Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

“Our Mutual Friend” (1864–65)

At the beginning of Our Mutual Friend a dead body is pulled from the Thames. This is John Harmon, recently returned from South Africa, whither he had gone as a youngster. His father, an immensely rich man who made his fortune in ‘dust’ — that is, rubbish, giant heaps of which form part of the landscape of the novel (these were an actual feature of Victorian Britain, and were full of valuable recyclables) — has died, leaving a will in which young John inherits the whole fortune, provided he marries a beautiful but spoiled young woman called Bella Wilfer, the daughter of a poor clerk. John Harmon junior has never met Bella, and she has never met him. Why John Harmon senior made this requirement is never explained in the novel: Bella’s father doesn’t work for Harmon Sr, who seems to have selected her following a random encounter. But there we are: by the iron logic of nineteenth-century will-and-testamentary narratives, only if he marries Bella can John inherit the vast wealth of his father. If he doesn’t marry her, or if — as per the novel’s opening chapter — he himself dies, then the entire fortune goes to an elderly couple, the Boffins: humble, cheerful types who had been Harmon Senior’s servants.

And so it goes: the Boffins are suddenly amongst the wealthiest people in London. Folk call Nicodemus Boffin ‘the Golden Dustman’ and all manner of moochers and con-artists swarm around them. The kindly Boffins try to do good with their money, amongst other things taking-in Bella Wilfer, who had expected to be lifted out of poverty by her marriage and was frustrated by the death of her never-seen fiancé. The Boffins buy a London mansion and live in it with Bella, distributing charity, attempting to adopt an orphan and various other things.

It’s a pretty far-fetched premise for a story, but that’s as nothing to how much further Dickens fetches the development of the conceit. When Harmon’s body is recovered from the Thames, the young lawyer handling the Harmon will, Eugene Wrayburn, goes to the police station to ID it. There he encounters another young man, introducing himself as ‘Julius Handford’, who looks with horror on the corpse and then rushes away. Later another young man, who calls himself ‘John Rokesmith’, persuades Noddy Boffin to take him on as a secretary. Rokesmith is efficient and discreet, and, being often at the Boffins’ mansion, comes to know young Bella. Indeed, he falls in love with her despite himself, remarking to himself ‘bitterly’ that she is ‘so insolent, so trivial, so capricious, so mercenary, so careless, so hard to touch, so hard to turn!’ — adding: ‘and yet so pretty, so pretty!’ [Bk 2, ch 16]

The novel is in four ‘books’, and towards the end of Book 2 Rokesmith goes for a walk around the dockside in London, recalling how he had first come to the city — off a ship from South Africa, upon which voyage he had befriended a man called George Radfoot. The two fellows happen to resemble one another somewhat. ‘Rokesmith’ trustingly disembarks with Radfoot: but wicked Radfoot and an associate first drug and then attempt to drown him in the Thames. He survives, and drags himself ashore where, with the help of a fortuitously-worn money belt (strangely unnoticed by Radfoot as he ransacked his unconscious body) he is able to buy new clothes, check into a hotel, and assume a respectable new identity. But why does he do this? Wouldn’t the logical thing be: go to the police, get Radfoot arrested (and so prevent his further crimes) and announce himself to the world? Well, yes, that would be the logical thing. But you’re forgetting how far Dickens is fetching his far-fetchedness in this story. In the novel’s afterword he says this:

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that Mr John Harmon was not slain, and that Mr John Rokesmith was he. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worth while, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

In other words, Dickens expects his readers to guess early on that ‘Julius Handford’ and ‘John Rokesmith’ are the same person, and that both are pseudonyms for John Harmon jr. Since none of the other characters in the novel come close to guessing this, a reader might be forgiven for missing it.

