Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

11 July 2010
Chapters 1-4
Wonderful. Dickens does mise-en-scene like nobody else – to the extent, sometimes, that for paragraphs at a time that’s all there appears to be. The first two chapters are set piece tours de force. The scene on the river, with the man who turns out to be Gaffer Hexam and the girl who turns out to be his daughter Lizzie, makes the Thames into the Styx and is our first sight of the suffocating limits on these people’s lives. The second chapter, our introduction to the Veneerings’ set, has Dickens paying no regard at all to standard novelistic description. Twemlow and the other guests are a table and its leaves – and if they’re furniture, the Veneerings themselves are not nearly so deep. Nobody seems to know who anybody else is – a trope used well over a century later by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho – and a case of mistaken identity segues into a description of the party as seen through the mirror. There’s nothing to these people beyond the surface you can see there.

Dickens comes at everything from an angle so oblique we are often wrong-footed to begin with. For paragraphs we don’t know what Gaffer is towing behind his boat; at the Veneerings’ we’re still disoriented by the image in the mirror by the time we realise that the absurd anecdote one of the guests is telling the others is actually important. He’s describing a preposterous man, who made his money from a preposterous trade and has left a preposterous will. The trade is Dust, and the will stipulates that if his son wants to inherit he has to marry a woman of the dead man’s choosing. The son, despite having left the tyrant and gone to live (as we are obliquely led to understand) in South Africa, agrees. And the last sentence in Chapter 2 tells us he’s drowned.

Chapter 3 is one of those in which Dickens manages to describe people’s lives through topography. The journey undertaken by the storyteller in the previous chapter – it’s Mortimer Lightwood, accompanied by his old public school friend Eugene Wrayburn – takes us so deep into a riverside hinterland we can feel the weight of centuries of detritus overhead. We’re in the Hexams’ dwelling, every scrap of which has been salvaged from the river. It’s papered with notices of missing persons feared drowned, and then there’s some necessary plot: the drowned man is identified, entirely by his clothing and some papers on him, as the man we know about. Yeh, sure. Another man has joined the others for the identification, one Julius Handford, and he’s horror-stricken.

Back at the Hexams’ we get to know more about Lizzie and the brother she is conspiring to have educated without Gaffer’s knowledge. He’s Charley, and it’s clear from things he’s already said that he knows stuff. Otherwise we get to hear their story, and Lizzie’s hopes, as obliquely as anything else in this book: via mental pictures she sees in the glowing coals. Gaffer wants to keep them both ignorant – but there’s a bond of love between the father and daughter that she can’t ignore.

Finally, to the impoverished not-quite gentility of R Wilfer and his family. They’re typical Dickensian types: cherubic, loveable, hopeless father; monumental, pretentious mother; spoilt older daughter who loves to talk about how she hates poverty and loves money; cleverer younger daughter who isn’t massively better; and an army of other siblings Wilfer has trouble recognising. And guess what? The older daughter, Bella, is in mourning because she was the one chosen by the Dust Man to marry his son – on no recommendation, apparently, beyond her wilfulness – and we all know what’s happened to him. Supposedly. Anyway, the Wilfers are taking on a new lodger, in the nick of time to keep their wolfish landlord from the door, one John Rokesmith. Fair enough – but he is from, er, the country and he has no references, so the girls pretend to be terrified of being murdered. This novel was published four years before Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the first real detective mystery – but Dickens has fed us enough clues for us to start guessing who this mysterious man is – and who the drowned man almost certainly isn’t. The last sentence of this first monthly instalment tells us that if he has a twin, that man is Julius Handford.

12 July
Chapters 5-7
New characters. Silas Wegg and Nicodemus (Noddy) Boffin are a pair of Dickens clowns – in, now, I think about it, the Shakespearean sense of comic relief characters who will no doubt end up having a part to play. We just don’t know what the part is yet. We do know that Boffin is the former servant of the Dust entrepreneur, name of Harmon. He now lives proudly with his wife among the dust-heaps in what he likes to call Boffin’s Bower but which is still known universally as Harmony Jail. He perceives the heaps as a landscape of arbours and beautiful vistas that open out, for instance, on the local dog-food works…. But it’s Wegg we meet first, a one-legged street trader on a tiny scale who pretends to himself he’s got connections. So he imagines he knows all about the family in the big house near his pitch, imagines the layout of the rooms, makes up names for the occupants. Boffin offers Wegg some work: 2/6 a week for two hours’ reading aloud per night. Done, says Wegg, who never bargains, for double the rate. How we laughed. The project is the eight volume edition of The Decline and Fall of… of never mind what: Boffin, inevitably, has got the name wrong. Tricky things, names, as we’re finding out.

More dwellings. Boffin’s Bower is one of Dickens’ jokes, because the sitting-room is half bare and functional, half carpeted and ‘Fashionable’: the couple’s way of keeping things harmonious, so to speak, is for each to allow the other their preference. And in the next chapter there’s another architectural joke: Gaffer’s local. It’s like a flat iron on its end, the broad face jutting so far out it’s practically a part of the river– not the first time Dickens has used that idea in this novel – and a street elevation as narrow as the flat iron’s handle.

The pub is ruled by a landlady as a school of naughty boys is ruled by a feared schoolmistress, and we meet her as she’s in the middle of barring a man we met on the river in Chapter 1. He’s Gaffer’s ex-partner, just out of jail for theft – from a living man, so Gaffer no longer wants anything to do with him, obviously – and Miss Abbey Potterson wants nothing to do with him either. But – and this is the important bit – the man accuses Gaffer of getting business by giving potential victims of drowning a helpful nudge towards the water. So she tells Lizzie, after the girl has refused to leave him and come and work for her, that her father isn’t welcome either.

It’s a crisis for Lizzie. As she goes home she imagines the river, black in the night, flowing towards Death. She’s still resolved to stick with her father, but she’s also resolved to do something for Charley. She scrapes together enough for him to leave to work in a local school, and tries to explain things to her father. But Gaffer has arrived home mortified by the way the other river-men are shunning him, and disowns Charley forever. In his anger he repeatedly bangs the table with his fist. But, by chance – as Dickens is at pains to explain – he’s still clutching his meat-knife in the fist, and even Lizzie cowers from him. Gulp.

Another near-comic character: Mr Venus, the melancholy taxidermist and articulator of bones for the medical profession. The scene between him and Silas Wegg advances the plot not at all, but we get a lot of gallows humour, references to skeletons – and the theme of hopeless love: The woman Venus has set his sights on is not interested in being the wife of a bone-man. Bones might have been good enough to help Harmon to make his fortune – he sent a lot of them Venus’s way – but they aren’t good enough for her. Trade, respectability, the public face of business: a lot of people in this novel, from Veneering to Wegg, know all about these interesting ideas.

