“Our Mutual Friend”: Actors, Drunks and Jews
[Note: this is another lengthy blog on Dickens’s last completed novel Our Mutual Friend (1864–5), following this one on Silas Wegg and his wooden leg, and this one on the novel’s bonkers but fascinating premise. In all these I’m jotting down my thoughts as I start to pull together a book on Dickens and Spirit, which explains the peculiarities of focus in all these.]
It’s well known how passionate Dickens was about acting, his own and others — how in love, indeed, he was with the theatre. He acted in various plays. For instance, he played Bobadil in the 1845 revival of Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour — the production toured Liverpool, Manchester and London — and was much praised, with Prince Albert and Robert Browning among the celebrities who bought tickets. The image at the head of the post is CD in costume for the role.
He not only acted, but often directed and produced plays. Indeed according to John Forster he adjusted and rewrote the playscripts, assisted carpenters, invented costumes, devised playbills ‘and generally oversaw the entire production of the performances’ [Forster, 5: 1]. His extensive run of public readings was another kind of acting (Malcolm Andrew has written a whole book about this). And of course his fiction is full of theatricals: from Crummles’ troupe in Nicholas Nickleby to the hilarious scenes in Great Expectations where Wopsle goes up to London to follow the actor’s calling as ‘Mr Waldengarver’. From 1858 until his death in 1870 Dickens undertook a different kind of acting when he began an affair with — appropriately enough— another actor, Ellen Ternan. He was ‘performing’ his public role as a chaste man separated from his wife so effectively that, to this day, people have continued to believe him.
What is less discussed, if at all, is that Our Mutual Friend is another one of his novels about acting. But of course it is. The main player, John Harmon Junior puts on a performance as ‘John Rokesmith’ that lasts almost the entire book — he also plays Julian Handsworth, and on another occasion wears a sailor suit and false whiskers to intimidate Riderhood, but it’s Rokesmith, the buttoned-down, self-denying, bruise-hearted secretary, that is his main role. We know this is primarily undertaken for the benefit of Bella Wilfer, or more precisely so that Harmon can observe Bella from a objective position, and we, as readers, also assume that it is to fool the Boffins. But the reveal at the end of the novel is that Noddy Boffin is also an actor and has spent the second half of the novel pretending — with such actorly commitment and nuance as to fool everybody around him — that he was sinking into deplorable miserliness, had hardened his heart, lost his good-natured generosity and generally gone to the bad. Boffin was in on Harmon’s ‘acting’ all along. How Boffin (an individual with no prior experience of the thespian arts, a man of advanced years who had previously been characterised by an absolute ingenuousness of manner something close to holy foolery, if not outright gullibility) — how Boffin is able to maintain this perfectly persuasive actorly performance is a little hard to gauge, but it is certainly a committed performance, lasting more than a year, perhaps two. [In one of the minor cruces over which critics argue, Dickens starts Book 4 chapter 12 by marking the passage of time between Bella telling her husband she is with child and the birth of her baby with: ‘the winds and tides rose and fell a certain number of times [and] the earth moved round the sun a certain number of times.’ This implies several years, although the remainder of Bella’s pregnancy plus however many months into the new infant’s life can hardly be as much as a twelvemonth.] At any rate, Boffin’s natural talent renders him a perfect Roscius until the narrative chooses to reveal all in what — more than one critic has said— is perhaps the lamest and least convincing dramatic reveal in all Dickens.
But the effectiveness of Boffin’s performance is important, because most of the other quote-unquote ‘actors’ in this novel fail to convince. Bradley Headstone makes a series of clunkily obvious shifts to ‘perform’ Rogue Riderhood, wearing his clothes and red necktie, loping around the countryside in the vicinity his lock-keeper’s cottage so as to persuade the world that it was Riderhood, rather than Headstone, who murdered Eugene Wrayburn. But he acts his role badly, convincing neither the world in general (as soon as he returns to London, Charlie Hexam comes round to his house to all-but accuse him) nor, more importantly, Riderhood himself. The Lammles perform wealth and status in order to trick actually wealthy individuals into marrying them, but only fool one another — to their delayed but inevitable mutual ruin.
