Reading Our Mutual Friend through the Advertiser

Joe McLaughlin is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ohio University

I would like to extend the conversation about household management that Maria Damkjær has already written about this month by considering another important means by which Our Mutual Friend is involved in the training of domestic managers, namely via the copious advertising that appeared with each month’s installment. Our Mutual Friend contained a greater volume of advertising material than any of Dickens’s previous serials, approximately 320 pages over the nineteen published parts, and examining that material can provide us new ways to consider and interpret the novel and the ideological work it performs. If as Damkjær and others have suggested, the novel can be situated within a discursive universe inhabited by Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the texts in ‘The Our Mutual Friend Advertiser’ are an even more proximate context for thinking about the novel’s role in converting ‘mercenary wretches’ such as Bella Wilfer into ‘complete British family housewives’ and more multi-faceted consumers. In what follows, we can see how both a ‘distant’ and ‘close’ reading of the advertisements provides insight into the novel in its world.

In work conducted with a student researcher, Anne Sand, I have attempted to quantify the proportions of different categories of advertising that accompanied Our Mutual Friend over the course of its publication.

The following table demonstrates our attempt to organize all of the 1,216 separate advertisements by type. The second table shows, perhaps more importantly, how these different categories break down by the amount of ‘page space’ they actually occupied to capture the way in which a full-page advertisement resonated in a way that one taking up an 1/8th or a 1/16th page did not.

Table 1: Products Advertised by Type

Product Number of Advertisements Percentage of Total
Household Items 272 22%
Books 196 16%
Cosmetics 155 13%
Health Items 155 13%
Food 138 11%
Clothing 110 9%
Leisure Activity 73 6%
Periodicals 67 6%
Insurance 39 3%
Visual Art 8 >1%
Travel 3 >1%
TOTAL 1216 100%

Table 2: Products Advertised by ‘Page Space’

Product Percentage of Page Space Occupied
Books 25%
Household Items 19%
Insurance 12%
Health 12%
Clothing 8%
Periodicals 7%
Food 5%
Leisure Activity 5%
Cosmetics 4%
Visual Art 1%
Travel >1%

The examination by percentage of page space occupied (Table 2) reveals some substantial differences from what is revealed by a simple tabulation of the percentages of advertisements by category (Table 1). Ads for insurance were often pages in length and occupied prominent locations, such as the full-page ad for fire and marine insurance offered by The Albert Insurance Company Limited that occupied the inside-back wrapper cover for Installment No. 9 in January 1865. Conversely, there were many ads for cosmetic products but these tended to be much more modest in nature.

Most significantly, the above tables show that books and household items dominated the advertising that accompanied Our Mutual Friend, involving 38% of the total number of ads and 44% of the total advertising space; if one were to include periodicals, the number of ads and amount of page space devoted to the combination of media and household items would be greater than 50%. ‘The Our Mutual Friend Advertiser’ (as the advertising sections of the published installments were titled at the top of each page) points toward a reading audience that was assumed to be primarily interested in reading, for both edification and amusement, and the creation and maintenance of a household.

More advertisers were inclined to pitch their products to women, perhaps indicating the central role that women played as domestic managers and household purchasers. That is, those who advertised in Dickens’s novels recognized both a substantial female readership and the fact that women increasingly controlled a household’s everyday disposable income.

This preliminary empirical research on ‘The Our Mutual Friend Advertiser’ would suggest that Bella Wilfer is undoubtedly the character in the novel that most likely resembles the typical reader or implied audience of the novel. A focus on Bella as reader should remind one of earlier moments in the text when we see Bella reading, such as the moment (Book the First, ch. 16, September 1864) when Rokesmith encounters Bella in the fields near her home, ‘reading as she walked’, or Marcus Stone’s illustration ‘Pa’s Lodger, and Pa’s Daughter’ for December 1864, in which Rokesmith gazes on a Bella who is purportedly reading a novel by the hearth.

However, by this month’s installment, Bella’s bookish pursuits have been re-directed from the pleasurable consumption of novels, perhaps books that encourage her mercenary dreams of occupying a position in fashionable society, toward more practical reading. We can see this in her reading of both the Beeton-esque Complete British Family Housewife, in order to learn how to keep Rokesmith’s home, and the statistically-laden financial press, so that she can be a suitable conversational partner for him when he returns from his daily work in the City.

Both Bella and Dickens’s readers inhabit a shared media environment, one that includes novels, books of practical advice, and the ‘Advertiser’. The last-named, my focus in this piece, inhabits a textual space that might be seen as text and paratext, as both inside (the covers of the novel) and outside (extraneous to the novel itself). By the same token, Our Mutual Friend is a text that can be understood within this media landscape, one that occupies an intermediate position on a spectrum whose poles might be imagined as the pleasurable and the practical, entertainment and education, ‘silly novels’ and the Book of Household Management, romance and realism.

A closer look at some of the specific ads provides a more detailed look at how these texts functioned to train and interpolate British housewives as skilled domestic managers.

