This month’s instalment races out of the gate with Dickens in full comic ‘canter, with arched head and mane, opened eyes and nostrils’, as he so ruthlessly describes the ‘rocking-horse’ Mrs Podsnap. The scene between Mr Podsnap and the ‘foreign gentleman’ brilliantly, and mercilessly, skewers the parochial, constricted world-view and facile triumphalism of the lazily prosperous commercial classes. The instalment shifts dramatically in tone, though, from the broad comedy of the Podsnaps’ awful, self-aggrandising party back to the dark mystery of John Harmon’s possible drowning. I was struck by how heavy with ‘stuff’ the world of Our Mutual Friend is: material goods, items of furniture, household wares, and, of course, waste, dirt and dust. While the glut of furniture, ornaments, dining implements and other domestic objects at the Podsnaps’ comically bespeaks their witless social ambitious and narrow, rigid outlook, there is also something redolent here of interment – a stifling claustrophobia.
‘Everything was made to look as heavy as it could,’ Dickens observes of the Podsnaps’ drawing room décor, while the guests ‘were like the plate, and included several heavy articles weighing ever so much.’ Everything around the Podsnaps is described in terms of weight, heftiness, immobility, inertia and overwhelming solidness – ‘hideous solidity’, ‘massive’, ‘swarthy’, ‘heavy’.
Over at the Drood Inquiry, we’ve been thinking about that novel’s recurring metaphors of imprisonment, entombment and burial, all of which we find in other Dickens novels but particularly A Tale of Two Cities. The title of one of that novel’s parts – ‘Recalled to Life’ – opens up a broad theme of literal and figurative burial, as the emotionally and physically shattered Dr Manette is released from the Bastille after years of false imprisonment and restored through the patient care of his daughter, Lucie. The Podsnaps’ house, like London itself, consists of a ‘copious’ accumulation of stuff that chokes, hems in and entombs. Miss Podsnap is humorously depicted as ‘a captive languishing in a rosewood jail’ – perhaps reminding us of the Bastille, the Marshalsea and the Fleet prisons in other Dickens novels – but there is something characteristically sharp and melancholy underneath Dickens’s humour here, I think. Just as the streets of London are gritty and dusty, bedevilled by innumerable scraps of waste paper that harass residents on windy days, so are interior, domestic spaces assaulted by mid-Victorian materiality in all its immeasurable quantity and variety. This feels like a world under ceaseless bombardment in which characters are hemmed in, imprisoned, restricted and constrained by others, and also by ‘stuff’.
Mrs Podsnap is humorously described as a rocking horse; an apt metaphor for something full of violent, repetitive motion, but also paradoxically static and always rooted in one place. Like the mid-Victorian generation itself, Mrs Podsnap expends enormous amounts of energy but essentially goes nowhere. This feels like the sort of incisive social critique we expect from Dickens, but I also sense something deeper, more existential here: just like ‘stuff’, people, too, are ultimately destined for the dust-heap, however hard they work and whatever they achieve. Here, Dickensian dust suggests the full weight of its Christian symbolism.
In this novel, as in A Tale of Two Cities, Drood and others, the line between the living and the dead is indistinct and traversable; the retrieval of dead bodies, the mysterious disappearances, the hinting at concealed secrets all suggest a world of resurrection, reanimation and the return of the repressed. For Freud, the fear of live interment bespoke the uncanny and this instalment seems to resonate with uncanny elements: this is indeed a world in which the cosy, the familiar, the known and the safe are made strange, unfamiliar and eerie, with material objects taking on a terrifying, murderous life of their own. With his descriptions of ‘swarthy giants of looking glasses’, ‘the staring heads’ of ‘wine-coolers’, and ‘pot-bellied silver salt-cellars’, Dickens evokes an uncanny world in which inanimate objects humorously but also threateningly reflect and exaggerate the physical and moral qualities of their owners. Like the dead coming back to life, the inanimate stuff that clogs up the Podsnaps’ house bristles with an uncanny aliveness.
This instalment is also replete with metaphors of swimming, diving and drowning. The social, economic and material worlds are represented as an interpenetrated medium through which people ‘swim’ – or, more often, ‘drown’. Thus, the Veneerings ‘dive’ and ‘plunge’ for (social) treasure at the Podsnaps’ party, while the other guests are described as ‘bathers’. Later, Rogue Riderhood describes himself as ‘drowned’ and gives every appearance of such with his ‘formless and mangey’ fur cap that resembles a ‘drowned’ animal, while Eugene sighs that he feels ‘half-drowned’. Again, there is a tremendous, engulfing sense of people gasping, choking and struggling to breathe. Whether buried alive by the restrictive rituals, norms and expectations of family, society and nation, or curbed and regulated by the ceaseless struggle to survive and accrue money, or crushed alive by the sheer agglomeration of stuff in a consumerist culture, Dickens depicts a world singularly lacking in breathing space. Consider, for example, the ‘half-dozen people [who] had lately died in the streets, of starvation.’
In this world of drowning people, it is especially telling that Eugene expounds his queer fantasy of a lighthouse – a beacon of warning and hope to people travelling across dangerous seas. Indeed, in a world in which people are squeezed into small and constraining spaces, it’s intriguing that Eugene and Mortimer should proffer a queer recasting of these lonely, oppressive and coercive spaces as warm, sustaining and loving. Similar to the lighthouse, the Cosy of the Fellowships pub ‘seemed to leap out of a dark sleep and embrace them warmly’, for example. Holly Furneaux has written brilliantly in Queer Dickens on the ways in which Our Mutual Friend offers, via Eugene and Mortimer, ‘a domestic space in which attachments between men can be fully lived out’ (p. 101). In this month’s instalment, Eugene suggests his aversion to women – ‘my intentions are opposed to touching the lady’ – before imagining an alternative domestic space – the lighthouse – in which he lives cosily with Mortimer, away from the suffocating, normative demands of family and society. The lighthouse stands as an apt symbol of safety, solidity and solitude in a crowded, busy world that is hostile towards queer bonds between men. Indeed, Eugene gleefully imagines that the flirtatious Lady Tippens ‘“might put off and get swamped”’, perhaps sadistically projecting his own sense of drowning onto the woman who represents, along with M.R.F., an impingement upon his queer idyll with Mortimer. Lighthouses are, Furneaux posits, ‘interstitial spaces of imaginative possibility’ that ‘often accommodate non-marital and non-reproductive domestic units’ (p. 105). When Eugene and Mortimer crouch in close physical proximity under the upturned boat, awaiting the return of Gaffer Hexam, we might perhaps detect echoes of the more capacious, cosy and loving domestic space of Mr Peggotty’s boat in David Copperfield, which offers a similarly queer – non-marital, non-reproductive – space for an adoptive family formed through loving bonds of voluntary kinship. It is interesting, however, that at these queer moments, which suggest what Furneaux describes as a ‘radical trajectory’ away from Dickens’s usual recourse to matrimonial domesticity as a pat plot device, the novel’s language modulates into the definitionally heterosexual, with Eugene apparently fascinated by Lizzie – ‘that lonely girl with the dark hair runs in my head’.
Interestingly, this instalment’s cliff-hanger – the disappearance of Gaffer Hexam – which we might regard as, in some sense, quintessentially ‘Dickensian’, was actually accidental – Dickens overwrote chapter thirteen. Dickens was surely a dab-hand at crafting weekly and monthly serialised novels by 1864, so it’s intriguing to consider how the demands of time, space and format were still challenging and stretching him, forcing him to carve out a cliff-hanger that he hadn’t originally intended. In fact, whether Dickens was very interested in, or even very good at, cliff-hangers is a fascinating question we might consider.