By 1864, Dickens’s many faithful readers had long become accustomed to openings which are as much rhetorical as narrative tours de force. The larger the scope of the novel, the more extravagant the figures of speech which inaugurate it – witness Bleak House. Our Mutual Friend does not disappoint, in this respect, with its birds of prey, its leaves in the Twemlow, and its Analytical Chemist. But there’s a difference, too, a new and unsettling volatility. Rhetorical method swells to bursting point. Figures of speech impiously assume a life of their own. In order to take the measure of what’s new and strange about the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend, we’ve decided to concentrate on two salient turns of phrase.
A Hungry Look
The last advertisement wrapping the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend is for Heal and Son, announcing new show rooms which ‘extend their show of Iron, Brass, and Wood Bedsteads, and Bed-room Furniture, beyond what they believe has ever been attempted’: customers can now see ‘as complete an assortment of Bed-room Furniture as they think can possibly be desired’. Heal and Son were wise to obtain such a prominent place for themselves here, for Dickens had already provided one of their competitors with some free advertising in Chapter II. The Veneerings are the kind of customers of which the new department stores must have dreamt: ‘their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new’ and ‘if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head’.
The Pantechnicon was a building in Motcomb Street, which exhibited, sold, and stored its own complete assortment of furniture (it was the place where Mr Osborne’s effects went after his death in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, when ‘the whole paraphernalia rolled away in several enormous vans to the Pantechnicon’). In its spuriously classical evocation of what the eighteenth century would have called the whole circle of the arts, the Pantechnicon suggests something important about nineteenth-century consumer desire. The Veneerings’ desire happens to take the shape of a camel, which they impose upon every material and object of use. But their acquisitiveness is acquisitiveness for its own sake: the point is, not to choose between iron, brass, and wood bedsteads, but to be able to choose any bedstead at all.
As the Pantechnicon passage suggests, the shape that Dickens’s style takes when he thinks about such matters is the shape of the list; in particular, the list whose particulars are so particularised that they seem random. This is also the shape of the advertisements in which his writing is packaged. The wrapper for the first instalment begins with an advertisement for ‘New Silks’ which can be ‘Rich, Plain, Checked, and Striped Glacés’, or, in other words, of any kind at all, opposite a list of ‘Black’s Guide Books’ so exhaustive that they apparently cover any place in the country you could possibly want to go. Then there are nineteen pages of advertisements for books on anything you could get interested in, including one for Mudie’s which stocks all the others anyway, followed by another thirteen pages of ‘bran new’ goods. All objects are here, including several varieties of hair dye, and although each advertisement aims at making its own seem like the one thing needful, the effect of them all together is the effect of the department store: an assortment so complete that it feels potentially infinite, and individually of no significance at all.
Between the advertisements and the Veneerings to whom they might appeal, Dickens shows us another version of the desire engendered by potentially infinite particulars: Hexam’s gaze across the place where all such goods are first delivered, and to which they are eventually delivered up: ‘At every mooring-chain and rope, at every stationary boat or barge that split the current into a broad-arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy water, at the floating logs of timber lashed together lying off certain wharves, his shining eyes darted a hungry look.’ Hexam will look anywhere, and take in any body that the river takes; although he can remember each body in detail, they could belong to anyone. They could even belong to ‘the man from Somewhere’, who adopts the other stylistic shape that Dickens gives to undifferentiating desire, the shape of Something unspecified. As Hexam darts his hungry look from the boat, all we know is that ‘he looked for something’, and after he has found it, that he holds ‘something’ in his right hand.
In this undiscerning, undiscernable grasp, Hexam resembles Veneering. He also resembles old Harmon, that other undiscriminating dealer in the waste that Pantechnicons produce. Mortimer lists so many versions of this waste that they feel as randomly assorted as dust itself: ‘Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust, – all manner of Dust’. And while Mortimer would probably never have bothered to visit a Pantechnicon, he and Eugene are no strangers to the feeling of interchangeability it brings on. Too tired to choose, somewheres, somethings, and whatever you like to call its, characterise their dialogue. So the one moment when they try to be more specific stands out.