Take the Boffins. When little John was being raised, in England, they were his primary caregivers, his actual father being too miserly and withdrawn to engage with him; and when the father quarrels with his son and sends him away to South Africa, it is the Boffins who (tearfully) dispatch him. How plausible is it that they wouldn’t recognise the returnee, even though he left as an adolescent and is now a man? Especially given that ‘Rokesmith’ is exactly the age John Harmon would be, and that he acts in various suspicious ways? For example: he refuses to meet Eugene Wrayburn, even though he, as Boffin’s secretary, and Wrayburn, as Boffin’s solicitor, have plenty of business to discuss — he refuses, of course, because if Wrayburn sees Rokesmith in the flesh he would realise that this man had previously appeared at the police station under a different name, and would become suspicious. But, no: nobody so much as considers the strangeness of Rokesmith.

Why does young John Harmon not do the obvious thing, make himself known, go to the police and so on? Here we come to the nub of the matter: which is to say, to the point of Dickens’s strange and farther-than-usually-fetchedness-is-fetched conceit. So there are two things. With respect to the criminal Radfoot, Harmon feels no need to report him to the police because he sees, at the police station, when he calls himself ‘Julius Handford’, that Radford has been (again: amazingly fortuitously for the plot) drowned. A propeller has mashed-up the guy’s face, and he carries John Harmon’s papers and money in his pockets, hence the misidentification. Not that this is very plausible either: by this point Harmon has already reclothed and renamed himself — which is to say, has already decided upon the path of disguise and subterfuge. But here we are.

The real reason Harmon stays incognito is that he plans to, in effect, spy upon Bella Wilfer; or perhaps a less nefarious way of putting it would be: he wants to get to know Bella, to see what she is like, and to determine if there is any spark, any connection between them independent of the vast sums of money that their marriage would unlock. And he does get to know her, and falls in love with her — despite her shallowness and selfishness — such that (spoiler) he and she do get married, with Bella thinking until the knot is actually tied that she is marrying a poor secretary, and not the vastly wealthy heir to the Harmon fortune.

This, then, is what is at the heart of the elaborate contrivance Dickens puts into his narrative, and it is a fantasy — in the psychoanalytic sense of the word — that gripped Dickens for several years before he started writing Our Mutual Friend. The novel was serialised in 20 (as 19) monthly parts between summer 1864 and autumn 1865, but Dickens jotted the book’s core idea into his notebook more than two years earlier: ‘LEADING INCIDENT FOR A STORY. A man — young and eccentric? — feigns to be dead, and is dead to all intents and purposes, and … for years retains that singular view of life and character.’ This idea then marinated for several years, or perhaps Dickens tried to dismiss it and it just wouldn’t leave him alone. I can certainly imagine him thinking: but this is too flimsy a notion of a thousand-page novel. After all, why would this young man feign death? ‘Eccentric?’ CD self-queries, which would be arbitrary enough, although John Harmon/Rokesmith’s motivations in Our Mutual Friend don’t even have the fig-leaf of eccentric personality to explain them, for the character as written is excessively rational, ordered, self-controlled, hard working and balanced. But the idea manifestly stayed with him, and ultimately he erected his last great complete novel upon it.

Put it this way: we are looking in the wrong place if we try to explain Harmon/Rokesmith’s behaviour in terms of plausible character motivation. What matters about it, and what made it, as story-idea, one that Dickens couldn’t abandon, what haunted him about it, was its psychological valence qua fantasy. In a nutshell it is rooted in the question: why does she love me? — itself a version of the anxiety, does she love me? Let’s say you are an old man, in poor physical health (during the 1860s Dickens’s gouty foot swelled so much he often couldn’t walk, and had to have a special large-size shoe cobbled to fit it. He also had a series of small strokes, leading up to the big stroke that killed him in 1870). Let’s say: your youthful energy and elasticity have departed, and you often feel old.

