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This guest post was contributed by Lydia Craig, MA student at Loyola University, Chicago.
Ben Jonson’s ironic prologue to The Alchemist (1610) might easily describe the grimy, depressive atmosphere of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-5):
‘Our scene is London, ‘cause we would make known,
No country’s mirth is better than our own,
No clime breeds better matter, for your whore,
Bawd, squire, impostor, many persons more,
Whose manners, now called humours, feed the stage:
And which have still been subject, for the rage
Or spleen of comic writers’
(The Alchemist, Prologue).
A comedic playwright himself, Jonson describes the true intent behind his amusing spectacles: to improve his countrymen’s morals through deploring the morally corrupt age. He advises his audience to sit by the stream where flows the filth of London’s sewers to ‘look what it doth run’ if they wish to behold the evidence of its people’s guilt. Jonson sets his play in a Blackfriars house, near where the Fleet River emptied into the Thames, ‘an unsanitary ditch along which no reputable people would live’ (Furdell 63). From the safety of Master Lovewit’s abandoned house, as plague infects London, a quack alchemist (Subtle) and a whore (Doll) join in a ‘venture tripartite’ with Lovewit’s faithless butler (Jeremy Face), to cozen ‘respectable’ citizens. Puritans, Sir Epicure Mammon, and the country gentleman Kastril trade money, fortune, and women for the promise of the philosopher’s stone, which magically turns any substance into gold, restores youth, and destroys disease.
Why, taking Silas Wegg on his walk through Clerkenwell towards Boffin’s Bower and the Roman Empire, did Dickens make him stop at Mr Venus’s taxidermy shop? Prosaically, we could say that despite all his experience with serialised fiction, he had become engrossed in the drama and pathos of Chapter VI and had over-written Part 2; he needed a short, comic episode to fill the place of the material that eventually became Chapter X in the next part. Dickens went on his own walk through Seven Dials with his illustrator, Marcus Stone, and visited a taxidermist called Willis, whose assistant and shop subsequently appeared, made over in Dickens’s comic-grotesque mode, in Chapter VII.