Then there is the Mr Riah and Fascination Fledgeby. The mild-mannered former, at the wicked latter’s specific instruction, acts the role of the hard-hearted and relentless owner and financier of the usurious Pubsey and Co, where Fledgeby, the real owner, pretends to be merely a subaltern figure. Fledgeby is in effect the casting director or stage manager, a fact of which he is well aware (‘“Oh, a good ‘un are you for the post,” thought Fledgeby, “and a good ‘un was I to mark you out for it!”’ [bk 2 ch 5]) and two things makes the ‘performance’ go over. One is the employment of what a later age calls ‘reverse psychology’: when asked, Riah simply denies that he is the owner of Pubsey and Co. It is the truth, but his interlocuters assume he is lying because — and this is the second part of the performance — he is a Jew, and their prejudice about Jews overrides other considerations.
Mr Riah is a performance of another kind, one undertaken by Dickens himself. For Riah is the public display of a kind of repentance, aimed at atonement. The story is well known: in the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist Dickens had created one of the most famous villains in English Literature by leaning heavily into a congeries of virulently anti-Semitic stereotypes and libels. In the first edition of that novel Fagin is called ‘Fagin’ some forty times, but called “the Jew” nearly 250. When Dickens did public readings from the novel he adopted stereotypical anti-Semitic mannerisms when he read Fagin: bent back, nasal intonation, shruggy shoulders. But then, in 1860, he sold Tavistock House, his London home, to a Jewish banker called James Davis, becoming friends with Davis and his wife. They told him Fagin represented a ‘great wrong’ to Jews, and Dickens apologised to them. He assured them he was not motivated by anti-Semitism, writing to Mrs Davis: ‘there is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offence.’ When he revised Twist for the ‘Charles Dickens edition’ of his works in 1867 he took out most of the references to ‘the Jew’ and replaced them with Fagin’s name, and in subsequent public readings he dropped the ‘Jewish’ mannerisms. And in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens writes the virtuous old Jew Mr. Riah as some sort of apology. The trouble, of course, is that nobody remembers Mr Riah, where everybody has heard of Fagin.
What kind of performance does Mr Riah himself give, in the novel? He certainly looks the part, with his long Hebraic beard — Dickens may not have known that ‘riah’ is Polari for hair, but he would surely have recognised on some level that it is ‘hair’ spelled backwards — and ‘wearing a large brimmed low-crowned hat, and a long-skirted coat.’ He ‘looks’ Jewish (and is Jewish) which means, according to the racist cultural logic of the Victorian era, of Victorian novels and stageplays, that he ‘looks’ villainous and moneygrubbing, although he ‘is’ neither of these things. And his performance is good enough to alienate Jenny Wren, his friend, who is so shocked to see him at work (or ‘at play’, in the sense of playing his role) that she cuts him — although she later repents, apologises and they end the novel once again friends. Jenny also plays a role: the sharp-tongued mother of a wayward child — in fact her alcoholic father — who is waiting for a certain handsome man to come marry her. But to stick with Riah for a moment.
There is nothing floridly theatrical in Riah’s manner, of course: nothing of — to pick a few characters from other Dickensian novels almost at random — Mr Mantolini, or Micawber (or even, in a different performative style, of Uriah Heep): nothing projected or extraverted about how he plays his role. On the contrary, he is always quiet and self-contained. But he is Fledgeby’s puppet for all that, which is one reason why Dickens pairs him with Jenny Wren, maker of dolls. The novel as a whole is, as I have been suggesting elsewhere, unusually interested in the extent to which individuals become partial or full automata, wooden puppet dolls in part, like one-wooden-leg Silas Wegg, or the double-wooden-legged old tar who attends Rokesmith and Bella’s wedding in Greenwich — or fully wooden, like Twemlow the ‘innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s.’
Dickens is not, I think, saying that all life is merely performing. He is not saying that we are all in our ways all actors ; he doesn’t believe that all the world’s a stage, actually. For although he is intensely interested, in fiction as in his life, by the dynamic of people putting on a performance, he also believes in genuineness, in authenticity, in people simply being who they are. We could say that the main plot of Our Mutual Friend is the elaborate scheme of one individual to see past a young woman’s ‘performance’, the role into which she is pressed by social expectation, her own base desire for money and so on, so as to be able to observe her ‘as she really is’.
