‘“I ought to die, my dear!”’: The ‘Good Death’ and the Penultimate Instalment of Our Mutual Friend

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.

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Month 18 (October 1865): Case Study of the Category Aesthetic in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: The Dolls’ Dressmaker in Our Mutual Friend

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.

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Our Mutual Friend Tweets: Part Seventeen

Highlights of the seventeenth 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.

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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.

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Month 17 (September 1865): Domestic Management (part 3 of 3): The Dark Art of Household Work

Maria Damkjær is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Copenhagen

Read the first post here and the second post here.

The September 1865 number of Our Mutual Friend contains one of the most descriptive paragraphs on housework in all of Dickens’s work. Domestic tasks are usually obscured in Dickens, but here the reader is given details that any domestic managers would recognise. In fact, as I will argue, Dickens stresses the performative, indeed the theatrical aspect of housework.

Bella Rokesmith is installed in her little house in Blackheath, and when John goes to the ‘China house’ in the City, she goes to work:

She always walked with her husband to the railroad, and was always there again to meet him; her old coquettish ways a little sobered down (but not much), and her dress as daintily managed as if she managed nothing else. But, John gone to business and Bella returned home, the dress would be lain aside, trim little wrappers and aprons be substituted, and Bella, putting back her hair with both hands, as if she were making the most business-like arrangements for going dramatically distracted, would enter on the household affairs of the day. […]

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Our Mutual Friend Tweets: Part Sixteen

Highlights of the sixteenth 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.

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Performance of ‘Is She His Wife?’, 17 and 18 September 2015

King’s College London and the Charles Dickens Museum are hosting two performances of “Is She His Wife? Or, Something Singular!”, Dickens’s little-known comic burletta, which was first performed in 1837 at the St. James’s Theatre.

The first performance will take place in the Council Room of King’s College, with an introduction by Professor Michael Slater, on Thursday 17 September at 7pm. Tickets for this performance can be reserved here.

The second performance will take place at the Charles Dickens Museum on Friday 18 September, as part of the “Dickens and Drama Symposium”. The symposium will finish keynote addresses from Professor Jim Davis, Dr Peter Orford, and Dr Caroline Radcliffe. Tickets for the full day can be reserved here.

See the playbill for more information:

Is She His Wife Playbill

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Month 16 (August 1865): Legs of Wegg and Others

This guest post was contributed by Ryan Sweet, a PhD student at the University of Exeter whose research explores nineteenth-century representations of artificial body parts. He has written several introductions to Victorian and Edwardian texts that feature prosthesis users, including Our Mutual Friend, Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams (1859), and H. G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), for the online resource Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts.

From intellectual disability, as represented by Sloppy, through “crippled” characters, such as Jenny Wren, to amputees, such as Silas Wegg, Our Mutual Friend, and indeed Dickens’s oeuvre as a whole, is full of representations of the physically and cognitively non-normative. Disability studies expert Martha Stoddard Holmes, whose book-length study on nineteenth-century disability, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian (2004), is a must-read for those interested in the topic, writes that Dickens “was one of the two most prolific producers of disabled characters in Victorian literature” alongside his friend, colleague, collaborator, and competitor Wilkie Collins.[i] As I hope to show in this post, Dickens was interested in not only the disabled body but also the prosthetic technologies used by those with physical impairments. Part 16 provides more than ample material for such a discussion.

Wooden legs abound in Part 16 of Our Mutual Friend. Not only do we see the wooden-legged Silas Wegg at his most obstinate and villainous as he attempts to blackmail Boffin (living up to nineteenth-century stereotypes about disabled lower-class men, who were often feared to be frauds), but we are also introduced to the curious figure of Gruff and Glum, a character who uses not one but two peg legs. In this blog post I’ll explore how Dickens draws from and complicates nineteenth-century prejudices towards wooden leg users through his depiction of these two characters.

Beginning with Wegg, a comical yet villainous wooden-legged character whom we are all very familiar with by this point in the narrative, the “literary man” shows his true colours (mahogany? oak?) in Chapter 3 as he puts into action his plan to extort Boffin of his inheritance. Intriguingly, there seems to be a link in Dickens’s representation between Wegg’s increasing woodenness and his rising meanness as a character. Indeed, by Chapter 3 we learn that Wegg’s very head is “wooden” (p. 180)—he later bestows a wooden wink upon Boffin (p. 184)!—a progression from the woodenness that he exhibits earlier in the novel , where he is described as having a “wooden countenance” (Part 13, Chapter 14). Here, it would seem, the woodenness of Wegg’s leg has almost entirely taken over his appearance and character. This bodily takeover coincides with both Wegg’s success and growing callousness. One may wish to take a moment here to reflect on what this non-human influence might say about Dickens’s position on the human-technology relationship. Some critics, such as Herbert Sussman and Gerhard Joseph, have suggested that Dickens sat on the fence regarding the possibility of human-machine splicing,[ii] but here Dickens’s representation seems to suggest that too close an intimacy with technology can harden one’s character for the worse.

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Our Mutual Friend Tweets: Part Fifteen

Highlights of the fifteenth 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.

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Our Mutual Friend Tweets: The Big Reveal!

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As we come to the end of our blogging and tweeting adventure, we will be hosting a gathering after this year’s Dickens Day on Saturday 10th October at Senate House, London, at which our anonymous tweeters will be revealed! So please come and join us to celebrate the culmination of the project.

If you would like to come to the gathering but don’t want to attend Dickens Day, please contact us with your details.

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