Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History by Sean Grass

Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, Surrey, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Corkill.

Our Mutual Friend was the last completed novel by Charles Dickens. On its publication it received a scathing review by the young Henry James – “the poorest of Mr Dickens’ works”. James’ view, according to Grass, persisted for decades and influenced many to consider it as Dickens’ “bad book” and an unpopular one.

The purpose of Grass’ book is “to aid this ongoing critical assessment and even provide…a comprehensive account of how Dickens came to write this novel.” I found the first two chapters to be enthralling as Grass goes to the state of mind of Dickens when he was writing Our Mutual Friend. At that time he separated from his wife, was having an affair with Ellen Ternan, had disassociated himself from friends, sacked his publisher, was deteriorating in health and struggled to keep up with monthly instalments. He was also involved in the Staplehurst Train Accident (where he returned to the wrecked train carriage to retrieve the unfinished manuscript of Our Mutual Friend). He also tried to hide the fact that he was “travelling with a pretty young woman who was not his wife”.

The book then explores the manner in which Dickens wrote his manuscript, the many changes he made, his relationship with the publisher and his struggle to keep up with publishing deadlines. Grass adds to the information contained in Robert Patten’s “Charles Dickens and His Publishers” (1978) in relation to this particular novel.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the history of Our Mutual Friend after its publication and closes “with four Appendices designed to provide additional resources and information for students and scholars of Our Mutual Friend”.

I found this book to be both interesting and very readable, to the point that I will now re-read Our Mutual Friend with a better and different frame of mind, now having an appreciation of the circumstances under which it was written.

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