What then differentiates people ‘as they really are’ from people acting a quasi-theatrical role? It is not so simple a distinction as — for example — public versus private, such that we must don our theatrical mask as we head to the office in the morning, but can discard it and be ourselves when we return to domestic sanctity at the day’s end. The novel’s two most notable performances, John Harmon’s and Noddy Boffin’s, are both carried into the inner sanctum of the home — in the case of Harmon carried even further than that, into the church in which he marries Bella, and the home they share, and the room in which she gives birth to their child.
[Sidebar: it strikes me as odd that critics don’t make more of the fact that John Harmon marries Bella, and fathers a child upon her, under false pretences, maritally contracting with her under the pseudonym ‘John Rokesmith’. According to the provisions of the Marriage Act of 1836, anyone committing perjury during the marriage service, as for instance by giving a false name, was liable to prosecution and imprisonment, and could moreover be sued ‘for a forfeiture of all estate and interest in any property accruing to the offending Party by such Marriage’ — which, since the entire Harmon fortune is entailed upon young Harmon marrying Bella, would be a lot of money. Yet nobody talks about this. I wonder why not?]
‘Rokesmith’s performance is deception, of course, as all acting is; and one of the things that haunts Our Mutual Friend as a whole (I come back to this below) is the sense, which surely readers share, that husbands so adept at deceiving their wives, at acting a particular domestic and official role with them day after day for years, don’t usually do so because they are engaged in an elaborate game of testing said wife’s Patient Griselda qualities. Much more typically such a husband is cheating on such a wife — as Dickens did when, still cohabiting with Catherine, he began an affair with Nelly Ternan. Perhaps we agree that acting is a kind of deception but are less inclined to call acting cheating, although in a sense all acting is a cheat.
But I want, for the moment, to come at this a different way. Let us say that there is a kind of truth in ‘being who you really are’ with someone, and a kind of something else — locate it on a continuum from playfulness to deception to cheating — in acting. We might phrase this as a matter of revealing or concealing your true self, which is to say your essence, your spirit or soul. But this isn’t quite right, because Dickens, as an actor himself, and a connoisseur of acting, knew very well that the difference between good and bad acting was precisely that the former was spirited in a way the latter wasn’t. A bad actor goes through the motions, and recites the lines, like an automaton; a good actor enspirits his or her performance with the character they are playing. This might mean a Kean-ian gusto and energy, that sense of ‘spirited’ that means lively, vigorous, animated. But not all acting is over-acting, just as not all drama is melodrama. We might say that — whether it succeeds or not — Our Mutual Friend wants to put clear blue water between the shabby husband who deceives his wife in order to conduct an affair, and the virtuous husband who, like Rokesmith-Harmon, deceives his wife for nobler reasons. There is, the novel wants to say, a truth of spirit in the latter, and therefore in Rokesmith-Harmon’s reticent but utterly persuasive performance. The question is: whether we agree with that or not.
This brings me to one of the most striking transitions in the novel, the two related chapters 9 and 10 of Book 4. In the first of these chapters, Jenny Wren is reconciled to Riah, who gives his often-quoted (by critics, at any rate) speech about the world’s prejudice against Jews: ‘it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, “This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.” Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough — among what peoples are the bad not easily found? — but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say “All Jews are alike.”’ He goes on, gently enough, to rebuke Jenny for falling into this habit of thought herself:
You believed the story readily, my child, because I was one of the Jews — that the story itself first came into the invention of the originator thereof, because I was one of the Jews. This was the result of my … seeing the thing visibly presented as upon a theatre. Wherefore I perceived that the obligation was upon me to leave this service. [4:9]
The reference to the theatre is not adventitious: Riah means, he has encountered material representations of the prejudice, in terms of people’s attitudes and reactions.