14 July
Chapters 8-10
Two Boffins and a Veneerings – and this instalment might well have been called Pretending. We get the full range, from Boffin’s total lack of pretence, through Mrs Wilfer’s sad little charades and a quick reminder of an alias, to the Veneerings and the happy pair who discover too late the truth about where their pretending has led them. But it doesn’t feel schematic in the novel – it feels like social comedy.

At the start of Chapter 8, Dickens is doing his mise en scene thing to show us that Lightwood’s low opinion of his law practice is absolutely right: it’s little more than a garret overlooking a burial-ground. The only way his clerk – a sort of apprentice clown – can keep sane is by filling up ledgers and the appointments diary with alphabetised lists of imaginary clients. Enter Boffin, to have it confirmed that he’s got old Harmon’s Dust-money: 100 grand, i.e. about ten or 20 million in modern terms. Blimey. He wants to make a will: everything to Mrs B. And… and Boffin is one of Dickens’ holy fools: loveable, and born yesterday. He wants to set up a reward to apprehend the murderer of the person he really wishes had been able to inherit – and he’s thinking about bringing up an orphan to share some of his unlooked-for good fortune.

On the street outside is – Rokesmith, who seems to know Boffin, and would like to be his secretary. Rokesmith appears in the next chapter as well, because he’s the Wilfers’ lodger – not that such a word is allowed in Mrs W’s hearing, obviously…. All of this chapter is spent with Dickens demonstrating the extent to which Boffin and his wife are the exceptions to the rule that nobody can admit to being who they really are in the world of this novel. (Ok, we see the real Milveys – the vicar and his wife dragooned into the search for an orphan – but they’re another species of holy fool, so they don’t count.) At the Milveys’, at the Wilfers’… all the Boffins want is to spread some of their luck around. It’s this chapter’s joke that Mrs W and her daughters want to turn it into an imposition on their dignity. (And, oh: Roksmith is taken aback when he hears Boffin talk about a new John Harmon – which is what the orphan is to be called. If it turns out that this man isn’t the real John Harmon, and that Dickens has been playing us for suckers all this time, well, I’ll be surprised. That sort of set-up was for Wilkie Collins to invent later in the decade.)

In Chapter 10 we get an extension of the first Veneerings chapter. After a hymn in satirical praise of the magical properties of Shares, Dickens carries on with the same jokes as before: the newness of everything and everybody, the way Twemlow can’t get to grips with the way new acquaintances become oldest friends overnight…. But there really is something new: the Veneerings have introduced two of their oldest friends to one another with a view to marriage; and the wedding quickly takes place, with a commentary as though spoken by the ancient Lady Tippins – with the value of everything itemised to the nearest shilling. (She’s a fake of a different sort: not a single bit of her that we can see is real.) The punchline is: the gold-digging Mr Lammle and the gold-digging Sophronia don’t realise they’ve each married a near-pauper until it’s too late. But… we’ll hear more of the Lammles, because he warns his new wife they’ve got to keep this quiet: they need to make their way in this world somehow or other.

16 July
Chapters 11-17
In fact, the Lammles raise their unattractive heads straight away. In the next chapter, ‘Podsnappery’, they home in on the Podsnaps’ hapless daughter, crushed beneath the weight (and prejudices, and arrogance) of her awful parents. We’re not sure of their motives, but they want something from a fictitious ‘friendship’ with her. Earlier in the chapter we’ve seen the full horror of Podsnap in his own element. Dickens gives us pages of his mindlessness: mindless patriotic smugness, mindless dismissiveness of the idea of poverty in our great country – he has a way of sweeping things out of his mind, literally, with a sweep of the hand. We’ll hear more of him.

The rest of the fourth instalment takes us to the riverside again. We get to know Lightwood and the ever-flippant Eugene a bit better, contemplating the pointlessness of what they do. But at least they know it’s pointless: Eugene makes Lightwood laugh at ‘MRF’ – my respected father – who had the future of each brother in turn mapped out at birth. But – and Dickens will come back to this – Eugene isn’t going to have the final nail knocked in: he won’t marry the woman chosen for him by MRF.

Suddenly: news from the river. Enter Riderhood, Gaffer’s loathed ex-partner – the one who’s been starting rumours about him. Boffin’s reward has prompted him to make the accusation formal, through a signed Alfred David, and – they’re off to Rotherhithe and the studious Inspector. Pub, a charade of being lime magnates, and then… the long wait, out on the shore, for Gaffer’s return. We don’t get Dickens’ flippancy in the descriptions of the riverside, we get it as it must really have been. It’s horrible. Eugene, thinking about the downtrodden daughter, goes in for a bit of light stalking. She’s so beautiful in the firelight, as seen from the window, we even get an illustration to confirm it.

Time passes. The tide turned hours ago – but where on earth is Gaffer? Riderhood offers to go and look – and returns with the news that he’s found Gaffer’s boat, complete with the usual kind of salvage in tow, adrift and caught between other boats. And you’ll have to wait another month for the next instalment.

No you won’t: off they all go in Riderhood’s boat – and find Gaffer is the one being towed by the empty boat. The Inspector explains how the rope, which Gaffer must have wrapped around his neck for easy access, must have caught and… etc. Oh, thinks somebody, what about the poor girl? Who will tell her? And where on earth is T’other Governor? Where’s Eugene? Lightwood, stupidly, can’t imagine. Later, we get one of Dickens’ set pieces as Lightwood manfully strives against falling asleep, and fails completely and comically. Well, I enjoyed it.

For the rest of this instalment we’re back with the Boffins: the secretary chapter with, to general amusement, Rokesmith dictating and writing his own acceptance letter from Boffin; the orphan chapter, with serial apostrophising to the Boards who don’t seem to understand why the poor would rather die than go to the workhouses; and the ‘Dismal Swamp’, a chapter about the Boffins and assorted miserable fictions – the effusive invitations from people who don’t give a toss and the begging letters Rokesmith reads and rejects. Dickens wants us to realise why the Boffins are right to wish they’d never seen anything of the old man’s money.

