Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend by Charles DickensItalo Calvino reckons that this is the best Dickens – “an unqualified masterpiece, both in its plot and in the way it is written”. In it, he contends, Dickens is unconsciously channelling Dostoevsky, who at more or less the same time (the mid-1860s) was writing “Crime and Punishment” – though I would say that the murder at the centre of Dostoevsky’s novel is on another level to the murder in Dickens’: whereas Dostoevsky seems to be grappling with real things, Dickens always seems to me to be playing with pieces: his poor characters are pawns, though pawns he no doubt loves and patronises; and his upper-class characters are also pawns, though pawns that he is wary of, distrusts, but respects. For all his vaunted efforts at social satire, in Dickens’ world, the poor are a different species; yes, they’re charming, and sweet, and lovable; but they’re also stupid, innocent and always the butt of the joke: the reader, along with the writer, is in on the same quasi-joke: life is simple for these simple people, if only our own life could be quite so simple, quite so pure; alas, the reader and the writer have more serious things to contend with once this novel is put down. I didn’t get the same feeling on reading “Great Expectations”, “Bleak House”, “Dombey & Son”, or “David Copperfield”; but I’d be a little wary of reading them again: at least “The Pickwick Papers” is an avowed bit of fun. One thing is for sure, Dickens’ women are so often woeful: Mrs Havisham and Estelle being notable exceptions (raising Great Expectations to the level of a great novel). The women of “Our Mutual Friend” are fools, dupes, smiling victims; they’re not quite as flawed, not quite as real, not quite as laudable, not quite as human as the men. What has Dickens realised in his female characters other than a rather troubling, certainly insidious, brand of sexism, one that is never quite misogyny, but one that cannot sit well with a modern audience.

 

Mr A

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