A Medievalist reading of the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend

Isabel Davis, Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, offers a Medievalist’s view on the first monthly instalment of Our Mutual Friend. Isabel is also a member of the Birkbeck Material Texts Network.

When Charley Hexam is shown into the Veneerings’ library, in the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend, it is said that he ‘looked at the bran-new pilgrims on the wall, going to Canterbury in more gold frame than procession, and more carving than country’ (p.13). This picture of Chaucer’s pilgrimage is part of Dickens’s scrupulous depiction of the Veneerings’ household interior and, given the brevity of its mention, is evidently an image which was firmly lodged in his readers’ immediate cultural index. I wonder if it was the Victorian equivalent of Tretchikoff’s Chinese Girl, the world’s most popular picture of the 1950s and ‘60s? Luisa Calé suggests to me that it could be a print of the pilgrimage based on the painting by Thomas Stothard. Indeed, the catalogue of the Tate Gallery suggests that just such an engraving, made by Louis Schiavonetti and James Heath, was ‘a great commercial success. In 1855 it was said that “few, if any, engravings of that period were so popular with the public”’ – just the sort of thing, perhaps, which the suggestible Veneerings, with their predictable popular tastes, would hang in their library.

The frame, of course, says as much about the Veneerings as their choice of print: evidently a big and grotesque gilt plaster thing. These are people who are more interested in what is outermost, rather than what lies within. And, whatever patina the print itself might have supplied, the frame brings it up-to-date, into the ‘bran-new’ world of the Veneerings’ shiny interior. The frame’s glinting catch lights answer the equally copious gilding on the ‘bran-new’ bindings of the ‘bran-new’ books which line the shelves. Indeed this relationship, between the picture and the books, seems to be the main reason that the action moves with Mortimer Lightwood into the library from the dining room at all. Dennis H. Read, in his book on the artist and entrepreneur Robert Cromek, has noted that Stothard’s painting was said by Cromek (who was concerned to have an engraving of the painting made) to be especially authentic. He had travelled to sites on the pilgrimage route, to get the lie of the land in his drawings exactly right; he had visited the British Museum and looked at late medieval manuscripts in order to represent the pilgrims’ costume with every verisimilitude. Cromek advertised that the painting took its authority ‘from the British Museum, & other Public Depositories of rare manuscripts; from Monumental Remains; from the authority of Chaucer himself; & from ancient illuminated manuscripts, painted in his time, which serve to corroborate the Poet’s testimony’ (cited in Dennis H. Read, R.H. Cromek, Engraver, Editor, and Entrepreneur, p. 46).

The Veneerings’ picture, then, offers a direct line to Chaucer himself, dispensing with the inconvenience of his words, bringing The Canterbury Tales and, with it, the Middle Ages back to life. And, if one had such a picture, what would be the need to go to the length of reading Chaucer’s poem in a book? The books’ bindings are rather like the painting’s frame: they out-value and dominate their contents. Indeed, we are told that Charley Hexham looks at books somewhat differently to their superficial owners, not as beautiful objects but with an ‘awakened curiosity that went below the binding’. The omniscient narrator then pronounces: ‘No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot’ (p. 14). Dickens implies, but doesn’t actually say, that the books in the Veneerings’ library remain unopened on the shelves, that they are understood only through a popular consensus which précises and packages them for sale to the mass market.

The Veneerings’ house is full of gleaming surfaces, reflecting its owners’ aspirant status. The framed print and ‘liberally gilded’ book-bindings in the library are only a small part of this sparkly design scheme. In the previous chapter, the characters around the Veneerings’ dinner table are introduced to us in a reflection in the large over-mantle mirror in another heavy frame, this time a silver one. The Middle Ages were also interested in mirrors, but what medieval people saw when they looked in the mirror is a moot point. The speculum, or mirror for princes, in the Middle Ages, was advice writing which aimed to be encyclopaedic. It offered a portrait of the ideal, self-governed and total man which the princely reader might, by reading it, reflect. The Canterbury Tales, on the other hand, in its kaleidoscopic satire on a sizeable conspectus of late medieval society operates as an anti-speculum, whose characters offer a decidedly mixed set of exempla, but which nonetheless purported to reflect its equally complicated and interesting audience. The over mantle mirror in Our Mutual Friend operates in a not dissimilar way, presenting the Veneerings and their guests as if in a General Prologue and specular portrait, before giving way to a Tale, told by Mortimer Lightwood, which by his own admission is a ‘romantic business’ (p. 14).