That doesn’t sound much for 30-odd pages. There are other details of plot, obviously, but not a huge amount. It’s not the only thing Dickens is interested in – not what he’s mainly interested in, as it often seems. Nobody does detailed and carefully cross-hatched description like him, and he’s happy to leave characters alone for two or three monthly instalments at a stretch. In the end, of course, he comes back to them as though he’s never been away, which is fine. And he does the same thing with his pet themes. The paean of praise to Shares in Chapter 10, with its dark hint of corruption in the idea that the man worshipping them ‘never originated anything, never produced anything’ – ironically, it’s Lammle he’s describing in this way – is followed by Podsnap’s rejection of the idea of poverty a chapter later, Dickens’ sarcasm about the sweat of Riderhood’s brow, and the apostrophising of the Boards in Chapter 16. He’ll be back to hard work and inequalities before long, you bet.

What else has happened? The Boffins are going to throw in their lot with Fashion, and they tell Rokesmith this when he visits. Good job he does visit: Boffin is struggling with all the paperwork it brings. There’s another mile-wide clue to Rokesmith’s identity: after he leaves, for some strange reason, Mrs B can’t get faces out of her head: old Harmon’s, the dead daughter’s, the dead son’s – and another one she can’t place. Anyway, Rokesmith joins Mrs B in locating a deserving orphan, i.e. one who doesn’t have parents or anybody else who wants to charge for the inconvenience of having him taken care of. This is where the deserving poor get a chapter to themselves, and a kind of paean to honest work as personified by Betty Higden and the industrious Sloppy. Enough said.

Next. Rokesmith is sounding out Bella Wilfer – soon to be living with the Boffins, a move her mother pretends to be a kind of imposition – and finds her wanting. However… to a list of seven separate unappealing personality traits he finds in her he adds a different one: ‘And yet so pretty, so pretty!’ Oh dear.

19 July
Part 2, Chapters 1-3
I’m writing this during the year in which the glib right-wing term ‘the broken society’ has been coined. It’s glib because its originators aren’t looking in any awkward places – such as the triumph of 21st Century capitalism over any single political doctrine – for what might have broken it. I mention the term because it was being bandied about in the news just now as I sat down to write about this first instalment of a novel that’s all about a society that really isn’t working for most of the people living in it.

New section, new characters – to stand as parent-substitutes for Charley and Lizzie Hexam: Bradley Headstone and Jenny Wren. As you’d expect in this novel, they are highly imperfect creations. Headstone – his name, despite the theme of death running through this novel, referring more to what he has between his ears in place of a brain than to cemeteries – has no imagination: it’s hard to see the rather unattractive Charley blossoming in his care. Anyway, despite Headstone’s misgivings – Lizzie really isn’t the right sort for a pupil-teacher to be associated with – they go and see her. And we meet the most ambiguous character in the novel so far: the ‘person of the house’ where Lizzie has found lodgings, born as Fanny Cleaver, now universally known as Jenny Wren. Despite being an undersized, disabled 13-year-old, she takes on all the responsibilities: she earns money and she berates her drunken father. He accepts it: the generational roles are precisely reversed like so much else in the house.

There isn’t going to be much joy from Headstone, obviously, but guess who else appears: Wrayburn, who wants – well, let’s leave that aside for the time being. He wants to do something for Lizzie, and the compromise he reaches is to get her some education by pretending it’s for poor Jenny. In the end, Lizzie agrees – and then has to leave before Jenny’s ‘child’ arrives home. It’s a riddle – until Lizzie secretly mouths the words ‘her father’ and we see him consigned to bed in a dismal scene of role-reversal. We also witness enough of Jenny’s childish vision of almost heaven-like hopefulness to make us remember that this is a Dickens novel: the invalid probably isn’t long for this world.

Grim. Time for Dickens to throw us a satirical titbit. It isn’t only that, obviously – it’s a chapter about Veneering buying himself a pocket borough, so we’re getting the other side of the broken society – but, like all the Veneerings chapters it’s broad farce from beginning to end. He gets all his oldest friends to rally round to work for him, the joke being that ‘work’ in this context has precisely no meaning. Dickens himself spells this out for us in foot-high letters, but he also enlists Lady Tippins to spell it out in her own way. She might be a phoney, but she’s an honest phoney. Set pieces: everybody careering around in cabs; Veneering’s speech at ‘Pocket Breaches’, enlisting Wealth (in the form of Podsnap) and ‘Breeding’ (he doesn’t call it that – in the form of Twemlow, a distant cousin of some minor aristocrat), and setting up Aunt Sallies in order to knock them over; and at least two hugely expensive celebratory dinners. Nobody mentions the quiet transfer of £5,000 that makes all their ‘work’ a sham: that’s the point.

4 August
Part 2, Chapters 4-10
In each instalment, Dickens usually covers a couple of bases. In one instalment we get the Lammles (with their new contact ‘Fascinating’ Fledgeby) in two chapters, and the two legal friends in the third. And, reader, there’s a linking thread – Lizzie Hexam. The other instalment is all about different people connected with the Boffins: the appalling Wegg in one chapter, the ambiguous Bella in another, and the orphan connection in two more. In this instalment the linking thread is… Rokesmith, aka the original John Harmon.

The Lammles’ chapters have a couple of set-piece scenes each. We see Sophronia trying to mould the unpromising material of Georgiana Podsnap while, off-stage, her husband has been doing the same with his fascinating friend. This is followed by the preposterous scene in the box at the opera, where the Lammles conduct a witty conversation by citing the well-informed comments their protégés are patently incapable of making. We know that Georgiana is a lamb to the slaughter, but we’re not so sure about Fledgeby. He seems as much of an idiot as Miss Podsnap – but then he doesn’t. He’s two people, the socially incapable buffoon – and the self-serving cynic. He’s an early incarnation of Gordon Gecko – and, like the peacocks in American Psycho, he knows the importance of dressing well. In a conversation the day after the opera, he’s satirical with Lammle – but when Lammle seems ready to assault him and he backs down. Power isn’t pretty in their world.

It’s all to do with face. Fledgeby goes to the Jewish quarter and we meet Riah, a kind of anti-Shylock: he looks like the stereotype, and that’s what Fledgeby hides behind – but Dickens lays on the anti-anti-Semitism so thick it reads like a blatant apology for what he did in Oliver Twist. Riah is poor and downtrodden… it’s a re-working of Pancks and his boss Casby in Little Dorrit, with Fledgeby as the puppet-master this time. We also meet the people studying in the parody of a garden on the roof of the place Riah rents from his boss: Jenny Wren and Lizzie. Fledgeby likes the look of Lizzie, and suddenly there’s another little thread to link two different storylines….

