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 (www.droodinquiry.com).
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.
This month’s instalment races out of the gate with Dickens in full comic ‘canter, with arched head and mane, opened eyes and nostrils’, as he so ruthlessly describes the ‘rocking-horse’ Mrs Podsnap. The scene between Mr Podsnap and the ‘foreign gentleman’ brilliantly, and mercilessly, skewers the parochial, constricted world-view and facile triumphalism of the lazily prosperous commercial classes. The instalment shifts dramatically in tone, though, from the broad comedy of the Podsnaps’ awful, self-aggrandising party back to the dark mystery of John Harmon’s possible drowning. I was struck by how heavy with ‘stuff’ the world of Our Mutual Friend is: material goods, items of furniture, household wares, and, of course, waste, dirt and dust. While the glut of furniture, ornaments, dining implements and other domestic objects at the Podsnaps’ comically bespeaks their witless social ambitious and narrow, rigid outlook, there is also something redolent here of interment – a stifling claustrophobia.
In June 1870 Charles Dickens died, leaving his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, incomplete, and the gate wide open for an army of enthusiasts to publish their own weird and wonderful solutions. In September 2014 The Drood Inquiry will launch, allowing the public to have the final verdict on how the story ends by providing details of the plot so far, character profiles, and the ideas others have had before inviting each visitor to vote for their choice of ending. To mark the launch of the site, a one-day conference will be held in Senate House, London on 20th September featuring authors, academics and enthusiasts among its delegates. Join us for a celebration of this beguiling work and its wide array of baffling solutions.
Here is the second part of Sarah Waters’s incredibly rich, detailed and funny account of our Digital Dickens workshop. If you missed the event, this blog post will fill you in on everything you need to know.
Over at the Drood Inquiry this month, they’re reading and blogging about the third instalment (June 1870). Reading Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’s last completed novel, alongside his final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is proving absolutely fascinating!
While you’re waiting to start reading and blogging about Our Mutual Friend, you might want to get involved in this brilliant project to read Dickens’s final, famously unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) in its original monthly instalments. Reading Dickens’s last finished novel – Our Mutual Friend – alongside his final, unfinished novel promises to be a fascinating and thought-provoking experience.