By Christy McDougall, guest blogger
Do you remember Mr Twemlow? It’s likely you don’t. He’s a meek, confused little minor character in Our Mutual Friend who spends the entire book being meek and confused and doing what he’s told, and then suddenly, at the very end, he speaks up bravely in defense of Lizzie Hexam before all his society friends. He’s one of Our Mutual Friend’s quiet heroes.
One of my favorite themes of the many that pervade Charles Dickens’ books is what I call the Quiet Hero. His heroes are obvious; their names are often the titles of the books, and even when they’re not, they soon reveal themselves. But he also had a genius for incorporating very minor characters into his stories who suddenly surprise you with an act, big or small, of heroism. Mr Twemlow’s is small: all he has to do is speak. Lord Frederick Verisopht’s is huge: he dies for honor. Between those extremes are all manner of acts of courage, honor, and kindness.
Mrs Higden “runs away” from young Sloppy to give him a chance at a better life. Mr Micawber and his wife take young, lonely David Copperfield under their impoverished wing. Frederick Dorrit faces down his brother to stand up for his unappreciated niece. Sergeant George is willing to face disgrace to keep his dead captain from disgrace. These are all the little people, who in any other story would scarcely make an entrance, let alone distinguish themselves. Dickens recognized that anyone has the capacity to be the hero of a story, be it a continually debt-ridden man with too many children or a downtrodden, clarinet-playing brother or a little old lady scared to die in a poorhouse.
My favorite quiet heroes are the ones you would never expect because they started out as unlikable or scoundrelly.There’s Mr Venus, the melancholy articulator of bones who agrees to help a true scoundrel defraud whomever they can find to defraud and ends up telling the truth and exposing the scoundrel. A change of heart is possible, says Mr Dickens. There’s Lord Frederick Verisopht, the rather stupid, lazy gambler who allows a very bad man to prey on him and has absolutely nothing going for him, character-wise, until he suddenly stands up to his wicked, controlling friend in an affair of honor and dies for it. Courage is possible for the weakest character, Mr Dickens says.
So who are your favorite quiet heroes? Who are the invisible people who stand out to you in Dickens’ works?