… and, on cue, in the next chapter we’re with Eugene Wrayburn. It’s not so much a thread as a bunching knot: first, Headstone escorts Charley Hexam in a wrong-headed attempt to warn Eugene off helping her, then Mortimer asks him outright what he thinks he’s doing. He doesn’t know. Eugene isn’t a holy fool, but he’s a character who can’t see what we can: he’s besotted by Lizzie, knows (or assumes) that it can never lead to anything, and… and what? All he can do is help her as best he can. Mortimer’s questions confirm that it’s a dead end – so sort that one out, Charles clever-dick Dickens. (I’m sure you will.)

Another instalment, another set of venal, self-serving con artists. Silas Wegg cons Venus (remember him?) into helping him to trawl through the dust mounds in secret. Meanwhile he builds up a head of steam over what Boffin thought he was doing offering a job to Rokesmith (who he won’t even mention by name) instead of himself. His reasoning is preposterous: Wegg might be turning into a small-scale villain, but he’s still a clown. Next: Bella Wilfer, who seems very similar at first. Like Wegg, she complains about the person who helps her, and like him she only thinks about herself. But Dickens has obviously got something different in mind for her: we know Wegg will get a come-uppance, but Bella…. As the chapter goes on, she slowly learns a few things. By way of a generous gift of money from the Boffins to the Wilfers, she’s able to see what a cow she’s been, takes her father out for a day of treats. It’s not much – she admits to him she’ll do whatever she can to get money, i.e. marry a rich man – but at least she’s showing some insight into her own motives.

Dickens’ campaign to humanise Bella continues into the other chapters in this instalment. We’re back with the Boffins and their good works, starting with the unapologetically sentimental ‘In Which the Orphan Makes His Will’. Dickens returns to the old lady and the orphan John, and he also returns to his leitmotif apostrophising of the ‘lords and gentlemen and honourable boards.’ But that’s ok. He has to get the infant to a kind of heaven – it’s a hospital run on liberal lines – and before he dies he has to get him selflessly offering all his new toys to the sad little boy next to him. Which is also ok. On the way, Bella has been a humane and loving presence, and she’s become the ‘boofer lady’ to him. And, reader, she’s no doubt becoming more of a boofer lady to Rokesmith, who’s been there all along, organising everything with a kind of quiet efficiency. But Dickens isn’t letting us know what he thinks yet.

Time for a comedy chapter, although it isn’t only that. Mrs Boffin decides they shouldn’t try another pretty orphan – that’s a kind of self-indulgence – and they shouldn’t use John Harmon’s name again. Obviously, this all presents a huge contrast with all the self-serving venality we’ve been witnessing for a lot of chapters now, but the entrance of the clownish – but needy – Sloppy allows Dickens a few pages of laughs even as the Boffins’ decide to adopt him. At the end of this instalment it looks as though there might be hope for mankind yet.

6 August
To the end of Book 2: Chapters 11-16
In fact, Book 2 itself ends with the possibility of hope for mankind, when Sophronia Lammle tells poor old Twemlow to do something to thwart her husband’s plans. Up to now we thought they were her plans too, which shows how much we know – and the fact that she speaks to Twemlow while pretending they are doing something else, in the middle of a party thrown for the Veneering set, where everybody is pretending all the time, shows us Dickens’ habit of layering character upon action upon mise en scene….

But a lot happens before that. I mentioned before how the threads were becoming knotted, and they become more so in these chapters. First, there are three storylines to do with the difficult – or downright ugly – dance of the suitors. Fledgeby and Georgiana Podsnap we know about: Lammle simply wants to wind in a catch for Fledgeby on the understanding that there’s something in it for him. Money’s at the bottom of the Bella/Rokesmith storyline as well. We can call him John Harmon now, because Dickens has him stop pretending for us, and we see him deciding not to come clean about who he is. So, as far as Bella is concerned, he’s poor. So she tells him to keep away from her as much as possible in the house where he works and she now lives. Fine. Except it’s clear that she likes him and would be perfectly happy with him if he was a rich man – which is precisely the reason why Rokesmith/Harmon won’t unmask himself. He’s one of those characters in Dickens novels who, for any faults they might have, are gold…. I’ll come back to him later.

Then there’s the really complicated thread: Lizzie Hexam and various young men. Eugene Wrayburn carries on in his unworldly way, and two instalments after we last saw him he’s still no nearer to resolving the riddle of what to do. Then there’s poor Bradley Headstone. There’s another of those set-piece scenes, in a church cemetery which Dickens makes as gloomy as the one where Scrooge finds himself in A Christmas Carol. Headstone (geddit?) musters all the forces at his command to persuade Lizzie that the only possible response to his proposal of marriage is a yes. She says no, three times. Headstone isn’t a bad man, just crashingly dull and too unimaginative to see beyond his own needs. She gives him a tactful version of this – but, ironically, he can’t believe she dislikes him for himself. He fixates on Eugene Wrayburn who, in his fantasy, has entrapped her in some kind of web. He leaves, vowing – what? – to keep calm despite being brought to the edge of madness by the man he considers his rival.

One of the weapons in his useless arsenal is Charley Hexam, now left alone in the cemetery with Lizzie. Not one of Dickens’ golden characters, Charley: he proves himself even more self-centred than Bradley, and disowns his sister on the spot. Gulp. She’s devastated, alone outside a dank churchyard late at night. It’s a good job this is a Dickens novel: Riah happens by, and almost immediately so does Eugene. Riah is gold, obviously, but Eugene isn’t: he’s one of those who, like Bella, have the potential to be better but they are nowhere near yet. This comes out in his treatment of Riah. He is patronising and rude in his insistence on referring constantly to his race and religion. No doubt he would say he doesn’t mean anything by it, but through him Dickens has made one of those points he likes to make.

There’s more about Lizzie. Long before the churchyard scene, Jenny Wren has encouraged her to imagine a future by way of her old hollow in the coals trick. But it can’t be her own future: she imagines Eugene with a rich lady, who… etc. Like Rokesmith/Harmon, she is imprisoned by society’s expectations – and, again like him, the person she loves isn’t yet worthy of her. It’s a good job there’s half a novel left for them to sort themselves out. The other thing about Lizzie is that she was noticed (undoubtedly, not in a good way) by Fledgeby ages ago. Nothing’s come of that thread – except, now I think of it, Mortimer has just told the Veneering set that – wait for it – Lizzie has disappeared. Gulp, again.

