Highlights of the eighth part of the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project can now be found on Storify! Click here to catch up on the latest developments.
And don’t forget to bookmark ‘Our Mutual Feed‘ to keep up with the story day-to-day.
This guest post was contributed by Claire Wood, Research Associate at the University of York. It revisits and expands upon material from her forthcoming monograph, Dickens and the Business of Death, due to be published by Cambridge University Press in February 2015.
Our Mutual Friend is a novel permeated by cycles of death and renewal. From the opening sequence in which a modern-day Charon profits by towing corpses ashore instead of ferrying them to the afterlife, the text plays out numerous iterations of life after death and death-in-life, and is profoundly interested in those who make death their living. Despite the general atmosphere of deathliness and the appearance of several notable corpses, the December number is the first to feature an ‘onstage’ death. The choice of subject is interesting – why does Dickens decide to have readers witness this gentle passing away instead of the more dramatic scene of Gaffer Hexam drowning in Number Five? In part this is a question of timing and sympathy. Little John Harmon’s death compels us to remember the poor and suffering during the festive season; his youth and innocence readily elicits sympathy in the hope that it will be directed towards charitable ends, as in Mrs Boffin’s adoption of Sloppy. Gaffer is a more ambivalent character and the manner of his death, when he becomes a substitute for the corpse that he had hoped to catch, reflects this. Instead of narrating the waterman’s death as it happens, Dickens has Mr Inspector reconstruct it second-hand, limiting the emotive content. The body is still a moving spectacle, not least because nature seems so cruelly disposed towards it: ‘the wind sweeps jeeringly over Father, whips him with the frayed ends of his dress and his jagged hair, tries to turn him where he lies … and force his face towards the rising sun, that he might be shamed the more’ (132). However, because a direct account of Gaffer’s final moments is suppressed, the overt cues for sympathy – such as thoughts of redemption – are lacking.
This guest post was contributed by Katharina Boehm (Assistant Professor in English Literature at the University of Regensburg, Germany). Her post draws from a chapter in her monograph Charles Dickens and the Sciences of Childhood: Popular Medicine, Child Health and Victorian Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
The 8th instalment of Our Mutual Friend juxtaposes two radically different visions of hospital care for the poor in nineteenth-century London. When Venus calls at Wegg in the Bower, he carries under his arm ‘a sort of brown paper truncheon’, which contains the bones of Wegg’s amputated leg. Venus bought the leg along with various other amputated body parts from the porter of the hospital in which Wegg was treated (see Nicola Bown’s June blog). ‘“[Y]ou were one of a warious lot”’, he informs Wegg. Wegg wants his leg back and he is in luck: due to the bizarre anatomy of his leg bones, Venus hasn’t yet managed to work the leg into one of the ‘miscellaneous’ articulated skeletons that he sells to art schools and, presumably, to anatomical museums.
It’s the beginning of the Christmas season, and this month’s instalment of Our Mutual Friend opens in a suitably festive fashion with the unwrapping of a brown paper parcel and a long-anticipated family get-together. As we learnt in Month 2, all Silas Wegg wanted for Christmas was his own amputated leg, and, thanks to Mr Venus, in this month’s instalment we witness this happy reunion taking place. It’s an episode in which Dickens brilliantly sustains the linguistic awkwardness that built up around Venus and Wegg’s original discussion of this event in June: Venus’s uncertainty on how to refer to the rest of Wegg’s body (‘Sit down by the fire, and warm your — your other one’) is repeated here again in his hesitant ‘I am glad to restore it to the source from whence it — flowed’. The terms to describe the amputated part remain similarly fraught: in Month 2 it was a ‘miscellaneous one’ (in Wegg’s words) or a ‘Monstrosity’ (in Venus’s), whilst this time round our narrator plumps for ‘brown paper truncheon’. The obsession with propriety that drove Wegg to ‘collect [him]self like a genteel person’ in that earlier instalment is also evident here again, in the disagreement over how this ‘brown paper truncheon’ should have been transported: Mr Venus, much like Amazon, is ‘not above a parcel’, whilst Wegg feels a cab would have been a more appropriate transport, an idea which comically skewers Wegg’s general sense of self-importance and concern for the ‘respectability’ of his body.