The Times

29 November 1865 (p. 6)

[E.S. Dallas]

Novels published in parts have the advantage and disadvantage that their fortunes are often made or marred by the first few numbers; and this last novel of Mr. Charles Dickens, really one of his finest works, and one in which on occasion he even surpasses himself, labours under the disadvantage of a beginning that drags. Any one reading the earlier numbers of the new tale might see that the author meant to put forth all his strength and do his very best; and those who have an eye for literary workmanship could discover that never before had Mr. Dickens's workmanship been so elaborate. On the whole, however, at that early stage the reader was more perplexed than pleased. There was an appearance of great effort without corresponding result. We were introduced to a set of people in whom it is impossible to take an interest, and were made familiar with transactions that suggested horror. The great master of fiction exhibited all his skill, performed the most wonderful feats of language, loaded his page with wit and many a fine touch peculiar to himself. The agility of his pen was amazing, but still at first we were not much amused. We were more impressed with the exceeding cleverness of the author's manner than with the charm of his story; and when one thinks more of an artist's manner than of his matter woe to the artist. Very soon, however, Mr. Dickens got into his story; the interest of it grew; the reader, busied with the facts of the tale, learned to forget all about the skilfulness of the artist, and found himself rushing on eagerly through number after number of one of the best of even Dickens's tales. Still, upon some minds the first impression prevails, and Mr. Dickens's publishers have been obliged to announce that complaints are made of the difficulty of procuring his work at some of the London libraries, and that this difficulty is caused entirely by the librarians who have contented themselves with a short supply. We are reminded of Waverley, and begin to speculate as to its fate, and as to the fate of all its successors, if it had originally been published in shilling numbers. The first few chapters of that tale are very heavy and give no promise of the originality, the vigour, and the interest of the story as a whole. Perhaps if Waverley had been published in shilling numbers Scott, who had been accustomed to great hits, might have been so disheartened by the want or by the slowness of success as to have abandoned all further attempt at prose fiction.

That Our Mutual Friend has defects we not only allow, but shall ruthlessly point out. The weak part of the work is to be found in what may be called "The Social Chorus." This is the title which Mr. Dickens gives one of his chapters; but it is the proper name not only for that chapter, but also for every chapter in which the same personages figure. We can divide the tale distinctly into two parts, like a Greek drama -- one part truly dramatic and given to the evolution of the story which Mr. Dickens has to tell; the other, a sort of social chorus, having no real connexion with the tale in which we are interested, and of importance only as representing the views of society on the incidents of the story as it comes before them. Now, the idea here is a great one, but it has not been worked out with details of sufficient interest. Of Mr. Dickens's main story -- the line of action into which he has thrown his whole heart, we cannot speak too highly; it is a masterpiece. We see life in all its strength and seriousness and tenderness; the fierce passion that drives it into action, and the gentle passion that stirs it into play. But in contrast to this fine story Mr. Dickens has thought fit to present to us in a parallel line of action -- the spectator -- the chorus of the Greek play . Let us imagine to ourselves one of the most frigid dinner parties in London -- any little party that arrogates to itself the name of society, and the members of which lead lives either inane or frivolous. They fill up their empty lives by meeting at each others' houses, by sitting in state round a dinner table and discoursing on the events of lives that move with greater speed than their own. Into this little circle come stray rumours of what is going on without; and we may listen to the remarks of this society on the stirring life which it does not share. It is a good idea, we say, to bring the chorus of idle spectators into the story; to contrast them with the living agents, to let some of the incidents of the story come to our knowledge filtered through their gossip, and to show life at once in two views -- namely, in its terrible reality, and in the paltry reflection of it which passes current in the gabble of careless, heartless, brainless knot of gadabouts.

But it is no easy task to work out such an idea; and this for two good reasons. In the first place, a reader likes the story to go on, and does not like to be interrupted as he follows the plot by the talk and the movements of people who have no distinct connexion or but a quasi-connexion with its incidents. As if that of itself were not a sufficient difficulty to be overcome, the novelist has this further difficulty in store: he has to make us care to read about people who are remarkable only for their nothingness, he has to make us interested in people who, by the hypothesis, are uninteresting. Now, it is in dealing with this cruel problem that Mr. Dickens falls short of the success which in the other parts of his tale he not only reaches, but reaches triumphantly. The social chorus of the present story has for its leader a mighty giver of dinners -- Mr. Veneering, and the Veneering set of people are so poor of wit and so dull of feeling that Mr. Dickens has hard work to galvanize them into something like a vitality. But in so doing he has in the earlier portions of his narrative seemed to give them a greater importance than they deserve or than he intends. We read the opening chapters of Our Mutual Friend under the impression that its chief interest would centre in the Veneering group, and that the very title of the story was one of the common-place phrases of that soulless tribe. This latter supposition is, indeed, quite correct, or we fancy that it is correct; for Mr. Dickens again and again lays great stress on the facility of friendship that prevails in the Veneering order of society. Thus -- to quote from his first number: --

