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.
It was this opening exchange that set me thinking about Dickens’s emphasis this month on the vagaries, uncertainties, and potential embarrassments of language: the instalment is replete with characters ostentatiously skirting around their true meaning, or being reproached for speaking too plainly. In the Boffin household, for example, it takes Sloppy three attempts to adequately articulate to John Rokesmith what has happened to little Johnny. Elsewhere, Mr Wilfer worries about saying the word ‘Saveloy’ in Bella’s carriage, and ‘drop[s] his voice in deference to the chariot’. He is also later shocked at Bella’s open acknowledgement of her mercenary qualities (she is, as she candidly admits, ‘always avariciously scheming’). Elsewhere, Silas Wegg’s own mercenary plot (or, in his terms, ‘friendly move’) is so obfuscated as to be framed in the manner of a quasi-seduction, in which he dwells lovingly upon the exact terminology of treasure-hunting —whether one might say ‘skimmed’, ‘scooped’, or ‘as a man – […] prodded’ —rather than openly reveal his object.
In the Wegg/Venus scene, I wonder if the euphemistic and circumlocutory nature of Wegg’s language serves to veil another potentially ‘unspeakable’ dynamic, aside from Wegg’s criminal intent. Eve Sedgwick has famously written about the novel’s preoccupation with homoerotic relationships between men, and Wegg’s protracted attempts to involve Venus in his scheme here seem similarly charged. Wegg’s gradual ‘hitch[ing]’ towards Venus; his repeated suggestion that Venus ‘mix’ his drink again (‘more’, the narrator informs us, ‘as if he were proposing that himself and Mr Venus should mix again’); his need for Venus’s ‘delicate touch’ to excavate the dust heaps; his pleasure that Pleasant Riderhood’s rejection of Venus has ‘reduced [him] to his present convenient state of mind’; and his concern for whether Venus will give a specifically ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer: all, to me, pointed towards a ‘proposal’ of a rather different kind, implied but, again, not openly articulated.
In addition to this emphasis on veiled or circuitous expression, there is also a good deal of uncertainty in this instalment about names and naming: Mrs Boffin worries that giving another child the name of John Harmon might ‘prove again unlucky’ after the demise of poor Johnny; whilst her footman displays great chagrin at being called upon to announce the name ‘Sloppy’ (‘it was forced on his reluctance by the youth in question, and […] if the youth had had the good sense and good taste to inherit some other name it would have spared the feelings of him the bearer’). There is also a sustained and comic disagreement between Bella and Lavinia Wilfer and their mother on whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘Boffins’ to describe Bella’s benefactors. The plural is rejected by Mrs Wilfer for its ‘tone of levity’, leaving Lavinia to resort to ‘Spoffins’, and then ‘Whatshisnames’. It is later suggested that it is actually the letter ‘B’ that is causing Mrs Wilfer such distress here: the narrator describes how ‘the good lady bitterly emphasized the first letter of the word Boffin, as if it represented her chief objection to the owners of that name, and as if she could have borne Doffin, Moffin, or Poffin much better’. This concern with naming reaches a kind of crisis when Mrs Wilfer is forced to summon the Boffins’ footman to escort Bella to her carriage, and plumps for the ‘ceremonial’ expression ‘the male domestic of Mrs Boffin!’ for the general behoof of her neighbours. Sadly for Mrs Wilfer, such displays of verbosity are seemingly unsustainable, and by the time Bella arrives at her father’s office, she has become, in the words of the office scout, ‘a slap-up gal in a bang-up chariot’.
I wonder if perhaps the interest throughout this instalment in the relationship between language, class, and ‘propriety’ is a broader concern of the novel as a whole. Critics have often commented upon the incongruity between Lizzie Hexam’s eloquence of expression and her social standing, and again in this instalment it is emphasised just how socially-inflected and etiquette-bound language and expression can be. And yet there also seems to me to be a celebration of the messy fluidity and variability of language in these scenes: in Dickens’s enjoyment of the play between ‘boney lights’ and ‘bumpey lights’ in the Venus and Wegg exchange; in Sloppy’s articulation of the doctor’s diagnosis of Johnny’s illness (‘he called it something as wos wery long for spots’); and in the image of Sloppy’s buttons ‘modestly withdr[awing] into a creasy retirement’ after he has eaten; as well as, as mentioned above, the sending-up of Mrs Wilfer’s rather pretentious concern for the sanctity of expression. Perhaps such skewering of middle-class snobberies and celebrations of difference are rather appropriate keynotes for an instalment released at this particularly Dickensian time of year. And with this in mind, it’s perhaps fitting that the instalment closes, rather heart-warmingly and festively, with the linguistically unattractive Sloppy being welcomed into the Boffin (or should that be Spoffin?) family home.