What else? In a novel made up of scenes presented as drama, Dickens has to let us in on John Harmon’s secret obliquely. We get the dramatic scene – Harmon, in disguise, threatening Riderhood if he doesn’t swear, in writing, that his allegation about Gaffer Hexam was false. Then we get the equivalent of a voiceover as he takes us through That Night: his whim, before arriving in England, to check out this woman chosen for him, this Bella; the help he gets from a sailor and the swapping of clothes; the double-cross and the attempted murder – ending up with his own near-drowning and, apparently following another double-cross, the sailor’s death. His was the body Harmon identified – so, in case we were worried, Dickens has let us know that otherwise his man’s hands are clean.

So. His reasons for lying low aren’t straightforward – except in one way. He wouldn’t want to take away the old tyrant’s money from the Boffins, because they are using it so well. Sloppy we know about – he’s going to be apprenticed in a skilled trade, because under the clownish exterior Dickens has endowed him with almost magical hands. And the paean to the merits of hard work carries on in the same chapter: old Mrs Higden wants to get away – it’s the only way to prevent Sloppy from helping her and neglecting his own training – and the Boffins are going to set her up for making a living on the road. What a good old bird she is – and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about the unmatched virtues of working for a living. Pass the sick-bucket.

7 August
Part 3, Chapters 1-7
The first instalment (1-4) opens with one of Dickens’ set-piece London fogs, as Riah makes his way through it to – Fledgeby. There’s nothing new in their conversation, except Fledgeby is nastier than ever… then along comess Lammle, who tells him it’s all up with Miss Podsnap. Twemlow must have done his stuff, because Mr P has sent a snotty letter saying the Lammles are no longer welcome. Yay. But Fledgeby finds two things out about Lizzie: Riah has hidden her somewhere; and his rival is Eugene Wrayburn. Left alone, Fledgeby vows to do his damnedest to bring down the Lammles, and it’s a relief to be out of the murk when the chapter ends….

… Except we’re soon in a different sort of murk, down by the Jolly Porters. Riah has taken Jenny Wren there to show the landlady Riderhood’s retraction and, this being a Dickens novel (I must stop saying that), an Incident occurs almost immediately. Someone is drowned, and it’s – Riderhood! Except, as we find out in the next chapter, he isn’t drowned. By incremental stages, he’s brought back to life… and I wondered what the chapter is for. The main interest is to do with how the other river-men are massively keen to bring him back to life – but as they gradually succeed, their old feelings of revulsion return. And, in case we were wondering, Dickens lets us know he’s gained nothing from his brush with death: he’s as horrible as ever.

This instalment ends with another chapter whose only function seems to be to remind us of people who have been left on the back-burner a while. We get the comedy of the Wilfers’ wedding anniversary, with Mrs W the main butt. Dickens does that droll satire thing with her: she’s a comic version of the pretentiousness we see everywhere in the novel, a poor man’s Podsnap. Lavinia – Lavvy – makes the whole thing livelier with her puncturing comments and… and we see the next stage in the humanisation of Bella: she does the cooking. Ok, she’s useless – they have to grill the nearly-raw chicken – but at least she’s tried.

The next instalment is all of a piece, and it’s all to do with the Boffins’ money. First, Dickens has to do one of those tv soap things where one sort of character has to go through a personality change. Noddy Boffin hasn’t been much of a character for months now – since the move into the big house he’s stood in the background and let Mrs B get on with it. Buying the house, adopting an orphan, helping Mrs Higden – they’re all her ideas and Boffin has agreed. And when I say months, I mean real months: the last time he did anything independently was to offer the reward for information in the third instalment. Now we’re in – hang on – the twelfth, so for the original readers of this novel he’s been almost invisible for nine months except as a smiling, nodding presence. And suddenly he’s changed, because money has done to him what Dickens would have us believe it so often does. Instead of the holy fool we recognise we’ve now got a mean-spirited, penny-pinching, sanctimonious boss. Take it or leave it.

It isn’t only the reader who doesn’t like it. He’s short with Harmon/Rokesmith, insisting on his full-time attendance… etc. Harmon squirms with embarrassment for him, Mrs B is frankly upset, and Bella, hating it, pretends not to notice. And then he takes her on expeditions hunting for biographies of the great misers. (So far, he’s still promising Bella big marriage settlement.)

Meanwhile, Wegg and Venus are still clowns – as confirmed by their pantomimes of smart sophistication and the ridiculous little tics of language Dickens uses to describe anything they’re connected with. Their scam is a friendly move, Boffin is the minion of fortune and the worm of the hour – and this suspicious, untrustworthy pair are ‘brother, partner, fellow-man’. The last time ‘partner’ was bandied about so much was by Riderhood talking to Gaffer Hexam. Enough said. Anyway, in Wegg’s mind Boffin is now a usurper and they are within their rights to disinherit him. Wegg has found a later will, in which Boffin only receives his original mound – so now he and Venus plan to blackmail him. Seems like the forces of corruption – i.e. the power of (spit) money – is squeezing almost every bit of goodness out of almost everybody. Hope for mankind? On its back in the ring, with the referee counting….

A couple of other things. Boffin has been back to the Bower for some elevating readings from the great misers, and at dead of night he’s dug up a hidden bottle from one of the mounds. Mysterious. And the woman that Venus has been pining over so absurdly is – Pleasant Riderhood. He’s got no chance, because although she’s no Lizzie, she’s a lot better than you would expect.

8 August
Chapters 8-10
A chapter title like ‘The End of a Long Journey’ and an illustration of an old woman hurrying away from a town don’t bode well. Soon we’re with the ‘lords and gentlemen and honourable boards’ as we follow the final days of Mrs Higden. Sometimes people try to be helpful, sometimes they don’t – like the deputy lock-keeper who only lets the old trouper on her way if she empties her purse. He’s a Riderhood clone, even referring to an Alfred David and the sweat of his brow. Perhaps he is Riderhood, taking a break from scuttling about downriver now his boat’s been cut in two. Anyway, the Thames up-river is just as deathly as further down: there’s a vision of all her dead ones being ferried across it, before another of her blackouts. Then comes what she thinks is the final curtain. She’s right – except she’s comforted by an angel before she dies. And the angel is… Lizzie Hexam. Fortunately, unlike Riderhood (who wasn’t interested anyway) Lizzie can read. And we know she’ll carry out the final instructions the old woman’s left visible. Any comments? No need really.