From this first portion, with its focus on the kindly Jewish patriarch (whose wife, daughter and son are all dead) chapter 9 switches focus to the ‘child’ of Jenny Wren, in actuality her alcoholic father. He has drunk himself into a state of alcoholic collapse and, in the course of what remains of this chapter, he dies — a vivid and pitiable-enough piece of writing by Dickens, this.
There is a separate blog to be written, incidentally, on just how boozy Our Mutual Friend is. Everyone drinks, all the time. Sometimes this is valorised, as with the well-run and maintained Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, the pub run by Mrs Abbey Potterson, who ensures her clientele stop before they get too drunk, sending men home to their wives — the embodiment of Jo Gargery’s cup that cheers without inebriating. Sometimes drinking is presented in a more critical way, as when Wegg and Venus get malevolently squiffy in the Bower, or with the aforementioned pitiable alcoholism and cirrhosed death-scene of Jenny’s father. The latter has a thematic aspect: Wren senior cannot control his appetites and so ‘drowns’ in drink, just as Headstone and Riderhood, neither of whom can ultimately control theirs, drown in water . Indeed, to point this up we discover that one of the dead bodies recovered by Gaffer Hexam at the beginning of the novel is Jenny Wren’s grandfather, her drunken father’s father: Hexam describes him as ‘the drunken old chap, in a pair of list slippers and a nightcap, wot had offered — it afterwards come out — to make a hole in the water for a quartern of rum stood aforehand, and kept to his word for the first and last time in his life’ [1:3]. There’s something very striking in that phrase for drowning, ‘to make a hole in the water’.
The thing is, everybody boozes in this novel. Eugene and Mortimer drink wine in their chambers. Rumty Wilfer and his daughter quaff punch over lunch. Several characters drink ‘flip’, a truly disgusting-sounding concoction in which are mixed rum, sherry, egg-white, sugar and hot-water— indeed, ‘Mr Inspector’, the police officer whose methodical rectitude the novel repeatedly praises, knocks this gunk back like lemonade.
‘While they’re waiting,’ said Miss Abbey, ‘couldn’t you join us?’
Mr Inspector immediately slipped into the bar, and sat down at the side of the half-door, with his back towards the passage, and directly facing the two guests. ‘I’ll take a glass of flip, if that’s flip in the jug in the fender.’
‘That’s flip,’ replied Miss Abbey, ‘and it’s my making, and if even you can find out better, I shall be glad to know where.’ Filling him, with hospitable hands, a steaming tumbler, Miss Abbey replaced the jug by the fire; the company not having yet arrived at the flip-stage of their supper, but being as yet skirmishing with strong ale.
‘Ah — h!’ cried Mr Inspector. ‘That’s the smack! There’s not a Detective in the Force, Miss Abbey, that could find out better stuff than that.’
‘Glad to hear you say so,’ rejoined Miss Abbey. ‘You ought to know, if anybody does.’ [4:12]
So much for ‘not whilst I’m on duty, ma’am.’ It’s like those bits of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon in which he reflects how, in the eighteenth-century, everyone in Britain was drunk all the time. Dickens, as I have had occasion to note previously on this blog, liked a drink. He very much liked a drink. He carried brandy in a flask with him wherever he went, enjoyed various types of punch, champagne, wine and sherry (he also smoked like a factory chimney, of course, which adds a big thumbs-down, health wise).
The last piece of writing Dickens put down on paper was the passage of Edwin Drood that completed the third (of six) monthly instalments, after which he went in for dinner, had a stroke and died. But the penultimate piece of writing Dickens undertook was rather different. The previous day he had gone down into the cellar of Gad’s Hill with a notebook to take stock of all the booze he had stored down there.
On the first page he made seven entries for sherry, brandy, rum and Scotch whisky, giving the number of gallons and when purchased, e.g. “Cask Very Fine Scotch Whiskey 30 gallons — came in 1st January 1869”. On page 2 he noted that three quarts of sherry had been used the previous week, and on page 3 that a pint each of old pale brandy and dark brandy had been drawn. On page 5 he wrote that two gallons of his “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”, stored in casks and stone jars, had been used. [Tomalin, Charles Dickens: a Life (2011), 394]
That’s a quantity of spirits. Heaven knows I like a whisky now and then, but even I would baulk at two gallons of the stuff.
