Our Mutual Friend
By: Charles Dickens
I had read Dickens’s Great Expectations back in November/December and wasn’t thoroughly impressed by it; it was okay but I found myself trudging through a good part of the novel. I figured after a while that I probably wasn’t in the right headspace at this time to read Dickens and decided to come back to his works later on. However, I watched the 1998 BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend recently and absolutely fell in love with the story so I decided to check the book out as well. And I rather enjoyed it.
To briefly discuss the summary of the novel would be difficult because of the number of story threads that are taking place over the course of 800 pages. I will however touch on the major storylines and refer to the adaptation as well and comment a bit from there.
So firstly is the storyline concerning John Harmon, his drowning and the events that transpire concerning the Boffins, Bella Wilfur and John Rokesmith. I found John Rokesmith especially interesting because of the mystery that surrounded him, how he tried now to reveal anything about himself and his past. He evaded questions, he furnished his living quarters sparsely and even his manners were repressed to a great degree. It may seem odd at first how he—or rather, as John Harmon and then carried into his identity as John Rokesmith—wanted to “test” Bella. In the book, the explanation was fleshed out far more but the adaptation also did a good job in conveying the reason behind the plan. But I guess what I found interesting and that led me to feel sympathetic towards Rokesmith/Harmon is his deep mistrust of other people, of how he grew up lacking the love of his father and questioning the sincerity of other people. Add that to the fact that he’s practically forced to marry a complete stranger in order to claim his inheritance and you can see why he decides to go through with such measures. But despite of such mistrust, he’s also a very kind man; you can see this with the way he treats Betty Hidgens and Sloppy and his opinion of Bella Wilfur.
At first I didn’t really like Bella Wilfur, probably because I was automatically drawn towards John Rokesmith and she was rather antagonistic towards her (so I’m biased that way, lol). I agree with Anna Friel that Bella’s certainly a realist, but at the same time it was rather…well, weird, for lack of a better word…to see how she was changing and admitting to her father how she was always scheming for money. It was interesting to see her change of attitude towards Mr. Rokesmith and towards wealth in general, though I wished that Dickens expanded on this. But overall, Bella & John’s romance was interesting to read—and had me flailing all the way in cuteness, lol.
The other strand that really intrigued me was that of Eugene Rayburn/Lizzie Hexam/Bradley Headstone storyline. First of all, Eugene Rayburn, aside from John Rokesmith, was my favourite character in the novel. I love his dialogue; he had me intrigued and laughing out loud throughout. From all of the characters, his development was the most profound, from the bored and aimless wanderer to a steadfast man with a purpose in life. And he knew for most of the novel that he was a very idle and aimless man; he even told his best friend, Mortimer, how he never planned anything. He knows he has potential but he couldn’t bring himself to go about and focus his energy on something. Until he meets Lizzie, that is. He can’t stop thinking about her and goes about to help her out, get to know her. Of course, his thoughtlessness and his carelessness gets him into trouble—but as I read at the introduction to my Oxford edition, it leads him to a radical transformation as a character. As sucky as it was that he got through it—I was so freaked out as he lay recovering, I seriously thought he was going to die—it was a natural conclusion to his carelessness, a serious lesson learned. And he got the girl at the end 😉
Bradley Headstone, on the other hand, completely creeped me out (David Morrissey’s performance was spot on). His passions run deep beneath his cold exterior, so much so that blood would gush forth when he’s too wind up in anger or he perspires in waterfalls when he’s nervous. His deep passions manifest itself physically, which especially doesn’t help during his proposal to Lizzie Hexam (which I personally found to be the worst proposal in literature—ever xD). His jealousy towards Eugene is even stronger than his love/obsession of Lizzie (stalker!), cumulating in his beating of Eugene in the dark. His end is tragic as he was unable to recover from such a turn. The Oxford introduction notes that both Eugene and Bradley are on the same level in terms of their desires and the manifestation of such desires (will have to get back and edit this bit, I can’t remember the exact words the professor used) but that Dickens seemingly preferred Eugene over Bradley. I dunno, I think that Eugene was a lot more restrained than Bradley; if anything, Eugene’s carelessness and recklessness just added to his situation. Additionally, he was also quite kind and gentle towards Lizzie whereas Bradley was awkward and cold, which shows the massive contrasts in their characters.
I’m quite amazed at Lizzie’s strength of character throughout the entire novel; she always acts selflessly even as her brother acts impetuously and ungrateful towards her (oh how I loathed her brother) and Bradley Headstone creeps the hell out of her. I’m a little confused as to why she kept evading Eugene’s advances; as much as I understand social stations in 19c Victorian society, I guess you have to live in the time period to truly understand the situation they were in. I did wish however that she was a lot clearer when she warned him to be careful; don’t know what good it would’ve done for Eugene but it could’ve helped. But I’m glad she got a happy ending after all that.
I should also note that I really enjoyed reading Eugene and Mortimer’s scenes: the contrast in characters, the banter they share and how good friends they are overall. They’re kind of like the House and Wilson of the story (you can guess who’s who from that analogy ;)).
I’m going to move on to the adaptation, which I thought did a superb job of relating the story without sacrificing large chunks of it (Sandy Welch did an amazing job!). I love that a lot of the dialogue remained and the condensation of certain scenes/events still made sense throughout. The cast was superb and perfect in their roles: Steven Mackintosh was perfect as the enigmatic Rokesmith (he also looked great in Victorian outfit—he should do more period dramas), Anna Friel brought Bella’s feisty-ness and strength out, Paul McGann was absolutely amazing as the carefree Eugene, Keeley Hawes was wonderful as the kind and self-sacrificing Lizzie, etc. The adaptation kept the mystery, intrigue and the character development in; perhaps my favourite Dickens adaptation I’ve seen? 🙂
I do have to admit though, I found the book a little more…funnier? I found myself chuckling a few times here and there. Overall, I do recommend this book; it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s a little long-winded at times, probably because of the circumstances of Dickens’s time (paid by the word, I believe?), but still enjoyable with a wonderful cast of characters 🙂