[Quotes first 5 paragraphs of Book I, Chapter II]

In this shallow society everybody is everybody's friend. One man meets another casually at the house of a casual acquaintance, forthwith asks him to dinner, addresses him as his dear friend, and speaks of him as "our mutual friend." But need we wonder that, when the novel takes its title from the little society in which such a phrase is honoured, readers should suppose that "Our Mutual Friend" is mainly concerned with the doings of the society? People read superficially and hurriedly nowadays -- do not, indeed, read books, but skim them; and they may easily carry away this first impression that Our Mutual Friend cannot be a good novel, because it has to do chiefly with people in whom it is impossible to feel any interest.

Here is a great mistake -- the mistake of the author in naming his work from the least interesting portion of it, the mistake of the too superficial reader in not finding out the author's mistake. The Social Chorus who do the "mutual friendship" business first of all provide the story with a false name, and then to the world of readers they give it a bad name. The reader is not happy in their company, and, looking for the story in their movements, he finds none. The story is elsewhere. We cannot, however, dismiss "The Social Chorus" from further notice without remarking on the cleverness with which they are delineated by Mr. Dickens. It must be remembered that if they somewhat bore the reader, it is because they are bores by nature. Several times lately our novelists have attempted to make us live with people very dull and dead. George Eliot made the attempt in The Mill on the Floss; Mr. Anthony Trollope tried it in Miss Mackenzie; and now Mr. Dickens is bent on the same task in "The Social Chorus" of his new novel. In each of these attempts it is impossible not to admire the exceeding skill of the author; but we doubt if readers feel that the author has in any of these instances contributed much to their amusement. The people to whom Mr. Dickens introduces us in "The Social Chorus" are, properly speaking, not people at all, but sticks; and his business is to show as well as he can the wooden character of their minds. In the passage above quoted from, in which Mr. Dickens introduces them to our notice, Twemlow is described as a piece of furniture that went upon easy castors; and all through the novel we have to think of him and his associates not as men with the hearts of men, but as a species of knick-knacks. The carefulness of the writing, however, in that passage contains sufficient evidence that Mr. Dickens has spared no pains in the exhibition of such knick-knacks. With great zest he exposes the solemn twaddle of stiff dinner parties and the hollow friendships of which they are the religious rites. Some of his portraits, too, of the Veneering lot are, with a few swift touches, given with great effect, as that of Lady Tippins, the aged flirt and again those of the Lammles, who married each other for money, and discovered amid the joys of the honeymoon that they were deceived.

So far we have dealt with the mere onlookers of the story, not with the story itself; and we say deliberately that we have read nothing of Mr. Dickens's which has given us a higher idea of his power than this last tale. It would not be wonderful if so voluminous an author should now show some signs of exhaustion. On the contrary, here he is in greater force than ever, astonishing us with a fertility in which we can trace no signs of repetition. We hear people say, "he has never surpassed Pickwick." They talk of Pickwick as if it were his masterpiece. We do not yield to any one in our enjoyment of that extraordinary work. We never tire of it. We are of those who can read it again and again, and can take it up at any page with the certainty of finding in it the most merry-making humour. But we refuse to measure a work of art by the amount of visible effect which it produces; and we are not going to quarrel with tragedy because it is less mirthful than comedy. What if we allow that Our Mutual Friend is not nearly so funny as Pickwick? It is infinitely better than Pickwick in all the higher qualities of a novel, and, in spite of the dead weight of "The Social Chorus," we class it with Mr. Dickens's best works.

One thing is very remarkable about it, -- the immense amount of thought which it contains. We scarcely like to speak of the labour bestowed upon it, lest a careless reader should carry away a notion that the work is laboured. What labour Mr. Dickens has given to it is a labour of love, and the point which strikes us is that he, who of all our living novelists has the most extraordinary genius, is also of all our living novelists the most careful and painstaking in his work. In all these 600 pages there is not a careless line. There are lines and pages we object to as wrong in execution, or not quite happy in idea; but there is not a page nor a line which is not the product of a full mind bursting with what it has to say, and determined to say it well. Right or wrong, the work is always thoroughgoing and conscientious. There is nothing slurred over -- no negligence, no working up to what are called in stage language "points" -- to the detriment of the more level passages. And then see what a mass of matter he lays before his readers. There is a gallery of portraits in the present novel which might set up half a dozen novelists for life: Bellas Wilfer, the most charming of all, her father, her mother, her sister; then Boffin and Mrs. Boffin, and Silas Wegg, and Venus, the practical anatomist; then, again, Riderhood, and Lizzie Hexam, and Bradley Headstone; once more, Mortimer Lightwood, Wrayburn, the dolls' dressmaker, and her father. There are many more, and among these we must not forget poor old Betty Higden, because without such a character as hers Mr. Dickens's tales would be unlike themselves. Mr. Dickens cannot write a tale without in some way bringing it to bear upon a social grievance, with regard to which he has a strong feeling. He has a strong feeling as to the manner in which the Poor Law is administered in this country, and he devotes one of his most powerful chapters to showing with what horror poor Betty Higden shrinks from parochial charity: --