There’s a more serious point to this, and it has to do with that pun on spirit of which Dickens was fond — I’m thinking of the jaunty Household Words article mocking the then-current vogue for spirit-séance and table-rapping, in which the spirits are last night booze and the rapping the pounding headache of a hangover, a joke Dickens made on more than one occasion. There’s something more significant in these two incongruous yet overlapping understandings of spirit.
Mr Cleaver, Jenny’s father, is one of the novel’s automata, which is to say he has been reduced to that level by his addiction. He is ‘wound-up’ like a clockwork toy by being given alcohol, as when Eugene pumps him for information on Lizzie’s whereabouts (“It will be necessary, I think,” Wrayburn observes, “to wind up Mr Dolls, before anything to any mortal purpose can be got out of him. Brandy, Mr Dolls, or — ?” “Threepenn’orth Rum,” said Mr Dolls.’ [3:10]) and once wound he alternates raging at a perceived conspiracies against him and what Dickens expressively calls ‘raging repentence’. The pathos of his final moments are enhanced by the studied grotesquery of their setting. Apprehended by the police as drunk and disorderly he is strapped to a stretcher and, the police realising how in extremis he is, taken ‘ to the nearest doctor’s shop.’
Thither he was brought; the window becoming from within, a wall of faces, deformed into all kinds of shapes through the agency of globular red bottles, green bottles, blue bottles, and other coloured bottles. A ghastly light shining upon him that he didn’t need, the beast so furious but a few minutes gone, was quiet enough now, with a strange mysterious writing on his face, reflected from one of the great bottles, as if Death had marked him: ‘Mine.’
The medical testimony was more precise and more to the purpose than it sometimes is in a Court of Justice. ‘You had better send for something to cover it. All’s over.’
Therefore, the police sent for something to cover it, and it was covered and borne through the streets, the people falling away. After it, went the dolls’ dressmaker, hiding her face in the Jewish skirts, and clinging to them with one hand, while with the other she plied her stick. It was carried home, and, by reason that the staircase was very narrow, it was put down in the parlour — the little working-bench being set aside to make room for it — and there, in the midst of the dolls with no speculation in their eyes, lay Mr Dolls with no speculation in his. [4:9]
Bottles, in the sense of alcohol, having distorted and destroyed Cleaver’s life, this phantasmagoric environment of garish light and glass is fitting enough, the corpse being reduced to a mere doll among other dolls. What has departed, we could say, is his spirit, but in this case the ‘true’ spirit — Cleaver’s humanity, his capacity of love, for goodness, life as such — had long since been replaced by the parodic spirits of rum, served in mockingly pseudo-trinitarian ‘threepennyworth’ portions. It’s that kind of conceptual pun of which Dickens, as we have seen, was fond, just as he was fond of drink himself.
Chapter 9 leads hard into chapter 10, in which Jenny, with barely a paragraph in which to mourn her dead father, is hurried away in a carriage to attend the deathbed of badly injured Eugene Wrayburn. For a man so routinely dismissive of spirit-mediums and séances, and their entire weltanschauung, this chapter strikes a strangely Mr Sludge the Medium-y note — I mean, it reads as if written by an actual table-rapper. The strong implication of what Dickens writes here is that Wrayburn’s spirit actually leaves his body and roams about, going who knows whither.
This whole chapter is one of several that mark CD’s carefully-worked patterning by pairs. Back in book 3 chapter 3, Riderhood’s body had been pulled dead, or ‘dead’, out of the Thames: his boat having been run-down by a big steamer, he was underwater for a quarter hour and is not breathing when retrieved. The whole chapter is structured about an ‘is he, isn’t he?’ tension as to whether Riderhood will live or not. In the end he does, of course, so as to set up the irony of his final end — for later in the book he tells Headstone not once but several times that, having been drowned once, he can’t be drowned again, which claim is dramatically falsified when Headstone drags him to his death in his own lock.
