Sunday, March 25, 2012

Truth in Fiction: Charles Dickens and Our Mutual Friend

This is my first post for my reading challenge that I am hosting (I'm a horrible challenge host) that seeks to pair non-fiction books with novels.  I read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens in January and I read Claire Tomalin's Dickens biography in February.  Here it is mid-March and I'm finally writing.  Naughty blogger.

I've hesitated on writing because I was trying to figure out what "angle" I wanted to take.  I don't want to recite the life of Charles Dickens and I've already written a review of Our Mutual Friend.  I've decided to not rehash things and instead to talk about where these two books intersect.  First, let me warn you that there will be Our Mutual Friend spoilers galore and so don't read on if you have yet to read the novel.

Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens last completed novel before his death in 1870.  Published in a serialized format from 1864-1865, the novel concerns a mysterious death, a will, and -- a favorite topic to Dickens -- money.  This is the novel Dickens had with him when he was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash.  Dickens grabbed his manuscript and managed to help get other passengers to safety.  At the time he was traveling with his mistress Ellen Ternan.  Dickens had been involved in come capacity with Ellen Ternan for some time and he left his wife and mother of his brood of children to be with the young actress Ellen, called Nelly.

It is beyond a doubt that Dickens is a very fine writer and has great compassion for the poor and downtrodden; however, he is human and flawed and his abominable behavior towards his wife was the one glaring lapse of character (of course he had other flaws, but this is the most "public" of his faults).  In reading Tomalin's biography it is interesting to note that Dickens tries very hard to cover-up his faults and to almost talk himself into being faultless.  He assumes a victim like stance rushing towards separation, asking his children to abandon their mother, even taking the younger children from their mother, forcing Catherine Dickens to pretend that all was well and even make social calls to the Ternans.  All the while he raising money for orphans and working to establish and keep up his home for fallen women.  In addition he is doing public readings and writing... still the beloved Boz.

What links Our Mutual Friend to this duplicitous time in his life is the one glaring issues I had with Our Mutual Friend -- the manipulation and lies fed to Bella Wilfer and how it is TOTALLY okay and even joyous in the end.  In my review of Our Mutual Friend I discuss how Bella is duped into thinking that she is marrying John Rokesmith who in fact is John Harmon.  A condition of Harmon's inheritance is that he marry Bella Wilfour. Well, Harmon is thought dead, Bella is released from her engagement to a man she doesn't know, and the Boffins (common and good people) inherit the money.  The Boffins take on Bella as a ward and shower her with affections and gifts.  Enter John Rokesmith (aka Harmon) who is secretary to Mr. Boffin.  Bella and John fall in love; John is kicked out of the home, Bella follows him, they wed, time passes, she has a baby and then one day.  BAM!  John tells Bella who he really is after a ridiculous scene where we learn that the Boffins were "in on it" and knew that Bella was being tested.  John wanted to know that Bella just wasn't after the money and so there was a long period of time where Bella was actively deceived to test her worth.  Most surprising is Bella's reaction.  She isn't angry.  She doesn't question.  She accepts that she needs to put full faith in her husband and trust that all of his lies and deceptions were for her own good.

At the end everyone is happy and smiling and all is right.  And it smacks of falsity.  I think this is pushing it even by Victorian standards of wifely obedience.

So while Dickens is in the midst of trying to be the lovable, fatherly Boz and writing about societal ills and supporting through philanthropy those wronged by selfishness he is engaged in breaking up his home and his wife's heart and carrying on with a much younger actress.  I can't help but think, and this may be a stretch, that Dickens knew he was wrong and sought at every chance to validate his own willingness to deceive with his sense of morality.  This sort of cognitive dissonance is apparent in Bella's thankful attitude towards John and the Boffins deceiving and testing her character through their falseness. 

Once again, I don't have any evidence that this was really on Dickens's mind or that he truly struggled with his poor choices.  I like to think that he knew he was wrong and was seeking a way to make his errors seem not so bad, but I don't know that for sure.  It could just all be a coincidence, but it is interesting to ponder.


Our Mutual Friend was read for January Charles Dickens month, the Truth in Fiction challenge, Classics Challenge 2012, Victorian Challenge 2012, Tea and Books challenge,  and The TBR Pile Challenge.

Charles Dickens: A Life was read for January Charles Dickens month and the Truth in Fiction challenge

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