Dickens’ last complete novel gives one of his most comprehensive and penetrating accounts of Victorian society.
Its vision of a culture stifled by materialistic values emerges not just through its central narratives, but through apparently incidental characters and scenes.
The chief of several plots centres on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. He is believed drowned under suspicious circumstances – a situation convenient to his wish for anonymity until he can evaluate Bella Wilfer whom he must marry to secure his inheritance.
The story is filled with colourful characters and incidents: the faded aristocrats and parvenus gathered at the Veneering’s dinner table, Betty Higden and her terror of the workhouse and the greedy plottings of Silas Wegg.
Prue: I thoroughly enjoyed it, and especially listening on the radio, it was brilliantly done, complete with the sound of the Thames.
Carole: I think the start was very good, I was reading it during that lovely sunny week at the end of March. Why would I want to read about bodies in the Thames? But then I remembered that there were funny bits in it too. It is a hard read though.
Val: Yes, I wanted to read it in the original 19 monthly parts.
Prue: I wouldn’t have said it was a difficult read, more that it was absorbing and long. It’s about the veneer of society and he’s very critical of political society.
Greta: I struggled for the first bit, then I was off. There was so much in each sentence, it repaid taking care in the reading.
Eileen: He’s very clever how he describes using the mirror, show don’t tell.
Greta: He holds an image and keeps it running for a long time, it’s very clever.
Prue: Yes, almost like poetry.
Pam: There were so many allusions, you needed to keep up. The trouble with a lot of modern novels, you have lost the richness of Dickens, making you really think about what you are reading.
Prue: In a modern novel, a sentence may pick on one item, to give you a feel, but Dickens tends to give you both a physical and moral description. Dickens tells you everything, in a modern novel you have to fill in the gaps.
Eileen: I kept thinking of how he would stand up in front of audiences reading it as a serial – how exciting to hear the man reading his own work. I found the language tiring and I needed to concentrate, but I did enjoy it.
Prue: The dramatisation was terrific on radio.
Eileen: I listened to it on audio, read by Robert Hardie – the language was fantastic. I think it must have been abridged as some of the characters disappeared. I lost out on the depth with the extraneous details.
Carole: There is biting social comment throughout. There was so much corruption beneath the surface, lots of mention of money – motivations for marrying...
Pam: I read somewhere that Dickens wasn’t very good at relationships, but in the scene on the beach, his depiction of marriage was timeless.
Sandra: It reminds us of the pace of life – to take time to concentrate on a book this long. Interesting to read after Patronage, our most recent book group title. I would go for Dickens, though.
Carole: His characterisation was wonderful, even down to the names he uses.
Prue: He’s often accused of cliché/stock characters, but I quite like this, it was almost a fashion at the time.
Rhona: It was incredibly atmospheric, that first chapter created a beautiful atmosphere.
Eileen: Did anyone think that Mr Boffin had actually turned into a miser? I thought that it read as though he had actually been corrupted. I felt a little cheated that it was meant to be a joke, a plan.
Pam: The editor in the edition I read felt there were lots of plot anomalies.
Eileen: He’d written it as though that was the theme of the book, money corrupts.
Pam: They spend so much money at the beginning, you have to wonder how much was left.
Prue: It is a very moral book.
Eileen: That was the way at the time, to teach through novels. He kept the reader’s attention through humour.
Prue: He particularly demonstrates selfishness. The Dolls Maker is a fantastic character.
Barbara: I couldn’t work out how old she was.
Greta: She’s young, but is a sort of parenting child looking after her father, she’s a fighter.
Sandra: It’s interesting that he drew a very positive image of a Jewish moneylender, which must have been unusual at the time.
Eileen: Perhaps it was Dickens’ reply to his own Scrooge and Fagin.
Prue: My introduction commented on the role of women and how Bella’s role was to become a quiet wife. Was it putting women in their place too much?
Greta: It was a bit idealised.
Prue: But in novels like Middlemarch, women were expected to do more than this passive role.
Greta: We haven’t mentioned the teacher – I thought his descent into almost madness was incredibly moving and graphic. He’s really deranged.
Eileen: The forward tells you that Dickens has gone through a depressing time after losing lots of money. Our Mutual Friend was published when he was coming out of this period – his audience was happy to hear his mood change with this publication.
z The Book Group meets at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells. If you are interested in joining, contact Rosamund on email@example.com or see the website for details –www.mainstreetbooks.co.uk. The next meeting is on May 22 at 11am when the group is reading Snowdrops by A.D. Miller and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.