Photocard of Dickens from the 1860s

At the same time, you are in a relationship with a beautiful, clever and much younger woman — this one, in fact:

Ellen Ternan, whom Dickens met in 1857, when she was 18 and he was 45. It seems clear (though the fact is contested) that they had begun a relationship by 1858, when CD’s wife Catherine opened a package thinking it was for her, and discovered instead a gold bracelet meant, as an enclosed note made clear, as a gift for Ellen. That same year Dickens separated from Catherine: put her aside abruptly, finally and with much emotional cruelty — refused ever to see her again.

The divorce laws of the time (very recent laws: the first civil law divorces, as opposed to ecclesiastical annulments, were only permitted by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857) required one party to be at fault, and clearly in this case one party was — Dickens himself. But for Dickens to reveal himself publicly as an adulterer would have created enormous scandal, destroyed his reputation (and living) as a family entertainer, and was out of the question. Instead Dickens bought Ellen a house in Slough where she lived with her mother — Slough because he could take the train out of London west, visit his boys at Eton and then walk over the fields to visit his lover. Later he moved her to a house in Southwark, and the couple, usually accompanied by Ellen’s mother, made repeated trips to France and elsewhere.

There is speculation that Ellen had a child, who was put up for adoption in Paris, or perhaps Boulogne; or perhaps the child was born in France (for reasons of discretion) but soon after died. We can speculate that Dickens and Ternan often travelled to France together, but we can be sure they were together in June 1865 (again with the mother accompanying) because all three were on a train from Folkestone — which is to say, from the Continent, via Folkestone — to London when it passed over a certain bridge in Kent. The bridge collapsed and several carriages plunged into the valley, killing many passengers: this was the notorious Staplehurst rail crash of 9 June 1865.

Dickens, Ellen and Mrs Ternan were in the last carriage not to fall, though it dangled precariously over the edge of the broken structure. After arranging for the women to be driven up to London, Dickens climbed down to assist with the injured and dying, passing among them and sharing brandy from his flask. Then, with some bravery, he climbed back into his carriage, to retrieve the manuscript pages of Our Mutual Friend he’d been working on and had been carrying with him. But the accident was certainly a shock: he lost his voice for two weeks, and was ever afterwards nervous about travelling by rail. In one of those weird synchronicities which history sometimes supplies, Dickens died five years to the very day after this disaster.

By the time of the crash Dickens was putting the finishing touches to the book: the MS pages he retrieved from the wreck were from the end of book 4. But the whole period of the conception and writing was determined by his relationship with Ellen Ternan, both its public management (that is, making all arrangements for her and to be able to see her whilst also keeping their relationship secret) and in terms of its private psychodynamic.

Go back to the question framed, I’m suggesting, by the core conceit of this novel: ‘why does she — indeed does she — love me?’ Dickens is neither the first nor the last man to find himself wondering whether the much younger and much lovelier partner is with him for himself, or only because he is wealthy. And when we put it like this — does she love me, ugly old ailing me, or does she only love my money? — it strikes a pitiable, even a risible note. It’s laughable because the answer is so patently: the latter. It’s Caroline Ahern’s comic character ‘Mrs Merton’, on her fake chat-show, asking Debbie McGee, ‘So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’

Others may laugh, but if you’re the man in this situation laughter is no balm. And that’s what the plot-torturous set-up at the core of Our Mutual Friend provides: the fantasy that ugly, old you could step outside yourself — step outside your public position, your wealth, the forces that act upon Ellen — and observe your woman just as a man, as a stranger. Then you would be able to answer that terrible question: for if she still loved you then it could only be for you rather than your money.

Of course, this fantasy entails a grave emotional and psychological risk, for it might turn out (what you have known all along) that she doesn’t love you for you, but only loves you as a wealthy man. This is where your psychological neediness collides with your knowledge of the world. Dickens certainly understood how crushing and awful poverty is. In Book 2 chapter 8 Bella takes her father out: the Boffins have given her a purse containing £50, and using this money she buys her dad a new suit of clothes and a slap-up luncheon. During their conversation in the restaurant she confesses to him:

‘And now, Pa,’ pursued Bella, ‘I’ll make a confession to you. I am the most mercenary little wretch that ever lived in the world.’