This is how Dickens describes Riderhood’s condition, as his body is attended to in the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters and people crowd round: ‘No one has the least regard for the man; with them all, he has been an object of avoidance, suspicion, and aversion; but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die.’ The spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, here, is elaborated in the later chapter, Book 4 chapter 10, in which Wrayburn likewise hovers between life and death. Near the end of the novel the lawyer lies motionless in bed:
Sometimes his eyes were open, sometimes closed. When they were open, there was no meaning in their unwinking stare at one spot straight before them, unless for a moment the brow knitted into a faint expression of anger, or surprise. Then, Mortimer Lightwood would speak to him, and on occasions he would be so far roused as to make an attempt to pronounce his friend’s name. But, in an instant consciousness was gone again, and no spirit of Eugene was in Eugene’s crushed outer form. [4:10]
No spirit was ‘in’ Eugene’s body. So where is it? Wandering abroad. At one point Wrayburn whispers something to Mortimer, then sinks back into coma. Four days later he continues his iteration, without realising that there has been any intermission of time. He is asking that Lizzie be brought to his bedside, but Mortimer has already intuited that this is what he wants:
— ‘Send for her?’
‘My dear fellow, she is here.’
Quite unconscious of the long blank, he supposed that they were still speaking together.
As he drifts in and out of consciousness Mortimer tries to keep him here with ‘stimulants’, but ‘in the act of turning his eyes gratefully towards his friend, he wandered away. His eyes stood still, and settled into that former intent unmeaning stare.’
Hours and hours, days and nights, he remained in this same condition. There were times when he would calmly speak to his friend after a long period of unconsciousness, and would say he was better, and would ask for something. Before it could be given him, he would be gone again.
Gone where? From, says Dickens, ‘this sentient world’ into ‘the insensible’. The presence of Lizzie — which is to say: true love — seems to draw him back to this world, but it is touch and go, and often ‘to the heavy disappointment of their hope … his spirit would glide away again and be lost.’
The comparison between the wicked Riderhood’s near-drowning and the fundamentally decent if wayward Wrayburn’s in-and-out-of-coma, both of whom are given chapters in which they hover between life and death, is reinforced by Dickens’s next metaphor: ‘this frequent rising of a drowning man from the deep, to sink again, was dreadful to the beholders.’
My point — to return to Drunken Old Cleaver and gentle Old Riah — foregrounds something key to the novel, one of the unstated but main currents running through Dickens’s strategies of characterisation as such. Wrayburn’s being-in-the-world is inspirited: he ‘has’ a spirit, which will leave his body when he dies, and which strays to and fro as he hangs between life and death in Book 4 chapter 10. Riderhood, though a bad man, ‘has’ the same. Cleaver, although perhaps he was once like this, has replaced this spirit with base material alcoholic spirits. He’s not fully a human being any more.
And what about Riah? Dickens is writing a virtuous Jew, rather than the villainous Jew he had written into Oliver Twist, yes: but does he —which is to say: does his novel — believe this Jew is inspirited in the way that Wrayburn, and even Riderhood, are? The novel doesn’t specifically articulate this, but from Dickens’s Christian perspective the matter is not straightforward. The good deeds of a member of a tribe that has, specifically and consistently, denied the Holy Spirit, might animate a body without meaning that that body is inspirited in a Christian sense.
This is mainstream nineteenth-century Protestant theology. For instance: leading off from the threeway distinction between body, soul and spirit mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (‘may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’) Cambridge theologian John Bickford Heard argues that for a Christian fully to live he or she must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit in all three magisteria: ‘the Divine Spirit is to enter and entirely inwardly sanctify by His indwelling Power. … the Holy Spirit shall possess each of the three parts of our nature, and possess them entirely.’ [Heard, The Tripartite Nature of Man, Spirit, Soul, and Body (1866), 67].
As the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he was baptised, so baptism into the Christian faith is baptism into the Holy Spirit — that at least is the Anglican view. It’s true that the subject of Dickens’s religious beliefs is a large and complex one, but it’s also true that by the time he was writing Our Mutual Friend he had moved from the more Unitarian sympathies of the 1840s to a more conventional Anglican Trinitarianism. Forster records that in later life Dickens was able ‘to accommodate all minor differences’ with Anglican doctrine.
