By Rachel McMillan, guest blogger
Our Mutual Friend is nothing less than a universe unto itself. It twists and turns through mistaken identities, through the social whirl of London’s highest society to the royal Boffins of the dust heap, and through the mire of the Thames where Gaffer Hexam and his ilk sweep corpses for pillage from the river’s murky depths.
Our Mutual Friend is set in a London of smoke and fog: where the malevolent Bradley Headstone mazes through the streets to trail his arch rival, where the body of John Harmon remains a constant mystery, where Jenny Dolls barks at her father and where Bella Wilfer reconciles the toil of her previous life with her newfound riches.
Rarely has there been such a melodramatically winding path of wrongful identities, cross-purposes, unintentional evil and the redemption of love. Only Dickens, the complex author of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, could help us excavate the mysteries and riddles deeply embedded in London’s belle époque. And so much of this, fortunately for us readers, is handled by the good-natured pair of Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood. They are the middlemen and our guides through a confusing tunnel of mysteries and darkness. They offer good-natured banter, a healthy dose of slacker attitude, and a friendship so true and inspiring it makes us wish they’d invite us to dinner at a coffee house with them.
They’re there when we are first ushered from the dirty Thames of the opening chapter through to the highfalutin tailored finesse of the Veneering’s Dinner Party, they help us uncover once and for all the true identity of John Rokesmith/Harmon, and finally, after Eugene finds his happy fairytale ending with the gold-hearted Lizzie Hexam, Mortimer finalizes the social whirl of commentary, sharing a warm handshake with Mr. Tremlow and ignoring all social speculation as to Eugene’s happiness.
I argue that Mortimer and Eugene are our perfect guides because they no more belong in the gilded halls of the Veneering residence than they do on the dust heap with the Boffins and their employees. Mortimer and Eugene are the perfect way for us to engage with a baffling, multi-layered story and they guide us with aplomb. They smoke cigars, they hate their respective professions, they take boating vacations (!!), they really want to find a way to slide through society with witty remarks and absolutely no effort whatsoever. They know each other as well as they know themselves, and thus can anticipate the next sentence the other will utter as sure as they can surmise a secret kept. They both admit to being bored. A lot. While we might not instantly connect with the Dickensian mold of ultimate low and finishing high society, we can certainly relate to disillusioned young professionals who seek each other’s company to dissect the puzzling human nature before them.
After the young Hexam boy begs their private audience at the Veneerings’ party, Mortimer and Eugene steal a few moments to brightly complain of their circumstances: They hate their jobs, they feel forced into them by familial obligation, Eugene notes that people are “idiots,” they find comfort in each other and in their common ground. Just when Dickens is unraveling the plot in creaks and rattles and spinning us in all sorts of untoward directions, he reins us back in with another anticipated Mortimer and Eugene chapter, where Rogue Riderhood appears phantom-like begging for an “Alfred David.” If you have yet to discern the pawky, irreverent, and ironic humour Dickens loans to matters of the law and the court, then you need look no further than here. For further high-comical fireworks wait until the ridiculously creepy Bradley Headstone shows up at the Temple and begs Eugene to remove himself from his object of affection, Lizzie Hexam. Consistently taunting him as “Schoolmaster” in a sarcastically patronizing way, Eugene stands his ground and fights for his burgeoning love for Lizzie while knocking Bradley Headstone down a few pegs. While this results in an ultimate confrontation and costs Eugene a bloodletting, it is indeed one of the most electric scenes in a book chock-full of spark and sass.
Yes, Eugene and Mortimer are a breath of fresh air in the Victorian world of the novel Dickens paints as “dirty . . . disreputable” (p.3), “filthy” with “deepening shadows” (p.4), as they make their snippy remarks on society and restore the balance between the gold veneer of the Veneerings and their lot and the haberdashery of the dust-piles; but they must, too, endure their moment of Dickensian tragedy. Exacting revenge for Eugene’s cocky taunting and for his pursuit of Lizzie Hexam, Bradley Headstone takes matters into his own hands and nearly kills Eugene.
While Eugene drifts between sleep and consciousness, we come to understand that Mortimer stays vigilantly by his side, only leaving to perform active duties to ensure his friend’s comfort and happiness, like bringing Jenny to Eugene and fetching Bella Rokesmith at Lizzie’s wish. Mortimer is an excellent nurse: He gently tips Eugene’s head to give him wine and listens to his feverish rants about Bradley Headstone, true as they may be. At one point, near to unconsciousness again and unsure of the darkness ahead, Eugene can do little but beg Mortimer to “hold me, dear fellow” (p.722). We learn at the end that while Eugene’s father is less than thrilled at the prospect of his son’s marriage to Gaffer Hexam’s daughter, Mortimer has stepped in to aid with Eugene’s “money perplexities” and has in many ways acted as his life preserver (p.792).
While Eugene slowly recovers and begins his happy ending with Lizzie, with Mortimer steadfastly supporting in periphery, I cannot help but wish that Mortimer would be granted an equally happy ending. Sure, we leave him with Mr. Tremlow as he defiantly defends his best friend’s fall from social grace and endures the boredom of his existence; but in a book where so many loose ends are tied (even Sloppy gets a happy ending!), I wish Dickens had provided a little more for our friend Mortimer Lightwood. He helped us immeasurably through the twisting maze that is Our Mutual Friend and aided in resuscitating that other equally charming literary mediator, Eugene Wrayburn. Yet, Mortimer turns back to his life alone -- impersonally happy for his friend, yet never quite securing the happy ending bestowed on so many of the novel’s characters.
It seems modern society has a penchant for picking up stories where they left off and painting chapters of new generations in a wealth of pastiches ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Jane Austen. Somebody, somewhere, should give one half of this magnificent duo a chance at more life: a life beyond that final Tremlow handshake and the retreat back to the Temple. But at any rate -- long live Mortimer and Eugene: one of Dickens’ definitive friendships and certainly one of the strongest in Victorian literature.
Rachel McMillan blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.