Whilst a Knight and Ploughman are amongst Chaucer’s company, his secular pilgrims are otherwise mostly urban bourgeoisie. Middling (wo)men of various kinds: merchants, officials, various well-to-do tradesmen and guild members. Were they medieval people themselves, the Veneerings and many of their guests would not have looked out of place in their company. Of all the pilgrims it is the most bourgeois of them all, the Franklin, who haunts the Veneerings’ house party, a man whose social climbing is notorious and made evident in his ingratiating cultivation of the Squire; comparatively, Twemlow, the first cousin of Lord Snigsworth, is the Veneerings’ pet aristocrat. Chaucer tells us, in ‘The General Prologue’ to The Canterbury Tales that the Franklin is a ‘housholdere’ (340) and, in his largesse, gives every impression of being a ‘knyght of the shire’ (356). He is so generous, indeed, that ‘[i]t snewed in his hous of mete and drynke’ (345), achieving exactly the liberality to which the Veneerings also treat their guests. The Veneerings’ dinners are good; if they weren’t, Dickens says waspishly, ‘new people wouldn’t come’ (p. 8). Like the Franklin, the Veneerings serve improbable snowy delicacies, although they arrive on ‘ice-plates’ (another up-to-the-minute fashion for serving everything on a specialised server). As those plates are cleared, Mrs Tippens feels that she has ‘touched at the North Pole’ (p. 8). Yet for all this far-flung exoticism, Mrs Beeton reminds us that these dishes were far from being exclusive or obscure; she writes in 1888, ‘Ice has of late years become very cheap and easily obtained, so that it is constantly used in the kitchen […] to prepare ices of cream and water with various flavourings’. The Veneerings domesticate things from far away just as surely as they do the things of long ago.

The Franklin’s copious (snowy) largesse is as marvellous as some of the illusions he describes in his Tale; indeed the clerkly magician, on whose arcane arts the plot of The Franklin’s Tale relies, also has an abundant table where, with only a clap of his hands, he conjures for his guests a pre-dinner phantasm of a great hunt and a tournament of jousting knights. And, when dinner is ready, he claps his hands again and his guests are surprised to find that, in spite of all the marvellous things they have seen, they are, after all, only ‘in his studie, ther as his bookes be’ (1207). The reader isn’t privy to the same ‘come down’ in Our Mutual Friend, because, instead, she travels with Mortimer Lightwood to Gaffer Hexam’s house. Yet the clerk’s ‘studie’ in The Franklin’s Tale offers an intriguing counterpoint to the Veneerings’ library in the scene before that journey: a place where the books are read, and where the knowledge of books is made to work magic.

The reader is expected, of course, to compare the excursion to Gaffer Hexam’s house to the Canterbury pilgrimage; this we know because Charley is described as if he had been stopped for directions by Chaucer’s characters:

‘Is it far?’

‘Is which far?’ asked the boy, upon his guard, and again upon the road to Canterbury.’ (p.13).

Both journeys have a dead body at their destinations, although, as Charley says, the prospects of resurrection in this case are slim: ‘if Lazarus was only half as far gone, that was the greatest of all the miracles’ (p.14). And, with this stark contrast between the bloated body found floating in the Thames, and the saintly one of Thomas Beckett, the relation between Dickens’ novel and the Canterbury pilgrimage starts to peter out. Yet there is a definite wistfulness about that decoupling of the two narratives and the loss of the Middle Ages in the novel. Mr Inspector, who we meet later in the chapter, is explicitly understood as a medieval man: an Abbot in his monastery, craned over his scribal work. ‘Pity’ he thinks, evoking the emotion that is perhaps most associated with the devotional fashions of the Middle Ages, ‘there was not a word of truth in that superstition about bodies bleeding when touched by the hand of the right person; you never got a sign out of bodies’ (p. 20). Of course that was exactly what you did get in the Middle Ages and in The Canterbury Tales, bodies that gave signs, that sang or reappeared in dreams to expose their own murderers, as in The Prioresses’ and Nun’s Priest’s Tales. And so Dickens’s characters are left on their own with their doggedly and un-saintly dead, who so disobligingly refuse earthly resurrection.

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