This guest post was contributed by Lydia Craig, MA student at Loyola University, Chicago.
Ben Jonson’s ironic prologue to The Alchemist (1610) might easily describe the grimy, depressive atmosphere of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-5):
‘Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known,
No country’s mirth is better than our own,
No clime breeds better matter, for your whore,
Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more,
Whose manners, now called humours, feed the stage:
And which have still been subject, for the rage
Or spleen of comic writers’
(The Alchemist, Prologue).
A comedic playwright himself, Jonson describes the true intent behind his amusing spectacles: to improve his countrymen’s morals through deploring the morally corrupt age. He advises his audience to sit by the stream where flows the filth of London’s sewers to ‘look what it doth run’ if they wish to behold the evidence of its people’s guilt. Jonson sets his play in a Blackfriars house, near where the Fleet River emptied into the Thames, ‘an unsanitary ditch along which no reputable people would live’ (Furdell 63). From the safety of Master Lovewit’s abandoned house, as plague infects London, a quack alchemist (Subtle) and a whore (Doll) join in a ‘venture tripartite’ with Lovewit’s faithless butler (Jeremy Face), to cozen ‘respectable’ citizens. Puritans, Sir Epicure Mammon, and the country gentleman Kastril trade money, fortune, and women for the promise of the philosopher’s stone, which magically turns any substance into gold, restores youth, and destroys disease.
Ever the drama enthusiast, Dickens had enacted the part of greedy Sir Epicure Mammon at St James’s Theatre in an 1845 production of The Alchemist two years before appearing in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. According to Forster, Dickens’s Mammon, in what seemed to be the company’s favourite play, was ‘as good as anything he had done’ on stage (12). At the end of his career, Dickens seems to have returned to The Alchemist for inspiration, reinterpreting Renaissance London’s alchemy dream for its Victorian counterpart. Both cities are similarly polluted by sickness, death, and sordid poverty, making profitable schemes desirable. According to Mebane, Renaissance alchemists’ ‘drive for ascendency is simply the consequence of prideful refusal to accept one’s limits’, a failure of self-knowledge, so to speak (142). Denied social ascendancy by means of merit or effort, such ‘cozeners at large’ as Jonson terms them, may use trickery to gain the fortunes they feel are unfairly withheld, demonstrating profound dissatisfaction with their lot. Methods have evolved, but as Dickens demonstrates through a succession of schemes and unexpected partnerships, Londoners still attempt nearly three hundred years later to achieve the impossible by turning rubbish into profit.
In Our Mutual Friend, the reeking, deadly Thames River, itself a participant of the action, constantly produces drowned bodies from its depths, supports murderers in their life of waterside vice and crime, and, like Jonson’s ‘stream’, represents in its foulness the domestic degeneracy of the British Empire. As the life force of Victorian London, it is a diseased artery clogged with dead corpses, the conduit to murderous villainy. When the Harmon heir drowns in its waters, longtime family servants Mr. and Mrs. Boffin inherit the entire fortune instead of a single ‘pile’, profoundly disturbing the social hierarchy as hopeful scoundrels flock to exploit their riches. In both seventeenth and nineteenth century Londons, con artists flourish like maggots wherever money and simple-minded fools are to be found. With great gusto and obvious enjoyment Dickens describes the ‘varieties of dust […] offered in exchange for the gold dust of the Golden Dustman’. These include pleas for ‘Christian charities’. Everyone, from the highest to the lowest, craves gold just as Puritans Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias desire the same philosopher’s stone as the greedy, sensual Sir Epicure Mammon, though they pretend that their motives are pure, disinterested, and for God’s glory. One of the morals shared by Our Mutual Friend and The Alchemist is that precious few are exempt from the temptation of fabulous wealth.
Wanting literary education, Mr. Boffin separates the wooden-legged ballad-seller Silas Wegg from his outdoor stall by engaging him as a reader. Unexpected employment soon gives rise to greedy ambition as Wegg, the ‘man of low cunning’, ponders how best to utilise the old man’s admiring trust: ‘The visions rising before his mercenary mind, of the many ways in which this connexion was to be turned to account, never obscured the foremost idea natural to a dull overreaching man, that he must not make himself too cheap’. Even in wrangling over his leg with Mr Venus, Wegg remains supremely conscious of his market value, and will not budge an inch. Soon Wegg is ensconced in Old Harmon’s deserted house, the Bower/Harmony Jail, vaguely located near Blackfriars, in the perfect position to commence illicit designs and discoveries. Similarly, Face brings impoverished Subtle into his master’s house, only to be mocked by him as a ‘good, honest, plain, livery-three-pound-thrum’ whom the ‘alchemist’ has raised from ‘brooms and dust’, instructed in ‘words and fashion’, and finally brought to ‘more than ordinary fellowship’ through imparted knowledge and philosophy (I.i.15-73). The perceived superior erudition of Wegg and Subtle enables them to grasp for power and wealth, ‘cozening’ their social betters into rewarding their specialized, albeit spurious vocabulary and theatrics with solid coin.