I’m not suggesting that Dickens was in the habit of reading books of contemporary theology — he really wasn’t. So far as that goes, I agree with Butterworth’s Dickens, Religion and Society book [Palgrave 2016] which argues [a] that Dickens was a very religious man, [b] that religion ‘goes to the very core of his work’ as a novelist, and most of all [c] that his understanding of religion leaned strongly in the direction of social justice and community — in Butterworth’s words, ‘he does have a clear diagnosis of what is wrong with society and an established view as to how to set things right: namely, that Christianity is the solution to all society’s problems, and a failure to follow its precepts is the cause of all that is wrong’ [Butterworth, 2]. At the same time, I think it is worth dwelling on this trinitarian conception of human subjectivity, not least because it explains certain aspects of contemporary anti-Semitism.
We could put it like this: an, as it were, vulgar racist might say: people of ‘inferior’ races (Jews, Blacks and so on) aren’t actually properly people at all. They’re closer to animals — they don’t have souls in the way people like us do. They might be good or bad folk, just as the world gives us good or bad dogs, good or bad horses, but that doesn’t make them people as such. It’s a profoundly ugly worldview of course, and of course wrong; but my point is that it is possible to repudiate this view without repudiating one’s racism. A ‘tripartite’ racist might say: of course Jews have bodies, and we can agree that they also have souls, for they are made by God in God’s image. But what they lack is spirit, in the sense that the Holy Spirit has not entered into them. And a full person, a full human being, is all three qualities: body, soul and spirit. This doesn’t seem to me any less ugly. But it is a view, knowingly or tacitly, underpinning an attitude of prejudice and denigration of the racial other.
My point has to do with how widespread this view was in the nineteenth-century. There are various ways in which it is expressed: Edinburgh divine James Buchanan’s book on the Holy Spirit uses the metaphor of dead wood, calling the Jews ‘withered branches that receive no vital sap or nourishment’, once part of the divine tree but now subject to the Johannine Gospel verse: ‘every branch on me that beareth not fruit he taketh away’: ‘His word does not abide in them,’ insists Buchanan, ‘nor does his Spirit animate them. The Jews, the natural branches, were broken off because of unbelief’ [Buchanan, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit (1842), 192–93].
This, since it has (or was taken as having) scriptual sanction (the John 15:2 verse quoted above) was a common way of thinking about the Jews at the time. Conceivably something along these lines explains Dickens’s pervasive use of timber imagery and paraphernalia, wooden legs, Twemlow’s furniture-nature and so on, in Our Mutual Friend. And perhaps this sense of an individual Jew as virtuous but cut off from vital force and flourishing is behind Dickens’s decision to make Riah a widower whose children have predeceased him.
I don’t want to make too much of this point. Manifestly, Riah is nowhere near as offensive an anti-Semitic caricature as was Fagin, and there’s no reason to doubt Dickens’s sincerity when it comes to making amends for the earlier portrayal. But that doesn’t mean that Riah is, in his conception, fully inspirited as a character in his novel. Most of the automata in Dickens’s late writing — there’s quite a few in Little Dorrit, Mr F.s Aunt, steam-tug Pancks, Merdle — are not patently virtuous human beings in the way that Riah is. But his goodness doesn’t stop him, in the logic of the novel, being an automaton. Our Mutual Friend is not an exercise in vulgar anti-Semitism, but neither does it escape anti-Semitism altogether.
Calling an individual with a body and soul, but lacking (in some sense) spirit, an ‘automaton’ is perhaps over-mechanistic of me. Mr F.s Aunt is like a thinly-programmed robot, but most of Dickens’s robots are complexly-programmed, rich, even rounded. But I am here to argue that this is one of the fault-lines along which Dickens’s characterisation works — and is one of the reasons why he is so often thought a caricaturist rather than a purveyor of Forsterian 3D ‘characters’ (though I think that thought is wrongheaded, actually). It is a complex of acting, in the theatrical sense, and belonging or not belonging (in the Christian sense) and living, or not living, in the fullest sense. How this connects together his fascination with and passion for acting with his religion and his fiction is the subject for another post. This one has gone on far too long already.