is to die. “If I live, you’ll find me out,” he says. Lizzie replies, “I shall find out that my husband has a mine of purpose and energy, and will turn it to the best account?” But Eugene knows himself better than that.
“I hope so, dearest Lizzie,” said Eugene, wistfully, and yet somewhat whimsically. “I hope so. But I can’t summon the vanity to think so. How can I think so, looking back on such a trifling wasted youth as mine! I humbly hope it; but I daren’t believe it. There is a sharp misgiving in my conscience that if I were to live, I should disappoint your good opinion and my own—and that I ought to die, my dear!” (Book IV, Chapter 11)
Eugene lives, but whether he fulfills Lizzie’s hopes or whether, as is (unfortunately) rather more likely, he lapses back into idleness, is uncertain. For Lizzie’s sake, we hope he does reform, and with her influence, along with the desire to keep her respect, he might. The slow, repressed, passionate Bradley Headstone is another interesting character — quite a well-drawn, “respectable” villain.
Oddly enough, I noticed a couple of parallels between Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone. For one, they both desired to have Lizzie educated and were very disappointed when she refused (she subsequently reconsiders Eugene’s offer). When Lizzie initially refuses Eugene’s offer to hire someone to teach her and Jenny, Eugene laughingly expresses his disappointment, “It won’t break my heart … but I am genuinely disappointed. I had set my fancy on doing this little thing for you and for our friend Miss Jenny. The novelty of my doing anything in the least useful, had its charms. I see, now, that I might have managed it better.” (Book II, Chapter 2). When Bradley attempts to get Lizzie to reconsider her brother’s plans for her, his disappointment is very uneasily expressed, “I hoped to be able to promote [Charley’s idea]. I should have had inexpressible pleasure, I should have taken inexpressible interest, in promoting it. Therefore I must acknowledge that when your brother was disappointed, I too was disappointed. I wish to avoid reservation or concealment, and I fully acknowledge that. … I am a man of strong feelings, and I have strongly felt this disappointment. I do strongly feel it. I don’t show what I feel; some of us are obliged habitually to keep it down.” (Book II, Chapter 11).
In addition to this shared wish to be instrumental in educating her, each man feels that Lizzie “draws” him to her. When he proposes to Lizzie, Bradley tells her, “You draw me to you. If I were shut up in a strong prison, you would draw me out. I should break through the wall to come to you. … I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. … you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. … But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good—every good—with equal force.” (Book II, Chapter 15). When Eugene finds Lizzie again after her disappearance, she begs him to leave her and never return. He airily remonstrates, “As well be reproachful as wholly unreasonable. I can’t go away. … Because you won’t let me. Mind! I don’t mean to be reproachful either. I don’t complain that you design to keep me here. But you do it, you do it.” (Book IV, Chapter 6).
Our Mutual Friend does not contain as much comedy as some of Dickens’s other works and it has rather too much pointless “Podsnappery” (among other things), but I think it contains some of his most interesting characters, and, for that reason, it is one of my favorites of his novels.
I read Our Mutual Friend September 22 – November 1, 2013.
Publicity shots from the 1998 miniseries “Our Mutual Friend” with Anna Friel as Bella Wilfer and Keeley Hawes as Lizzie Hexam.