Pieces of Work: Creativity and Intellectual Labor in Our Mutual Friend

This guest post was contributed by Sean Grass, Associate Professor of English at Iowa State University and author of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History (Ashgate 2014). The post revisits and extends the discussion that begins Chapter 3 of that book.

In her fine introduction to Our Mutual Friend‘s sixth installment earlier this month, Catherine Waters observed that it continues the theme of literacy through the ‘decent’ (if ominously named) Bradley Headstone, whom she calls–quite rightly–‘Dickens’s most powerful psychological study of repression and class anxiety’ (par. 2). As she points out, Bradley belongs not only to the novel’s critique of education but also to its broader exploration of the forms that labor might take under industrial capitalism. No. 6 juxtaposes Bradley’s teaching work with Jenny Wren’s dolls’ dressmaking, Eugene Wrayburn’s professional ennui, and the apparent non-work of the ‘Piece of Work’ that lands Mr. Veneering in Parliament. And even these varied forms of labor only add a few more pieces to the mosaic of work in Our Mutual Friend, since this also includes corpse-dredging and dust-collecting, mangling and minding, taking bodies apart and putting them together again. This comprehensive view of work touches upon many things in a novel so concerned with the literal and symbolic complexities of labor, wealth, and exchange. But one of these seems particularly crucial: the status of genuinely creative intellectual work under mid-Victorian capitalism. In this installment, we see Dickens’s anxiety regarding such work in the world that the novel describes.

For obvious reasons, the status and value of intellectual work always mattered to Dickens, and that was no less true when he began Our Mutual Friend than it had been two decades before, when he had wrangled repeatedly with publishers over what his work was worth. Aided by John Forster and emboldened by the enormous commercial success of his early novels, Dickens spent much of 1837-1840 wringing financial and other concessions from John Macrone, Richard Bentley, and Chapman and Hall (Patten 75-90). In the process, and in years after, he gained an unprecedented level of control over his copyrights, first by consolidating them under Chapman and Hall in 1840 and then, when he moved to Bradbury and Evans in 1844, by arranging things so that his old and new publishers would have to collaborate, under his direction, on cheap editions, reissues, and other attempts to work his copyrights. Dickens made thousands of pounds because of these arrangements during the middle years of his career, when he was writing enormously popular novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Indeed, by the time he broke with Bradbury and Evans in 1858, he had placed himself almost beyond the need for a publisher, entirely in the case of his new magazine All the Year Round, which he funded and published himself, and nearly so in the cases of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, which appeared in the magazine first. His proposal to Chapman and Hall in 1863 for a contract for Our Mutual Friend was made, as Robert Patten puts it, very much ‘on a “take it or leave it” basis’ (75). He wanted £6,000 for half-copyright, and he would happily ‘make other arrangements’ if Chapman and Hall refused to give it (Dickens, Letters 10: 287).

By the 1860s the problem of what constituted intellectual work was anyway very much in the air. As Jennifer Ruth explains in Novel Professions, cultural conditions in the 1840s and 1850s gave rise to an emergent professional class that ‘explo[ded] in both numbers and power’ during the decade that followed (3). Amid the ensuing attempts to distinguish ‘between ability and effort, intelligence and merit,’ Victorian novels placed ‘phrenology and competitive examination at the center of the Victorian fantasy of professional identity’ (Ruth 3, 5). In part, preserving that fantasy meant masculinizing forms of production located in the traditionally feminine space of the home, as when David Copperfield imagines himself wielding a ‘woodman’s axe’ and clearing his ‘own way through the forest of difficulty’ to the life he wants with Dora, though really he means to learn short-hand and become a Parliamentary reporter–to write, that is, while his child-wife sits by mending his pens (481). Situated within a burgeoning capitalist culture epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s exhortation to ‘Produce! Produce!’ Dickens and other intellectual laborers attempted to carve out a space in which producing meant creating rather than mechanically reproducing, inventing rather than merely transacting (149). What we see in Our Mutual Friend, at least partly, is Dickens’s portrayal of the consequences that ensue when capitalism and class anxiety drive the individual away from creation and invention and toward a form of intellectual work that is only endless reiteration.

In No. 6 Bradley appears as the embodiment of these consequences, for his tenuous grip on the middle class has come at an enormous cost. He keeps it only because he has managed to turn his mind into ‘a place of mechanical stowage’ and because he obsesses over ‘[t]he arrangement of this wholesale warehouse’ in order to ensure that nothing is missing from his inventory. Bradley produces nothing, instead contenting himself with being a kind of intellectual middle-man, arranging exchanges between producers and consumers of knowledge and so earning enough to keep himself ‘decently’ middle-class. Conceiving of intellectual work as a reiterative task that can carry him from pauperism to respectability, Bradley leads a mental life that is fundamentally transactional, buying and selling–but not producing–mental wares, turning the intellectual work of others to account. He is, we might say, a subjectivity pervaded thoroughly by the demands of capitalist exchange. In this sense he is counterpart to the irrepressible Silas Wegg, whose reading for the Boffins mimics this kind of reiterative transaction. His attempts to read Gibbon aloud are, of course, high comedy: who wouldn’t pay a crown a week to hear the adventures of Polly Beeious, Commodious, and Bully Sawyers? Yet beneath this comedy is the reality that Wegg’s intellectual work, like Bradley’s, consists not of producing but rather of reproducing, and of doing so badly. He parodies legitimate authorship. In this sense, he commits an offense very near to Dickens’s heart.

