This is the first of my five January posts on Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, which I began reading just yesterday in this month preceding his 200th birthday. I have barely scratched the surface at about 50
pages, but at this point Dickens is introducing the key players and plot set-up, so that's not really a problem. Three households figure here. One is the Hexams. They live in poverty and fetch dead bodies from the Thames. The Veneerings are nouveau riche and one of their social circle, Mortimer Lightwood, is a solicitor in the High Court of Chancery and executor of the will of a man who made a fortune as a Dust Contractor, that is to say, he made his money by employing others to dispose of garbage. The will benefits a John Harmon, but includes a provision that he must marry a young woman named Bella Wilfer. Harmon turns out to be a body recently fetched from the Thames by the Hexams. The third household, is that of Bella Wilfer, her father (who was a clerk for the Dust Contractor), her mother, and sister. They are also poor, but a more genteel variety of poor than the Hexams. The Wilfers rent a room to a shady gentleman by the name of John Rokesmith.
Since we're still early days in terms of plot, I will make three observations. One is that the key players here all make their livelihood off human waste - whether it is dust or bodies. Dickens is definitely a chronicler of the bleak, but here he seems to be at his bleakest. I have always loved the way Dickens constructs character. In his first description of the Hexams - father and daughter - before we even know their names, what we learn is what they do not possess and who they are not. If that isn't a depiction of abject poverty, what is?
He had no net, hook, or line, and could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathood and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze.That is as opposed to the Veneerings who are:
...bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new aurter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, they carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.The most intriguing character so far is the young son of the Hexams who, although he is poor, goes to school.
There was a curious mixture in the boy, of uncompleed savagery, and uncompleted civilization. His voice was hoarse and coarse, and his face was coarse, and his stunted figure was coarse; but he was cleaner than other boys of his type; and his writing though large and round, was good; and he glanced at the backs of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf; like one who cannot.The contradictory mixture makes me curious of and hopeful for the role the boy might play in the burgeoning mystery that is taking shape.