Next: Dickens likes to get a crew together, so Lizzie, Bella, Rokesmith, the vicar and his wife are there at the funeral. After the near-propaganda we’ve been getting, Dickens gets us back to the main plot – and some broad hints that it’s going to be all right in the end. Bella and Rokesmith are thrown together – he uses that phrase, or something like it – in order to reach a common understanding and openness. Then he places Bella and Lizzie side-by-side – it really is as blatant as that – so we (and Bella) can see Lizzie as the model for Bella to aspire to. Lizzie’s situation is the impossible one; all Bella has to do is stop pretending to be worse than she is and she can have the man she loves. And the anti-Semitism thread gets an airing: the vicar’s wife is terrified that the Jewish owners of the mill are going to try to convert the village children. Dickens only raises this possibility to demonstrate how preposterous the idea is.

Finally in this instalment we see Eugene. He’s the most ambiguous character in the novel: we know from Lizzie that she loves him, so Dickens has got to get him sorted out eventually. But at the moment he’s a twat: no visible income – he must be one of Fledgeby’s job lot of bad debts, because Riah’s on to him – and no idea of how to deal with his infatuation. Jenny Wren’s father staggers by to offer to find information about where Lizzie is – Jenny writes to her, so how hard can it be? – and Eugene takes him up on it. Meanwhile Bradley Headstone is stalking him, and he tells Mortimer he leads Headstone on nightly wild goose chases. On this night Mortimer accompanies him, and he sees what Eugene is too unworldly (or whatever) to see: Headstone is becoming seriously deranged. Watch this space….

5 September
Chapters 11-17…
…to the end of Part 3. Two very different instalments: the 14th is dark, with the venal or money-grubbing or just plain nasty characters set out for our examination, whereas the 15th… well, is there hope for mankind after all? I’m sure I’ve asked this question before, and I’m sure I’ve remarked that we know the answer almost before we pick up a novel by Dickens.

The 14th instalment is set out in a kind of rising scale of venality. There’s Riderhood – who, of course, really is the lock-keeper who screwed a few bob out of the dying Mrs Higden – in town to see Mortimer but happening upon Bradley Headstone, lurking in the night as usual. For a few more bob he might be able to help him find Lizzie, although he doesn’t know that they’re practically neighbours. Then we get the near-clownishness of Wegg’s plot against Boffin. Venus wants out, and has Boffin, absurdly, hiding in his shop, listening to Wegg’s own version of Boffin’s obsession with money. Venus is only the second person in the novel, after Mrs Lammle, ever to pull back from wrong behaviour. Next we have the Lammles themselves, on only a slightly different scale of comedy venality. Dickens has them exchanging words through an imaginary skeleton, out of his cupboard and dancing in the space between them. Lammle still thinks Fledgeby is a gent who will help him to get Riah off their backs. Hah. When Fledgeby comes calling, it might look as though Sophronia’s charms work on him, but they don’t: he rushes to Riah to tell him, through a sort of pantomime of horrified disapproval, to hurry up and bankrupt them.

Fledgeby is screwing the Lammles, Eugene, and even poor little Twemlow. He’ll come to a bad end – in fact, there are already the beginnings of the plot-thread that will probably unmask him eventually, in the form of the not quite irredeemable Sophronia – like Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit or Casby, the evil landlord in Little Dorrit who hides behind a different mask. This instalment ends with the darkest scene of all, in which Jenny Wren looks on, appalled, at the pantomime played out by Fledgeby and Riah over what to do about a debt of Twemlow’s, not of his own making and on which he has never defaulted. The game is that by pretending to seek mercy from his agent, Fledgeby is telling him to tighten the screws. It’s another of those topsy-turvey twists of meaning in this novel, like the sweat of Riderhood’s brow and Wegg’s description of his benefactor as a liar and a cheat.

We’re ready for some light relief, but ‘The Golden Dustman at his Worst’ starts off unpromisingly. Boffin has heard from Sophronia – in a plot the Lammles have devised to get rid of Rokesmith with a view to Mr Lammle taking his place – about the Secretary’s feelings for Bella. Boffin’s tirade is appalling – his wife, since he turned into a miser, can do nothing about any of it – and he upshot is that Rokesmith resigns. And – yay! – so does Bella. The process of redemption, with over a quarter of the novel yet to go, has started as Rokesmith and Bella both tell Boffin exactly what any right-minded person would want them to say. I wasn’t literally cheering, but I nearly was.

Next: Bella has to get back into the bosom of the family. She does it via her father, building up the courage to go home after a day at the office. Rokesmith arrives – he knew she’d be there – and they say what we want them to say. They walk back to the Wilfers’ house, and we’re rewarded yet again: Lavvy is on top form, finally laying it on the line to her mother exactly how preposterous her behaviour is. If things carry on like this there’ll be no hypocrisy left for Dickens to puncture.

Fat chance of that: Part 3 ends with one of the Veneerings’ dinners. Nothing has changed, except for all the new friends thay have. Which is a good job, because they’ve gathered to ‘wonder’ at the Lammles’ crash. How on earth could such a thing happen? One of the old friends gets it right – but it’s only Buffer, one of the sketchy hangers-on we met when we first met the Veneerings, and nobody ever listens to him. Perhaps, he wonders aloud, they’ve been spending more than their income? You can just imagine how the assembled company respond to that. Podsnap uses that gesture of his to push the idea behind him like something the cat brought in. How we laughed.

Just before the dinner, Sophronia Lammle tells Twemlow that she’s pretty sure that Riah is only a front-man for Fledgeby. It’s only her intuition – we’ve seen how she recoils from his presence during his visit a few chapters back – and she has no proof…. But we know there’ll be proof before the end. And we leave the dinner with Eugene, called out by Mortimer’s under-worked clerk: Jenny Wren’s father – in that carelessly arrogant way of his, Eugene calls him Mr Dolls – has found out where Lizzie is. Well.

7 September
Book 4, Chapters 1-7
As you’d expect in the first two instalments of the final volume, there’s a definite sense of Dickens bringing things to a head. Or several heads, as three stories each approach some kind of crisis. We start where Book 3 ended: with Eugene. Or we start near to the place where Eugene is about to make an appearance: the lock-keeper’s cottage. In fact, the main interest is Headstone, who is stalking him – but, this being the novel it is, we come to this information obliquely: Riderhood notices a bargee standing near the lock, and it only slowly emerges who it is. Riderhood sees how Headstone has modelled his clothing entirely on his own. He even sets him a test: when he changes his neckerchief to a stained red one, guess what Headstone is wearing the next time he sees him – complete with marks made to look like stains. Dickens spends paragraphs on these details: he wants us to know exactly what Headstone is setting up – and that Riderhood understands.