So, too, does the apparently inoffensive Miss Peecher, for she tries to demand that language function with a rigidity and a specificity that forecloses even the possibility of intellectual creativity. After bidding goodnight to Bradley, who has set off to meet Charley’s pretty sister for the first time, the lovelorn Peecher takes out her disappointment on her pupil Mary Anne, who provokes her by remarking of Lizzie, ‘They say she’s very handsome.’

‘Oh Mary Anne, Mary Anne!’ returned Miss Peecher, slightly colouring and shaking her head, a little out of humour; ‘how often have I told you not to use that vague expression, not to speak in that general way? When you say they say, what do you mean? Part of speech They?’

Mary Anne hooked her right arm behind her left hand, as being under examination, and replied:

‘Personal pronoun.’

‘Person, They?’

‘Third person.’

‘Number, They?’

‘Plural number.’

‘Then how many do you mean, Mary Anne? Two? Or more?’

‘I beg your pardon, ma’am,’ said Mary Anne, disconcerted now she came to think of it; ‘but I don’t know that I mean more than her brother himself.’

Any reader of Hard Times has seen this pedagogical harangue before, in Thomas Gradgrind’s hectoring of Sissy Jupe. In this sense, Miss Peecher seems another in a long line of failed Dickensian teachers, as does Bradley with his ‘decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt,’ and deathly mechanical way of singing and playing wind instruments. Yet Miss Peecher and Bradley both are decent compared with their Dickensian forebears. They do not beat and starve their students like Wackford Squeers, cane them like Mr. Creakle, or fall asleep in the middle of teaching them like Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt. Rather, Bradley is a pauper lad made good, a Noah Claypole turned decent and ascended into the lower middle class, and Miss Peecher’s besetting sin is her eagerness to cover human feelings with an impromptu lesson reasserting the mechanical rigidity of language. Neither, though, is satisfactorily human, for neither willingly presses beyond the merely transactional and reiterative functions of the intellect.

Unlike Miss Peecher, Dickens reveled in the creative possibilities of language. Unlike Bradley, he worked his way out of the lower middle class by exercising that creativity, making his career as a comic novelist precisely because of his ability to treat language–from at least the time of Alfred Jingle, Sam Weller, and The Pickwick Papers–as inherently generative and playful. He rejoiced in double-meanings, phonetic spellings, and what we might call the materiality of language, whether in Mr. Krook spelling J-A-R-N-D-Y-C-E one letter at a time or in young Pip imagining the likenesses of his parents because of the turn of the inscriptions on their tombstones. He also understood, as perhaps no other writer has, the capacity of such slippages to create symbolic meanings. And so the narrator of Our Mutual Friend introduces Twemlow as an ‘innocent piece of dinner-furniture,’ and Boffin mistakes John Rokesmith’s offer to become a ‘Secretary.’ Implicit here is the novel’s thematic entangling of persons and things, its symbolic rendering of the dehumanizing and commodifying effects of Victorian capitalism. But beneath even this is the bedrock of Dickens’s sense of the wild instability of language and his boundless empathy for those who recognize this instability and use it to produce new meanings and relations. Not for nothing does the narrator evince a particular sympathy for Jenny Wren. In this installment she shifts playfully and shrewdly her referent for the word ‘doll,’ reinvents the chronology and biology of her relationship to her ‘bad child,’ and disposes of her real name, Fanny Cleaver. Far better to be productive like Jenny, giving new meaning even to the old scraps she makes into dresses for dolls, than to insist like Miss Peecher on referents and rules.

All of this is to say that what appears to be at stake in this installment of Our Mutual Friend is a critique not just of education but also of Victorian capitalism and the wholly unnatural subjects it seems likely to produce. Virtually a human echo of what Karl Marx would soon write in Capital, Bradley appears in No. 6 as a man alienated profoundly from the thing he means to produce, for what he means to produce is himself, the decent professional of the middle class. Yet his very subjectivity appears here as a kind of alien and economized terrain, curiously devoid of the creative and empathetic impulses that would make him human and productive in any Dickensian sense of those words. The paradox, of course, is that Dickens foresees under capitalism the closing off of creative potentialities for the subject even though, as Marx explains, capitalism depends for its own vitality upon abstract values and the play of interlocking signs. How this paradox plays out in Our Mutual Friend is a matter of crucial interest to those concerned with the broader economic critique offered by the novel.

Works Cited

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. 1833-1834. Eds. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. 1849-1850. Ed. Jeremy Tambling. London: Penguin, 1996.

—. The Letters of Charles Dickens. 12 vols. Eds. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-2002.

Patten, Robert. Charles Dickens and His Publishers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.

Ruth, Jennifer. Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Waters, Catherine. ‘Month 6 (October 1864).’ Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project. 2014.


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