There can’t be many protagonists in Victorian fiction who consult a mental dictionary as they set off on the adventure which will change their lives forever, as Eugene Wrayburn does in the cab conveying him and Mortimer Lightwood to their fateful interview with Hexam (though Becky Sharp tosses a real one out of the window of a similar vehicle, at the start of Vanity Fair). The term Eugene looks up in his own mind is ‘Energy’. Energy, he admits, is a concept with which he has always found himself constitutionally at odds. By describing his listlessness at such length, the novel seems tacitly to confirm that he’s right to be worried. Dickens’s early writing had been well supplied with idle young men, with loungers and loafers. He started off quite liking foppishness. But the all-enveloping mysteries generated out of complex social injustice in the great novels of the middle period came to require a new kind of hero, men of some experience with a talent for investigation and pursuit, staunch, savvy, modest, and utterly tireless: Inspector Bucket of the Detective, in Bleak House, and his philanthropic counterpart, slum doctor Allan Woodcourt; or the human tugboat Mr Pancks, in Little Dorrit, snorting and puffing like a steam-engine. It takes a steam-powered benevolence to tackle Tom-all-Alone’s, or the Circumlocution Office. But in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens throws at the problem of a suspicious death two young men notable chiefly for their complete lack of motivation.
There was an immediate precedent, in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Mrs Braddon’s hugely successful sensation novel about a woman who abandons her child, pushes her first husband down a well, switches to poison for the second, and rounds the mayhem off in style by setting fire to a hotel. The Illustrated London News was to remark that the ‘elucidation’ of this cunningly booby-trapped secret involves the arousal in the ‘dilettante barrister’ Robert Audley of an ‘analytic power’ which ‘many a trained criminal lawyer would be glad to possess’. Loafers, in fact, were there to be electrified, in a certain kind of fiction. Think of Sherlock Holmes, released every now and then from his cocaine-daze by the prospect of another ‘strange case’. Dickens, however, was not writing a sensation novel. The cab in which Mortimer and Eugene put their feet up in order to get the full benefit of an unapologetic review of their respective failed careers will soon carry them down by the Monument and by the Tower, and by the Docks, down by Ratcliffe, and by Rotherhithe (the change of cadence changes the mood), ‘down by where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the river.’ The mystery fomenting in this toxic sump doesn’t stop at the identity of a corpse fished out of the river. Rather, it extends as far as the limits of the social and economic system responsible for the sump’s existence. The system, it seems, can only perpetuate itself by the production of vast amounts of waste-matter which it is prepared neither fully to acknowledge nor fully to disavow. We’ve already seen ‘moral sewage’ in action, as Hexam and Rogue Riderhood squabble over the meagre booty the corpse represents. Fragrant though Mortimer and Eugene no doubt are by comparison, they, too, constitute waste-matter of a sort, pausing for the duration of another Veneering dinner or two, a wink from Lady Tippins, or a nudge from a Buffer, until the weight of their indolence finally forces them over the bank of shabby-genteel impoverishment.
So this first instalment leaves us, as it should, with a puzzle. Why has Dickens entrusted the solution to two young men who are part of the problem? Where are two dilettante lawyers who don’t seem able to summon up a hungry look between them going to find the backbone and the ‘analytic power’ necessary to take on capitalism’s super-fit specialist predators? What is it, after all, that they really want? And what of Lizzie Hexam and Bella Wilfer: how much of a say will they have in determining their own fate, and that of the small expeditionary force of listless young men which has just set up camp in their immediate vicinity? Neither could be described as lacking in energy. Both want something badly, even if they’re not sure what. Both are capable of strong feelings: desire, consternation, tenderness, pique. But Lizzie and Bella prefer, as of now, to act indirectly. They suggest, demur, withhold. They step out of the room. There may be more to this contrast than the age-old assumption that, in Charles Kingsley’s words, for better or worse, men must work and women must weep. In these opening chapters, the young men are either switched on or switched off (mostly off). The young women alternate vividly.