To cut to the chase – and it really is a chase – these are the scenes in which it starts to become clear that Headstone has put himself beyond the pale. By the time we reach the end of the second instalment of Book 4, we’ve seen what Riderhood has seen: that the murder he has committed – if Eugene really is dead, which I don’t really believe – has been completely premeditated and planned down to the last detail. Worse still, so is Headstone’s plan to frame Riderhood and, if necessary, let him hang for it. Dickens has turned him – or, at least, attempted to turn him – into one of his consummate villains. At the end of Chapter 7, he’s suffering the psychological torture that all Dickens’ worst villains suffer (think of Jonas in Martin Chuzzlewit).

And I’ve just remembered a couple of ominous riffs on the subject of Death: the blood-red sky, and Headstone’s fascination with the depth of the lock and the impossibility of escape from it if anybody found themselves trapped there. At first I thought he might use it in his murder plans. Now I think I know where the obligatory set-piece death scene is going to take place.

Anyway. Dickens has other threads to deal with and, in one case, to tie up. In a chapter entitled ‘The Golden Dustman Rises a Little’ we see how, following a scene of staged repartee in which the Lammles set out their stall as replacements for Rokesmith and Bella, Boffin simply tells them ‘It won’t do.’ The end. Whatever they say, he simply repeats this mantra, and they realise the game’s up. He sends them away with £100 – enough, they think, to set themselves up abroad – but not before Georgiana Podsnap has come in and tried to give them gifts of her own. The Boffins make sure the Lammles don’t take them. Dickens tells us this is the last time the Boffins will ever see them. We’ve seen the tiniest hints of redemption in Sophronia, but as they leave it’s clear that she is shackled for life to her unregenerate husband, who we’ve just seen at his worst. Aargh.

Next. In ‘The Golden Dustman Sinks Again’, Dickens turns the Wegg/Boffin story into a clownish parody of the nasty power games some people are capable of playing. All Venus has been able to do is break the news to Boffin gently. Wegg is determined to humiliate him, with pompous language games, pantomimes of security measures involving him sitting on an improvised rostrum while Wegg pins his arms behind his back… and so on. Dickens makes sure we realise how ridiculous this makes Wegg look, and maybe he’s trying to get us to feel sorry for Boffin. He’s involved with the thread that has been dormant for a long time – the fact that Rokesmith is really John Harmon – and, like Venus, Dickens wants to let Boffin down gently. Neat trick: he’s planned it so that by the time Boffin’s fortune is reduced to the original limited amount he’ll be so used to the idea he won’t mind a bit, his days as a self-taught miser will be over, and he’ll be reconciled with Mrs B, who has been sidelined for long enough.

This is taking too long. Next: saccharine scenes of bliss as Bella takes her father – always ‘the Cherub’ now, apparently – to witness her marriage to Rokesmith. (These scenes of almost childish enjoyment always seem a bit rich coming from the highly-sexed Dickens. But hey.) They’re at Greenwich, and it’s a secret from the rest of the family, and the instalment ends with everything lovely. Pass me the sick-bucket.

Thankfully, Dickens goes for comedy in the next chapter. Bella’s letter has arrived by the time RW gets home, and Lavvy, trying out an experimental first performance as a hysteric in response to her mother’s equally stagey pronouncements, punctures the absurdity of it all. It’s another parody, to go with Wegg’s power games, of the behaviour of the upper-middle classes. Some days or weeks later Bella visits with Rokesmith. George Sampson is there and – as there has been ever since Bella left the Boffins – there’s a lot of noble talk about the irrelevance of money. And we realise it’s not only comedy, and not only Dickens’ sentimental take on the true value of things beyond price, etc. etc. – it’s the next thread he needs to take care of.

He’s let the truth about Rokesmith/Harmon fade into the background for most of the novel, but now Rokesmith himself is reminding us. With Bella he’s becoming more and more insistent that money isn’t an irrelevance, that he would far rather see her in a carriage than see her poor dear beautiful feet covered in mud from the streets…. She’s unfeasibly insistent on disagreeing, but it doesn’t stop him preparing the ground. We know, although Dickens hasn’t reminded us of the fact, that they have both written a name in the register that John Harmon has made up. Gulp. (One other thing before Dickens gets us back up-river: after pages of hints, Bella tells him she’s going to have a baby. Double gulp.)

The rest of these chapters you know about. Except that Eugene has just been talking to Lizzie when Headstone attacks him with a plank and shoves him in the river. Despite her insistence that he must stop his pursuit, she can’t help showing him how much she loves him. And Headstone is watching all the time, all the time…. Not that he attacks Eugene in the heat of the moment, as we know. So. Attack, escape – and Lizzie falls back on her old skills to rescue the half-dead man. By the time she’s carried him back to dry land and doctors have had a look, Dickens makes it highly ambiguous as to whether he is alive or dead. Later, his death bis publicised because, I suppose, the police want the attacker to implicate himself in some way. It’s Charley who tells Headstone when he goes to tell him he’s dropping him forever, in the way he’s dropping Lizzie. (In case we haven’t got it, Dickens refers explicitly to Charley’s ‘hollow, empty heart’.) But Dickens doesn’t kill off main characters. Eugene deserves a bit of a scare, but not that.

One last thing. Headstone has managed to accidentally get some blood on to Riderhood – and he’s also managed to get rid of his disguise, tied into a bundle, by throwing it into the river. But Riderhood hasn’t forgotten his old skills any more than Lizzie has, and the instalment ends with the bundle in the safest place he can find.

Another last thing: love and marriage. Bella and Whatsisname; Lizzie and, possibly, Eugene; the Boffins; the Wilfers; the Veneerings; the Podsnaps; the Lammles…. Sheesh.

8 September
Chapters 8-11
By the end of this middle instalment of Book 4, love and marriage are becoming almost sacramental. The crisis of John Harmon’s identity – emphasised, somehow, by Dickens’ insistence on calling the nauseatingly happy pair Mr and Mrs Rokesmith – is going to come to a head soon. He has issued a warning that Bella is going to have to show absolute faith in him if they are to come through it, and her response is to become the quintessence of wifely love. Mortimer Lightwood has come to their house, Rokesmith has scurried upstairs… and she’s ok with this. She even makes up a story about a sudden illness to cover for him. Ok.

Mortimer’s there to take them to a deathbed wedding. Eugene isn’t dead, but he’s been knocking on Heaven’s door for days (weeks?) now, and it can’t be long. Except, part-way through the long sick-room chapter, Dickens drops into the mix the possibility (it’s Mortimer who mentions it) that death isn’t certain. And, after the wedding, Lizzie’s wifely love – yes, that again – appears to be the one thing that might enable Eugene to pull through. Straightforward, no-nonsense marital fidelity, no questions asked. Yeh, sure Mr Dickens.

