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

Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, Surrey, 2014) – Reviewed by Jennifer Gribble.

As Sean Grass notes, in this second title in the new Ashgate series of publishing histories, Our Mutual Friend holds a special place among the works of Dickens. As the last novel he was to complete, and a work ‘that very nearly killed him’, it has divided critical opinion from the beginning. Grass concedes that it has flaws – its massive length, a ‘saccharine and unconvincing marriage plot’, underlaid by ‘an appalling lie’, an opening that seems dark as well as ponderous – yet he upholds its strengths as social satire and as the culmination of Dickens’ symbolic method, in his use of a central symbol that organises his diversity of character, locale and theme. The river that washes through Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations becomes, in Our Mutual Friend, a pervasive setting and atmosphere. The phrase that provides the novel’s title appears in several previous novels, as early as Pickwick Papers, but now serves to foreground the problematics of John Harmon’s withheld identity, enabling him to move with ease between past and present, among the various locations in within which he is a ‘mutual friend.’

The first chapter unfolds a biographical context for the writing of the novel, at a time of great emotional and financial stress in the life of Dickens. The inception of a new journal, All the Year Round was entangled in legal wrangles following the break with Bradbury and Evans, publishers of Household Words. Forster wisely counselled Dickens, that in view of his separation from Catherine, his wife of more than twenty years, following his clandestine relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan, his proposal to call the new journal Household Harmony would be less than felicitous. All the Year Round provided the vehicle for the serialisation of Our Mutual Friend, and committed Dickens to a return to writing in monthly parts, with the ever-present problem of over-writing, or sometimes under-writing, the required amount. Grass draws largely on the work of Forster, Claire Tomalin, and Michael Slater in this chapter, but provides a cogent account of the bearing of the life on the compositional choices and the tone of the novel.

Chapter Two gives a comprehensive discussion of the genesis of the novel as evidenced in Dickens’s Book of Memoranda, the MS in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the proof sheets in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library (which show what he needed to cut when he had over-written), and the Berg Copy of the novel, which includes wrapper designs and correspondence with illustrators. In consultation with these sources, Grass traces correlations between the alterations Dickens makes and the various crises he was confronting. Harry Stone’s pioneering work on Dickens’s ‘Working Notes’ is also acknowledged.

Of particular interest is Grass’s discovery of a hitherto undetected source for the Betty Higden character in an instalment of Charles Reade’s novel Very Hard Cash, in All the Year Round on 1 August, 1863. Reade’s ‘Old Betty’ has a pronounced horror of the Workhouse, and a sturdy hardihood that clearly impressed Dickens, despite the difficulty of his dealings with Reade. As always with such ‘borrowings’ (Richard H Horne’s article for Household Words in 1850, ‘Dust: or Ugliness Redeemed’ has long been noted as another), Dickens makes them his own by the imaginative improvisation Grass so effectively documents. Grass also argues persuasively that the novel’s commodification theme reflects the self-fashioning shaped by Dickens’ immersion in the dictates of the market, which makes the central focus of Chapter 3, detailing the novel’s publishing history.

Two final chapters offer an overview of Victorian and post-Victorian critical reception of the novel. Its re-instatement as a major Dickens work has been assisted by the critical emphases of Cultural Materialism, Commodity Culture, Old and New Historicisms, and most recently, by scientific and ecological enquiry engaging with the Hexam’s sinister trade, the dust heaps, and the taxidermy of Mr Venus (as Grass points out, an entirely fortuitous incorporation into the unfolding novel, inspired by the visit of Dickens’s new young illustrator, Marcus Stone, to a local taxidermist in order to help him draw a dog). There are four useful Appendices: on Dickens, Ellen Ternan and the Staplehurst Railway Accident (Dickens in his distress left the MS of the novel’s sixteenth number in his overcoat pocket and had to return to the still-dangling carriage to retrieve it); on the MS, the Proof Sheets and the Berg Copy; Extracts from Contemporary Reviews, and a Selected Bibliography of Editions. While this comprehensively researched, vividly-written study will be invaluable for specialists, it contains much of interest for the general reader.

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