Highlights of the eighteenth part of the ‘Our Mutual Friend Tweets’ project can now be found on Storify! Click here to catch up on the latest developments.
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Here are some of our anonymous tweeters, revealing their secret identities at this year’s Dickens Day.
Brett Beasley is a Graduate Student Instructor in the Department of English at Loyola University Chicago.
Penultimate: pene + ultimate; the last one before the last one, the end just before the end, finality – but with a qualifier. Such is the curious quality of any penultimate instalment of a novel. The author, having stretched a narrative across many iterations, now pauses and gathers the strands of the narrative, not yet for the end but for one final deferral.
In the case of Our Mutual Friend, the penultimate instalment is especially important because it is a deferred ending in a novel about deferred endings, specifically deferrals of death. On its broadest level, the narrative follows the effects of the [non-]death of John Harmon, his afterlife as John Rokesmith, and his final resurrection as John Harmon once again. The novel’s minor characters and sub-plots manifest this leitmotif as well: the Boffins’ fortune is born out of discarded materials as are the scraps Jenny Wren reclaims for her dolls’ dresses and Mr. Venus turns bones and bodies into what he calls the ‘“trophies of his art.”’ Critics have identified this curiously undead quality variously as ‘postmortem consciousness’, ‘death in abeyance’, ‘suspended animation’, or simply, ‘limbo’, and have taken correspondingly varied takes on the theme’s ethical, political, religious, and economic implications.
Isobel Armstrong is a fellow of the British Academy, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of English Studies and Professor Emeritus at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on nineteenth-century studies (in particular Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, 1993) and theory (see The Radical Aesthetic, 2000). Her most recent book, Victorian Glassworlds. Glass Culture and the Imagination, 2008) won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize in 2009. This account of the dolls’ dressmaker will appear in her forthcoming monograph on the nineteenth-century novel and the democratic imagination, to be published by Oxford University Press.
This case study is part of a larger discussion of the way the category of the aesthetic in the nineteenth-century novel, introduced either as works of art, creative labour or media, is formative of the novel in that it shapes a reading of radical possibilities. While we too often see the novel as a symptom of history, the aesthetic is one of the ways the novel creates history. It is central to asking what free human personhood is. In the case of the dolls’ dressmaker, the aesthetic encounters ambiguity as art abuts on craft, work and economic law. Attention to the category of the aesthetic and these ambiguities extends our sense of the novel’s inquiry into class and inequality and the social boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. The aesthetic does not enter the novel as an unquestioned democratic good but precisely as a problematical category, which generates interrogatives, prompting questions about the social order that is its context. Seemingly marginal and subsidiary to the main action of the narrative, the dolls’ dressmaker’s presence is a source of questions, and the dolls’ dressmaker’s craft in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) uses the aesthetic to act as a prompt for radical questions. I identify four such prompts in the following discussion.