‘I should hardly have thought it of you, my dear,’ returned her father, first glancing at himself; and then at the dessert.

‘I understand what you mean, Pa, but it’s not that. It’s not that I care for money to keep as money, but I do care so much for what it will buy!’

‘Really I think most of us do,’ returned R. W.

‘But not to the dreadful extent that I do, Pa. O-o!’ cried Bella, screwing the exclamation out of herself with a twist of her dimpled chin. ‘I am so mercenary! … I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can’t beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it.’

R. W. cast up his eyes towards her, as well as he could under the operating circumstances, and said in a tone of remonstrance, ‘My de-ar Bella!’

‘Have resolved, I say, Pa, that to get money I must marry money. In consequence of which, I am always looking out for money to captivate.’

‘My de-a-r Bella!’

‘Yes, Pa, that is the state of the case. If ever there was a mercenary plotter whose thoughts and designs were always in her mean occupation, I am the amiable creature. But I don’t care. I hate and detest being poor, and I won’t be poor if I can marry money. Now you are deliciously fluffy, Pa, and in a state to astonish the waiter and pay the bill.’

‘But, my dear Bella, this is quite alarming at your age.’

‘I told you so, Pa, but you wouldn’t believe it,’ returned Bella, with a pleasant childish gravity. ‘Isn’t it shocking?’

‘It would be quite so, if you fully knew what you said, my dear, or meant it.’

‘Well, Pa, I can only tell you that I mean nothing else. Talk to me of love!’ said Bella, contemptuously: though her face and figure certainly rendered the subject no incongruous one. ‘Talk to me of fiery dragons! But talk to me of poverty and wealth, and there indeed we touch upon realities.’

I’ve quoted this at length, although the actual passage in situ is quite a bit longer and more emphatic. There are, clearly, two things: one is the fantasy of love, which might as well be fiery dragons; two is the reality of pounds, shillings and pence. There indeed we touch upon realities. Why else do we laugh at Mrs Merton’s one-liner?

This makes sense of why Dickens spent the first half of the 1860s — including two years before he even started writing the novel based upon the premise — fascinated by this one strange idea of a man pretending to be dead in order to come back as somebody else, a sort of living ghost (roke means fog, spray, steam, vapour; so a roke-smith would be someone who deliberately fashions something out this insubstantial and spectral matter): haunting the woman he loves so that he can really see who she is.

The problem is that Dickens’s imagination was too insightful to allow himself the satisfaction of simple wish-fulfilment. What does the writing-man, the ‘secretary’ who furnishes the house (the novel several times makes the joke that Rokesmith’s proposal that he act as the Boffins’ secretary means he wants to be a piece of furniture), see when he finally observes Bella outside the context of his wealth? A woman so insolent, so trivial, so capricious, so mercenary, so careless, so hard to touch, so hard to turn!, though of course also ‘so pretty, so pretty!’ And the second half of Our Mutual Friend, in which Rokesmith slowly wins Bella round, until she is ready to marry him even though she believes (wrongly) that he has no money, rings, simply, false. Much better is the initial encounter with reality, set as it is in Dickens’s brilliantly rendered landscape of rubbish and waste, of death and disfigurement, of darkness and despair: of deceit and machination and people pretending to be wealthy despite being poor, of scammers and con-men (amongst which category we must, in all fairness, include John Harmon/Rokesmith himself). Nobody in this novel makes anything: most people earn their living either mending things already broken, like ‘Jenny Wren’ with her dolls’ hospital, or else by recycling things: Mr Venus turning the dead bodies of animals and people into taxidermy or anatomical skeletons, Old Harmon’s very fortune. It’s a dead land, a waste land, the correlative of Dickens’s heartbreaking self-apperception as to how he is placed with Ellen. But then the fairy tale is invoked, and Bella is wrenched out of her reality to become the perfect, loving wife and mother of the back-from-the-dead, dead-inside Rokesmith.

