Something Dickensian, I’m sure

This guest post was contributed by Dr Pete Orford, Lecturer in English at the University of Buckingham, stalwart online serial reader of Dickens, and Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (

Well, here we at part 12, and a whole year in to our reading of Our Mutual Friend (and still barely half way through!) – Happy Anniversary everybody. There’s much to enjoy this month with Boffin getting mean and moody, Bella getting doubtful and reflective, and Silas just generally getting Weggy with it, and I’m happy to chat over specifics in the comments section below, but given that it has been a year, I feel a little reflective on the story as a whole so far, as well as what is yet to come. By far what interests me most about trying to recreate the original reading experience of a Dickens novel is that sense of anticipation and speculation that falls between instalments; indeed in the first paragraph of this week’s instalment Dickens directly challenges us to look ahead to what might come: ‘Were Bella Wilfer’s bright and ready little wits at fault, or was the Golden Dustman passing through the furnace of proof and coming out dross? Ill news travels fast. We shall know full soon.’ Trying to imagine what a reader might feel and think as they await the next part is simultaneously one of the most elusive and appealing considerations when embarking on a reading project like this. Occasionally we get some insight, such as Dickens’ somewhat sniffy (and to this day unconvincing) remark that he always meant for everyone to guess John Rokesmith was actually Harmon in disguise:

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that Mr John Harmon was not slain, and that Mr John Rokesmith was he. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worthwhile, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

You’re fooling no-one Charles. But at any rate it indicates that Dickens’s contemporaries were on to the Harmon/Rokesmith reveal from the start. Throughout his career Dickens had to contend with pirates finishing his stories before he did, either in the form of plays or parody serials. Serial publication transformed reading from a private experience to a public one, with the disadvantage that it allowed people more time to guess the ending, and with enough people sharing their ideas the laws of averages dictates that at least one of them would get it right – ‘Ill news travels fast’ indeed. In my work on Edwin Drood I’ve come to curse the resurrection of John Harmon for the precedent it has set for an apparently dead character returning in disguise, and the free rein this has given to many Droodists to bring Edwin back from the grave. Yet the basic principle is not so outlandish: using our knowledge of the author’s previous work to shape our expectations of his latest novel. Immediately with this month’s instalment we are confronted with the Spirit of Dickens Past: after the illustrations, and before the start of the first chapter, who do we see but Mr Pickwick glaring down at us?


The advertisement for ‘The People’s Pickwick’ both trades upon the success of Our Mutual Friend to advertise this new edition of an older work, as well as trading upon the success of Pickwick to endorse the later story. It’s a seal of approval for those starting to lose interest in the novel to remind them exactly whose work they are reading. When I asked a friend what we might expect to happen this month his answer was ‘Something Dickensian, I’m sure’. It’s a mark of Dickens’s success that he should have his own adjective, but equally it could form an albatross round his neck when it came to the release and appreciation of new works. E. S. Dallas, writing for The Times on 29 November 1865, said of Our Mutual Friend:

We hear people say, ‘[Dickens] has never surpassed Pickwick’. They talk of Pickwick as if it were his masterpiece. We do not yield to any one in our enjoyment of that extraordinary work…But we refuse to measure a work of art by the amount of visible effect which it produces…What if we allow that Our Mutual Friend is not nearly so funny as Pickwick? It is infinitely better than Pickwick in all the higher qualities of a novel.

The intrusion of Pickwick at the beginning of this month’s instalment is thus a double-edged sword, whereby encouraging readers to make comparisons with what had come before is not necessarily to the credit of Our Mutual Friend. New characters are forced into the packaging of old characters, and then criticised for not measuring up. Henry James’s vicious attack on Our Mutual Friend focuses at one point on Jenny Wren – one of my favourite characters in the novel – who he dismisses as merely a poor imitation of a familiar Dickensian type:

Like all Mr Dickens’s pathetic characters, she is a little monster; she is deformed, unhealthy, unnatural; she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr Dickens’s novels; the little Nells, the Smikes, the Paul Dombeys. (The Nation 21 December 1865)

To my mind Jenny has really very little in common with either Nell, Smike or Paul: their characters are quite distinct and it is only their physical descriptions in which connections might be made. The fault that James finds in her is one of his own making, I would argue; the tendency of he and others to identify former Dickensian characters in each subsequent novel creates an unfair sense of expectation which is then  inevitably coupled with unwarranted criticism for not fulfilling the perceived purpose of this constructed character type – in short, Jenny is criticised for failing to be something that Dickens does not intend her to be. It’s precisely this sort of directed anticipation that leads to accusations of Dickensian types, familiar figures which remerge throughout his canon. Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly familiar tropes in Our Mutual Friend which can be likened to characters and scenarios in other Dickens’s works (and please do share your thoughts on any character comparisons you’ve found so far between this novel and others), but familiarity is not an absolute, and we should also recognise moments of development and variation. For example, Lizzie’s predicament echoes Emily’s seduction by Steerforth in David Copperfield, but here the seducer has been split into the twin figures of Bradley and Eugene, the latter encapsulating both the charm and exoticism that Steerforth offers, and the former presenting the unveiled threat of the seducer. Her wariness of Eugene grows from the example of Little Emily and her treatment by Steerforth; it almost trades upon that precedent as a warning for what might happen to her. Yet in making Lizzie more aware and less naïve than Emily, Dickens revisits a past scenario with strikingly different results, and as much as we might recognise the situation, we are therefore unable to guarantee the conclusion. Instead, Dickens gives us just enough material to speculate upon, to bring us back next month to see if we are right or not without quite giving too much confirmed similarities that we might feel we had read it all before. Thus the author treads the unenviable tightrope between the need for something new and the need to please the fans with familiarity: the result is that we at once feel a sense of nostalgia when reading a Dickens novel conjured by the author’s distinctive tone combined with characters who are vaguely familiar yet ultimately, I would argue, distinct from those that have come before. For all our sense that we can predict the tone of instalments yet to come, we should not be so confident in predicting the details.


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