On the subject of partnership Jonson and Dickens’ stories become markedly similar in describing the connections between their villains, which are often formed in angry response to exclusion from higher social spheres and greater financial success. Despite all their care, these ‘cozeners’ have failed to present their abilities and assets as marketable, or have decided their endeavours were improperly rewarded. Dickens uses the term ‘partnership’ to describe ‘connections at some level of action, disconnections at others, and webs of utterance either involving “a dialogic concordance of unmerged twos”, or displaying, at best, the malignant union of enemies’ (Farrell 768-9). Whereas the Podsnaps and Veneerings give excellent dinners and carry on illusory friendships, Bella gains social acceptance after upgrading her wardrobe, and Lady Tippins trades on an accidental title and artificial looks, the Lammles and Wegg stand out as dissatisfied aspirants keenly aware of their monetary shortcomings amidst apparent public success. These require partners, as do Jonson’s Subtle and Face, to combat a great social ‘wrong’ – the breakdown of the currency between merit and reward. As a faithful servant, Face ‘had no name’ (I.i.81) and lived an invisible, lonely existence, but as a fellow cheat, is now a ‘captain’ with means and manners. Virtue’s humble rewards pale in comparison to ill-gotten delights. Inhabiting vacant spaces where enterprise is possible, and befriending innocents unwary of danger, the partnerships of Subtle, Face, and Doll, the Lammles, and Wegg and Venus all set the stage for financial, ambitious projects, which are ‘mutually’ supported and executed.
As described in Book I, Wegg and the lovelorn Mr. Venus are both dissatisfied with the return they have received for their individual efforts. Like Old Harmon, Venus has successfully performed alchemy and invented a unique business. Harmon transformed London’s refuse into coin, but the articulator has taken this innovation a step farther by reinventing London’s dead population, whole and intermingled, as purchasable works of art. Yet business acumen and master craftsmanship alike fail to impress his finicky ladylove, who baulks at regarding her skeleton as marketable. ‘“And so a man climbs to the top of the tree, Mr. Wegg, only to see that there’s no look-out when he’s up there!”’ he mourns, obviously requiring a scheme to end his bachelorhood. Initially masterless like Boffin and Jeremy Face, Wegg resorts fondly to inventing a fictitious family to serve before becoming one of Boffin’s Two New Servants in Chapter Fourteen. He craves position and place, both of which are threatened by the advent of John Rokesmith as Boffin’s secretary, a man of superior intelligence and gentlemanly appearance. Simply put, Rokesmith presents himself better, and thus stands to gain more from Boffin if he exercises cunning, putting an indignant Wegg on the possible defensive. From the beginning, financial considerations and commercial verbiage accompany Wegg’s rapid insinuation into Boffin’s trust and old living quarters, and are ever present in his mind and discourse. Wegg ambiguously assures his new employer ‘“Do not fear […] that I shall contaminate the premises which your gold has bought […] it would not become me to carry on my little traffic under the windows of your [new] mansion”’. Safely ensconced in the old residence, he is at perfect liberty to rove unsupervised over the property, and use it like Face and Subtle to advance his own fortunes.
Perhaps the strongest argument for The Alchemist’s intimate relevancy to Our Mutual Friend is that even vaguely describing its conclusion would incidentally reveal Dickens’ ending, thus provoking the mighty wrath of outraged Dickensians everywhere. Suffice it to say that the lack of a view from ‘the top of the tree’ presents difficulties in both Londons, and raises the question of whether social corruption and rebellion is unavoidable in any time period prizing commerce and efficacy above all else. Even practical Wegg is disturbed by Venus’s ownership of his leg, intimate acquaintance with human articulation, and exact knowledge of Old Harmon’s grave ‘“over yonder”’. Skullduggery operates smoothly in an environment where every human attribute, even literacy and deceased physicality, is marketable and calculated down to the last farthing. Capitalism runs rampant to the detriment of the social order, yet even the wealthiest are left unsatisfied in the pursuit of riches. In the world of Our Mutual Friend, skeletons and bodies are not buried in mass pits but sold to art houses or morgues, men through knowledge and good fortune may yet become princes, and Londoners still dream of transmuting dust into gold.
Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. London: Chapman and Hall, May 1864-November 1865. Print.
Farrell, John D. ‘The Partners’ Tale: Dickens and Our Mutual Friend.’ ELH, 66.3 (Fall, 1999): 759-799. JSTOR. Web. 9 September 2014.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol II. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870.Print.
Furdell, Elizabeth Lane. ‘Life and Death in Middleton’s London’. Thomas Middleton in Context. Ed. Suzanne Gossett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.
Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist. English Renaissance Drama. Ed. Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Rasmussen. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. Print.
Mebane, John S. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Print.