Before all this…. The instalment opens with light relief after the scene of Headstone’s prostration at the end of the previous one. Fledgeby has been to see Jenny Wren to try to get Lizzie’s address from him and, like Sophronia Lammle all those chapters back, she has a nagging doubt about him. And speaking of the Lammles: when Jenny gets to Fledgeby’s place it’s to hear the noise of Lammle beating him up. ‘A lady’ – Sophronia, it turns out – keeps Jenny there until her husband’s finished, but then we get the set-piece comedy of Jenny making poultices for Fledgeby’s injuries. The chapter is called ‘A Few Grains of Pepper’. How we laughed.

Between this scene and the sickbed, there’s the loose end of Riah to tie up. Jenny has him confirm to her that he’s only been a servant of ‘Pubsey and Co’– i.e., he confirms, Fledgeby – and that he is about to leave. Cue regretful words about ever having let Fledgeby use his stereotypical Jewishness to cover his own tracks. Well, duh.

And some other stuff. The sickbed scene is one long tease. The first readers would have waited a month for news of Eugene’s fate – and by the end of the instalment they still wouldn’t have been sure. Neither am I, except come on: Lizzie’s happiness is at stake now, and Dickens isn’t going to punish someone who has always been selfless in her love for people who haven’t really deserved it. (Charley’s thrown her off, remember, although I’m not sure he’s actually told her.) However, these scenes bring together all of this novel’s worthiest women: Jenny Wren is the only one who is really attuned to Eugene’s wants, and understands about his wanting to marry Lizzie. Lizzie is there whenever she isn’t working – Dickens sanctifies work as much as married bliss, so she can’t just drop everything – and, later, Bella leaves off developing herself into a domestic goddess to join them.

And then there’s Mortimer. He’s also never away from Eugene’s side, has been honoured with avowals of undying loving friendship…. He’s not much of a character, really, with his failing practice and his eternal position on the periphery of society. But he’ll have a part to play in the biggest thread yet to be disentangled: the identity of John Rokesmith and its effect on the Wegg/Boffin story.

One last thing. On the journey between the Rokesmiths’ and wherever Eugene is, the Milveys join Mortimer and Bella. They’re the vicar and his wife we first met in Book 1, and at the station who should happen to be lurking but Bradley Headstone? And he overhears the name of Lizzie Hexam. And… when Milvey tells him she’s about to be married – he doesn’t know who to, because he must still think Eugene is dead – he has a sort of fit. We don’t quite know how this one is going to play out – Eugene, while he believed himself dying, instructed Mortimer not to have Headstone pursued – but I bet it involves the river. We haven’t heard about Riderhood since the scene with the bundle of clothes, and we haven’t forgotten the depth of that lock.

11 September
Chapter 12 to the end
The final double instalment follows its inevitable course – and there’s a revelation that took me completely by surprise. We have the people who deserve it getting their comeuppances and/or punishments. And we have the people we like getting sorted out. I say ‘like’… you know what I mean.

The villains. Fledgeby’s already had his comedy thrashing, but we see him having to grovel now the convenient fiction of Pubsey and Co has been outed. Wegg’s humiliation is like Pecksniff’s in Martin Chuzzlewit: he arrives expecting great things and ends up with nothing. There’s clownishly physical ignominy to go with the clownish plotting: Sloppy, recruited by the good guys working together as they always end up doing in Dickens novels, pitches him into the muck of the scavenger’s cart. And Headstone? Well, guess – but he doesn’t go alone. If there was any doubt about just what a villain Riderhood is, his plot not only to blackmail Headstone but to impoverish the innocent, deluded Miss Peecher along with him are enough to seal his fate: Headstone takes him into the lock with him, his grip like a vice.

(We hear of the Veneerings’ eventual fate in a sort of parenthesis during a coda in which Eugene’s marriage is condemned by every member of ‘Society’ but one: they are going to crash for the same reason as the Lammles: more money going out than coming in, simple as that. The one who speaks for Eugene is Twemlow, one of Dickens’ honest and quietly noble nobodies.)

Meanwhile…. Eugene doesn’t die, and doctors say his scars will be almost negligible. He talks to Mortimer, who wonders about, say, him and Lizzie living in… America? Eugene, fine principled man that he’s become, wouldn’t dream of scurrying away from the inevitable opprobrium. MRF – Eugene’s acronym for his respected father – is as understanding about the match as Twemlow is in the last chapter, so that’s all right. Preposterous, obviously, but we’re on the home straight so we’re not going to get anything but smiles and nods now. And Dickens lets us know that Eugene and Mortimer are going to get their acts together, and stop messing about.

The last knotty problem – what to do about Rokesmith and his true identity – and his disappointment, surely, when the new will turns up, etc. etc…. It’s all sorted out because… he’s been in cahoots with the Boffins since not long after that time when Mrs B couldn’t get somehow familiar faces out of her head near the end of Book 1. All that miser stuff was a subterfuge designed to – wait for it – show Bella the error of her ways. And, reader, we all know how successful it’s been: she doesn’t want the money her husband has been dangling before her eyes, Except, once she sees what it can buy – I’ll spare you the hideous details of nurseries and furniture – she’s ok with it.

The other effect of the subterfuge is the way it allows Harmon to set Bella a test. The flying colours already awarded before this last double instalment are added to as she shows an unfeasibly perfect trust in her husband, even after he’s been taken to the police station to account for wasting police time by not coming forward in the persona of Julius Handford. The Inspector, a quietly efficient Sergeant Cuff-style copper, is ok with this once he understands the circumstances – and once he receives a payment from Harmon in lieu of reward for finding the murderer. And if the Inspector ever closely questions Harmon about the real drowned man, we don’t hear about it.

The most unsatisfactory thing about this part of the novel is the relentless trueness of true love. None of it is convincing: we simply have to clap our hands at the wonder of unconditional, unfeasible, insufferable bliss. A note in my edition explains that Dickens’ description in the Postscript of his rescue of part of the manuscript from a train wreck omits that he was travelling home from Paris with Ellen Ternan, the woman he left his wife for. Enough said. And if marital love in this novel is charming to the point of torture, well, so is mother-love; I’m convinced that George Eliot was sending it up in Middlemarch a few years later, having Dorothea driven up the wall when her sister is so besotted by her baby as to become a complete moron. I know whose side I’m on.


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