Charles Dickens's 1865 novel, his last completed novel, "Our Mutual Friend" is an extraordinarily dark and convoluted work. Featuring such unforgettable figures as Mr. Boffin, Mr. Podsnap, Bradley Headstone, Jenny Wren, and Silas Wegg, Dickens continues, or rather concludes his artistic legacy with a work rich in well written and compelling characters. Exploring, as do many of Dickens's works, the intricacies of inheritance, "Our Mutual Friend" is also deeply concerned with families and the things that hold them together or rip them apart. Interesting and fraught emphases on education, upholding particularly English interests in the face of the still rising British Empire, and concerns about the absolute uncertainties about life and death, this is quite a way to come at a last complete novel.
"Our Mutual Friend" begins with Lizzie and her father Gaffer Hexam patrolling the river in the dark of night. Pulling a body out of the river for the potential reward money, the novel jumps right into the action with a bang. The body is presumed to be that of young John Harmon, just returned from South Africa to claim a huge inheritance from his recently deceased, hateful and miserly father. The only heir dead, the elder Harmon's loyal employees, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin stand next in the will to inherit everything. This causes a stir in Society, where Mortimer Lightwood, the legal executor of the will, and his friend Eugene Wrayburn are called in to view the body and question Gaffer Hexam. This causes two others to be drawn into the plot - Lizzie Hexam, an uneducated, but prescient young woman, who immediately catches Wrayburn's eye, and Miss Bella Wilfer, a sprightly young woman whose marriage to young John Harmon was the sole condition for that gentleman to come into his inheritance prevented by his untimely death. The novel tries over the next 700 pages to work out the personal ramifications of the murder, the will, and the fates of these two young women.
So many of Dickens's novels deal with the lives and educations (scholastically, socially, or both) of young people, and "Our Mutual Friend" is no different. Gaffer Hexam, the boatman, is opposed to book-learning, and refuses to allow either Lizzie or his younger son Charley, to learn even to read. Lizzie arranges, though, for Charley to remove himself from the cycle of riverside drudgery by facilitating his escape to a school, where he excels under the tutelage of one of Dickens's most intense characters, Bradley Headstone. Elsewhere, the Boffins, now in a state of financial ease, seek to improve their cultural understandings, hiring a literary man "with a wooden leg," the well-versed Silas Wegg, and even buy the mansion that Wegg works in front of. Other characters, like the mercenary Bella Wilfer, the absolutely indolent Wrayburn, and the articulator of bones, Mr. Venus, all seem to be in sore need of social and moral educations.
Just to kind of continue this theme, one may be particularly interested in the kinds of literary funds that Dickens draws on in "Our Mutual Friend": His debt to 18th century literature is heavy indeed, with the works of the poet James Thomson and the historian Edward Gibbon coursing through the novel like the very Thames itself, laying the groundwork for literary and historical commentary on the nature of Empire and particularly British Imperial interests, and how those interests reach from the international into the lives of individuals. Another important predecessor in this line is the infamous Mr. Podsnap, a very dark descendant of Laurence Sterne's Corporal Trim from "Tristram Shandy." Trim's famous flourish, in Podsnap's hands acquires the power to annihilate entire nations. Dickens also reveals heavy debts to fairy tales and nursery rhymes that continue and complicate the novel's emphasis on children's educations, how they are managed, and the impact that they can have on the world as it will become.
If you aren't interested in reading "Our Mutual Friend" yet, you should be! Clearly, my interests lay in the national and educational strains of the novel, but there's obviously so much more. Now, my knowledge of Dickens may be limited to the five or six novels I've read so far, but you will be hard pressed anywhere in Dickens, (or anywhere else for that matter), to find a more frenetic villain than Mr. Bradley Headstone - to see him in action alone makes this novel worth reading. He ranks right up there with "David Copperfield"s Uriah Heep in terms of Dickens's most insistently horrifying creations. Ok. Enough from me, go, read "Our Mutual Friend." What are you waiting for! Go, now!