Our Mutual Friend: Conception and Commencement, by Prof. Michael Slater

With only days to go before we start our month-by-month reading of Our Mutual Friend, Michael Slater, Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, sketches in the background to the novel’s conception and publication.

By the summer of 1863 it had been six years since Dickens had written a novel in his traditional format of twenty monthly numbers, the final double number of Little Dorrit having appeared in June 1857. In the interim his life had changed completely: he had separated from his wife and formed a secret relationship with a young actress called Ellen Ternan; he no longer lived in London but in Kent, among the scenes of his earliest and happiest memories; and he had embarked on a hugely successful second career as a public reader of his own works, touring the length and breadth of Britain and coming into close contact with his adoring public. There were also continuities, of course. He remained editor of a moderately priced and widely read weekly journal – All The Year Round – though one more wholly under his control than its predecessor, Household Words. He continued to contribute to All the Year Round on both social and personal themes and during 1860–1863 brought his skills both as topical journalist and as familiar essayist to a remarkable pitch of perfection in a series of articles written under the pen-name of ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’. He followed the 1854 serialisation of Hard Times in Household Words with two more such weekly ones in All The Year Round: A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, followed by Great Expectations in 1860–1861.

According to John Forster, his closest friend, Dickens already had his title for his next novel, Our Mutual Friend,in 1861 and the notebook he was keeping by this time shows that he was jotting down ideas for various themes, characters, names and situations that subsequently featured in the novel (see Charles Dickens’ Book of Memoranda, ed. Fred Kaplan, New York Public Library, 1981, especially pp.19–21). ‘I am trying to plan out a new book, but have not got beyond trying’, he wrote to his Swiss friend William de Cerjat in March 1862. A year and a half later he wrote to the novelist Wilkie Collins, ‘I am always thinking of writing a long book, and never beginning to do it’. Shortly afterwards, however, he was able to tell Forster, ‘I see my opening perfectly, with the one main line on which the story is to turn’ and that he was set on having at least five monthly numbers ready before publication could begin the following spring. He had a new illustrator, Marcus Stone, to instruct and seems to have found him very apt, especially in the matter of the all-important cover-design for the monthly parts. By 25 January 1864 he could tell Collins, ‘I have now the first two Nos, and am now beginning the third. It is a combination of drollery with romance which requires a deal of pains and a perfect throwing away of points that might be amplified; but I hope it is very good’. He adds that he ‘felt at first quite dazed in getting back to the large canvas and the big brushes’ of the monthly number after working with weekly instalments for so long. Later he commented, ‘I have grown hard to satisfy and write very slowly’.

As had become his custom when writing his monthly-part novels, Dickens drew up written ‘mems’ (memoranda) and chapter-notes on facing pages for each number of Our Mutual Friend (see Harry Stone, Dickens’ Working Notes for His Novels, 1987). In the ‘mems’ for the first number of Our Mutual Friend he reminds himself that the novel is to ‘open between the bridges’ and his other notes show clearly how just how much detailed planning and forethought had already gone into the plotting of this novel. Dickens reminds himself, for example, that when he describes the Veneerings’ dinner-party he must ‘lay the ground carefully’ for later plot-developments. He must also have an eye, even in this first number, to the ultimate solution of the mystery surrounding John Harmon. And he must take care to work into this first number a character who will prove central to another strand of the story, ‘the girl who was to have been married and made rich’. The ‘mems’ show that the novel is to be divided into four Books and supplies their titles. The chapter-notes on the opposite page note many of the various characters, settings and events that are to feature in each chapter. Dickens is back, in other words, after seven years, to his traditional monthly-number format and beginning what many of his readers have by now come to regard as the greatest of all his novels.

This post was authored by Michael Slater, Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, past President of the International Dickens Fellowship and of the Dickens Society of America, former editor of the Dickensian, and author of Dickens and Women, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing, and The Great Charles Dickens Scandal


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

One response to “Our Mutual Friend: Conception and Commencement, by Prof. Michael Slater

  1. Pingback: Sounding the keynote | Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project

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