The inside-front of the wrapper cover for this month’s installment contains five advertisements of roughly equal size. The first of these is for John Harvey and Son, who are advertising ‘New Silks’, ‘Checked and Striped Glacés’, and ‘Black French Figured Glacés’. As they are given pride of place, we can see how women’s fashions were assumed to be a prominent concern for Dickens’s readers. This might strike one as odd since the world of ‘fashion’ is cynically satirized in the novel’s Veneering plot and, to a lesser degree, gently chided in our earliest introductions to Mrs. Boffin. While the Dickens’s text offers us a critical position or positions as readers to take up relative to Fashion, the unabashed promotion of Fashion in the advertising copy suggests a more nuanced relationship to those pages that comprise what we have conventionally considered ‘the novel’.

The ad for New Silks ends with a testimonial that the proprietor, John Harvey and Son has been ‘Established 50 Years.’ Language like this in the advertising reveals the role it has to play, at the level of rhetorical strategy, in forming or educating consumers. Throughout the advertising, we see language that seeks to assure consumers in the reliability of firms and in the purity and authenticity of products. The ubiquity of such language reflects a society increasingly involved in commodity exchange and anxious about its lack of knowledge concerning the people with whom it does business. If we remember Raymond Williams’s famous claim that the Victorian novel offered its readers the vision of a ‘knowable community’, one reassuringly at odds with the experience of alienation and anonymity that accompanied the social transition from rural to predominantly urban forms of community, then certainly the content and language of advertising was involved in a similar project to assuage the anxieties of consumers in an expanding economy of exchange, i.e. the establishment of a ‘knowable marketplace’. Such concerns are at the center of Dickens’s novel, one that takes its title from the ways in which friendship might be authorized on the basis of a trusted intermediary or ‘mutual friend.’

The question of how a reader of advertising might go about establishing his or her faith or trust in a firm is not unlike the question R. Wilfer asks of John Rokesmith back in the first installment in Bella and John’s first encounter: ‘“Shall I mention, sir […] the form of a reference?”’ As one recalls, Bella is particularly disturbed that her father’s new lodger refuses to supply a reference, suggesting after his departure that ‘“we have got a Murderer for a tenant”’ and her sister to echo ‘“we have got a Robber.”’ Surely one of the more central themes of Our Mutual Friend is the question of how one goes about establishing trust, who is an ‘honest’ man and who is not, and this question is no less applicable to commodities than it is to people. One might be reminded of Laura’s query about the origins of commodified fruits in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1862) – ‘Who Knows upon what soil they fed/ Their hungry thirsty roots?’ – or the fact, a few years later, that Marx begins his analysis of Capital in 1867 with an explication of ‘the fetishism of the commodity’. It would perhaps not be too far of a stretch to say that Dickens himself was the ‘Mutual Friend’ who provided the reassurance that allowed consumers and readers to trust those merchants who inhabited the same textual space.

An advertisement at the bottom of the inside front cover for ‘The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion’ as well as one at the bottom of the facing page for ‘Hubbell’s Gemma and Sansflectum Crinolines’ further reveal the extent to which the advertising for Our Mutual Friend invites its readers, as Mr. Boffin might suggest, ‘“to go[ ] in neck and crop for Fashion”’ (Book the First, ch 15). While such advertisements would have appealed to Bella before her conversion, the advertisement for ‘Thomas’s Patent Sewing Machines’ that appears in the second position on the inside cover speaks to the more practical and domesticated Bella of Blackheath and the Complete British Family Housewife.

A final advertisement on the inside cover is for a periodical, The Family Herald, and this advertisement is echoed on the facing page with an almost-full-page ad for the same publication. Reverting back to the distant reading above, we can see even on these first two pages how media (here a periodical, more typically books) dominate the advertising, since just over half of the page surface on these first two pages is given over to The Family Herald.

It is perhaps more than serendipitous that The Family Herald appears so prominently in the installment in which we see Bella so involved with a book that also contains the word ‘family’ in its title. As the advertisement indicates, The Family Herald, which began publication in 1843, sold in September 1865 for one penny weekly and sixpence monthly, the latter being half the price of an installment of Our Mutual Friend. The publication’s subtitle was ‘A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information & Amusement.’ In addition to recipes, domestic advice, and articles on scientific topics, the magazine contained poetry, parts of serialized novels, and short stories. It was, in fact, a generic amalgam of the Book of Household Management and Our Mutual Friend, combining the practical and the fictional: ‘useful information and amusement’. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate not to cede the ground of the ‘useful’ to Isabella Beeton and to imagine Our Mutual Friend, especially an expanded of the novel that includes the Advertiser, as a text that combines both ‘information’ (practical education for domestic managers) and amusement. The publisher, William Stevens, of the Strand, constructs his omnibus ad on p. 1 of the Advertiser as a list of testimonial blurbs from over a dozen publications, ranging from national publications like the Illustrated London News, to more local ones like the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Unlike Rokesmith, Mr. Stevens is willing and able to supply multiple references or mutual friends to testify to the worth and values of The Family Herald.

The following pages of ‘The Our Mutual Friend Advertiser’ are full of promotions for books and periodicals, a study of which can help us to further understand both the textual or media environment in which Dickens’s novel was published, circulated, and read. It can also help us envision a world of commodities, many of which were aimed at housewives and domestic managers like Bella Wilfer as helpful and necessary for fulfilling one’s role. Perhaps more intriguingly, through a close a lose attention to the advertisements’ use of language and their rhetorical strategies (marketing), one can gain a richer understanding of thematic issues in the novel.


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Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

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