— — — —

Coda: so was Ellen Ternan Dickens’s mistress, from 1858 up to his death in 1870? Not everybody has thought so.

Dickens’s certainly had a ‘relationship’ with Ellen Ternan, though the nature of that relationship has been contested. There was an, as it were, cover story: that Dickens was a friend of the family, and like a friendly uncle or elderly godfather would from time to time help out Ellen and her sisters with money. In her marvellous biography of Ternan, The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin suggested that this was more than just window-dressing for the public (a Podsnappish public easily scandalised and liable to withdraw their support, and therefore Dickens’s livelihood, if the truth emerged). Dickens’s own daughters, and Ellen’s sisters, may have preferred to believe this fiction (‘Fanny and Maria [Ternan] must have tried to believe this,’ Tomalin argues, ‘in order to square their own consciences over any suspicion that the help they received from him was paid for by their sister’s sexual favours.’) In her later biography of Dickens himself, Tomalin notes how the climate of opinion has changed, and then changed back.

For many years anyone who suggested publicly that there might have been a sexual affair between Dickens and Nelly Ternan was held to be a despicable scandal-monger by his admirers, although, curiously, his ill-treatment of Catherine did not worry them much. The Dickens family understandably wished to protect his reputation, and adultery was something for the law courts, unmentionable in decent society. When in 1935 Thomas Wright published a biography of Dickens that revealed a good deal about Ternan he was attacked, and when Gladys Storey’s Dickens and Daughter, an account of her conversation with Kate Perugini [née Dickens] was being prepared for publication in 1939 the first printer refused to go ahead because he found her mention of Dickens’s separation and Ternan’s role in it objectionable, and seems to have feared if might have been actionable. [Tomalin, Charles Dickens: a Life (2011), 334]

Dickens’s daughter Kate told Storey that Dickens and Ternan had indeed been lovers, that they had had a son together but that he had died as a baby.

Tomalin notes that opinion shifted in the 50s and 60s, with biographers and critics like K J Fielding, Edgar Johnson and others looking at the evidence and concluding, in the words of Philip Collins, that it was likely Dickens ‘contravened the mores of his age by sleeping with Ellen Ternan.’ It seems to me that nobody could read Tomalin’s scrupulous and brilliant account of Ternan’s life in The Invisible Woman and doubt that the two were lovers, but — as she herself notes in her Dickens biography — the mood shifted again in the 1980s and 1990s: ‘Peter Ackroyd wrote in his biography of Dickens that “it seems almost inconceivable that theirs was in any sense a ‘consummated’ affair” [and] Michael Slater’s Charles Dickens (2009) insisted that there is no proof that it was, and pretty well left it at that.’ I was taught Dickens as an undergraduate by Paul Schlicke, himself a great Dickensian, and he also refused to believe that the affair had been consummated.

The denial that old Dickens and young Ternan had sex is, in itself, interesting: the index, as a psychoanalyst might put it, of some deeper rooted resistance or anxiety. We are all haunted by our desires after all: as respectable Eugene Wrayburn is by his feelings for working-class Lizzie Hexam — as John Harmon is by his feelings for beautiful, selfish, mercenary Bella Wilfer — in the case of schoolmaster Bradley Headstone, haunted so severely his thwarted desire for Lizzie drives him to murder and death. The truth is, consummating your sexual desire for somebody will not necessarily, and perhaps not even usually, lay such a ghost: it is possible to desire someone, to have sex with them, and still to be haunted by them: as Humbert Humbert is by Lolita, as, I am speculating here, Charles Dickens was by Ellen Ternan. In that sense whether the two of them had sex is less relevant than the fact of that haunting. Or so it seems to me.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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