[Quotes from first few pages of Book III, Chapter VIII]

We quote that passage, because when such a man as Mr. Dickens has a practical object in view, it is more in his mind than all the triumphs of his art. It would please him more to do good to the thousands of poor people who never read novels than to entertain all the novel readers in the world. Still, it is not with these practical questions that we are now concerned, but with the question of the writer's art, and we return to the point on which we were insisting, as to the fulness of matter that appears in the pages of Our Mutual Friend. We have referred to one of Mr. Dickens's peculiarities, that he generally makes his novels bear on some practical grievance to which he desires to call attention. Another of his characteristics is, that he likes to introduce us to people engaged in some special business. In one little tale he will tell us all about the man who draws the picture of salmon on the pavement; in another story we shall have the man-milliner; in yet another, Mrs. Gamp and her congeners. Here we are introduced to two great curiosities -- the dolls' dressmaker, and the man who makes it his business to find dead bodies in the Thames. In the occupation of the latter there is something too horrible to permit of our being thoroughly entertained by Mr. Dickens's revelations of the secrets that belong to such a calling; but the dolls' dressmaker is one of his most charming pictures, and Mr. Dickens tells her strange story with a mixture of humour and pathos which it is impossible to resist. The picture is one of those in which he delights, in which he can give the reins to his fancy; and as he displays all the sorrow and all the pleasantry of the little dressmaker we are driven to the dilemma of not knowing whether to laugh or to be sad.

But the finest picture in the novel is that of Bella Wilfer. Mr. Dickens has never done anything in the portraiture of women so pretty and so perfect . We have more than once in these columns had to remark upon Thackeray's dictum that a novelist at 50 cannot write of love with success. Mr. Dickens is an example to the contrary. At the same time it must be observed that the love which he has set forth so gracefully is the love not of a man but of a woman. The man whose love he describes is not one in whom we can feel a strong interest. But for that matter, we men have little sympathy with love-sick men. When love in a man gets to the point of sickness or of extravagance it becomes rather ridiculous. A man may love a woman as much as he likes, but he must have his love well in hand or men do not sympathize with it. He may break his heart for a woman, but he must not show it. And so it need excite no surprise if we have to report that Mr. Dickens's love-sick hero is no more interesting than love-sick heroes are in general. But his love-sick woman is without exception the prettiest picture of the kind he has drawn -- one of the prettiest pictures in prose fiction. The little dialogues in which Mr. Dickens has exhibited first her love for her father, then her love for her lover, and then the two combined, are full of liveliness and a grace and a humour that seem to us to surpass any attempt of the same description which he has ever before made. There is an enchanting airiness and a winning charm about the lady which mark her out as one of his most brilliant portraits -- and that, too, in a species of portraiture peculiarly difficult of attainment. Everybody knows and admires the odd sort of characters for which Mr. Dickens is famous, such as Mrs. Gamp; but to paint Bella Wilfer seems to be a higher reach of art. The strong hard lines of Mrs. Gamp's character it is comparatively easy to draw. In drawing Bella Wilfer, Mr. Dickens has to touch most delicately a beautiful woman, and render with the utmost tenderness the soft contour of her character. He has perfectly succeeded, and we shall be greatly surprised if the portraiture of this wayward girl does not rank among his highest performances.

The story, of course, we are not going to tell. It is very ingenious, and the plot is put together with an elaboration which we scarcely expect to find in a novel published in parts. All we shall say of it is, that those readers who pant for what is called "sensation" may feast in it to their heart's content on sensation; and that those who care more for quiet pictures and studies of character will also find that the author has provided for them. Mr. Dickens's range is wide, and none of our living novelist can adapt himself, or herself, to so wide a circle of readers.

"Dallas was a thoughtful and intelligent critic whom Dickens had just tried to help by recommending him to Lord John Russell for a Chair at one of the Scottish universities. Shortly afterwards, Dallas wrote his review of Our Mutual Friend, and it seems that Dickens was so pleased with it and grateful for some other service Dallas had done for him, that he made him the valuable present of the original manuscript." (See K.J. Fielding, Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964], 228-229.)

Below: A facsimile of the sanitary report that followed Dallas's review on page 6 of The Times.

  • sanitary