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John Irving on Our Mutual Friend
Novelist John Irving acknowledges Dickens as a major influence on his writing. Irving says he has read all of Dickens' novels except one, he has not read Our Mutual Friend. Irving says he keeps a copy of the book in all of his homes and is saving it for old-age or a severe illness. That way, he says he knows he will have at least one good book to read.

The Dustmen
The Dustmen

Victorian London ran on coal. The new factories springing up as part of the Industrial Revolution required coal to make the steam that powered machinery. It was also estimated that the average household in London burned 11 tons of coal annually. The resulting ashes and trash residue were collected in dustbins.

The dustbins were emptied by dustmen driving wagons through the streets ringing a bell alerting housekeepers to bring out their dustbins. The dust was then taken to dust yards situated on the outskirts of the city and owned by generally wealthy dust contractors. The resulting mountains of dust were very valuable.

At the dust yards workers, known as sifters and working in dust to their waists, separated the fine dust which, mixed with street-sweepings, was sold as fertilizer. The coarser dust, mixed with clay, was sold to make bricks. Rags, bones, and pieces of metal found in the dust were also sold at handsome profits.

The dust business is central to the plot of Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend where John Harmon's father was a wealthy dust contractor.

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McCartney-Jenny Wren
The little doll's dressmaker from Our Mutual Friend inspired Dickens lover Paul McCartney to write the song Jenny Wren. The song is included in his 2005 album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.

Dickens' life during the serialization of Our Mutual Friend
May 1864 - Nov 1865

Dickens' age: 52-53

May 1864

Despite a massive advertising blitz that included 300,000 hand bills, as well as advertisments on omnibuses, steamboats, and railway stations, sales of the monthly parts shrank from 35,000 for the first monthly part to 19,000 for the last monthly installment.

June 1865

Returning from France with Ellen Ternan and her mother, Dickens is involved in a railway accident on the train from Folkestone to London. The train derailed near Staplehurst when workmen misread the schedule and removed a section of rail for repair.

November 1865

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge

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Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend - Published in monthly parts May 1864 - Nov 1865
Read it online | Shop for the Book | Shop for the Video | Illustrations | Locations

Our Mutual Friend Dickens' fourteenth novel was his last completed work. Having ended his long association with Hablot Browne, Our Mutual Friend was illustrated by Marcus Stone and was the first monthly serialized Dickens novel to use woodcuts instead of steel plates for the illustrations. The story centers on the effects of greed and the corruption that money brings. The writing was slow and the monthly installments were not selling well.
Dickens was beginning to feel the effects of illness that would plague him the rest of his life.

Despite a scathing contemporary review by Henry James ("the poorest of Mr Dickens's works") Sean Grass, in his recent book Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History, reports:

...the collected reviews tell us something that comes as a serious surprise: for all that James's place in the history of the novel—and, for that matter, in the history of criticism on the novel—has given his review of Our Mutual Friend a persistent significance for scholars, he was nearly alone in writing so negatively of the novel in 1865, and he was one of only two reviewers to do so in the absence of some longstanding antipathy to Dickens on the part of the magazine for which he wrote. Of the 41 reviews, only 4 are thoroughly negative, and these include James's and those published by Dickens’s old enemies at the Saturday and Westminster.

Modern critics generally consider it one of the great social novels of Dickens' later period.

Plot (contains spoilers)

John Harmon, son of a wealthy dust contractor and heir to his father's fortune if he agrees to marry Bella Wilfer, is away from England when his father dies. On the way home he is supposed drowned in a case of mistaken identity. With his supposed death the dust fortune goes to Boffin, his father's former servant. John gets himself hired into the Boffin home as secretary John Rokesmith. Here he meets Bella and, with the help of the kindly Boffins, wins her love as Rokesmith, and marries her. He later reveals his true identity and regains his fortune.

Principal Characters:
Character descriptions contain spoilers
John Harmon
Julius Handford
John Rokesmith
Lizzie Hexam
Gaffer Hexam
Charlie Hexam
Noddy Boffin
Bella Wilfer
Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer
Lavinia Wilfer
Rogue Riderhood
Pleasant Riderhood
Eugene Wrayburn
Mortimer Lightwood
Bradley Headstone
Silas Wegg
Mr Venus
Jenny Wren
Mr Dolls
The Veneerings
John Podsnap
Abbey Potterson
Reverend Frank Milvey
Lammle, Alfred and Sophronia
Betty Higden
Emma Peecher
Fascination Fledgeby
George Radfoot
Our Mutual Friend Links:
The Dickens Page
Our Mutual Friend-The Scholarly Pages
From Fagin to Riah: How Charles Dickens looked at the Jews - Herb Moskovitz

Mr Riah

Riah by Sol EytingeThe stereotypical depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist raised concern with the Jewish community. When Dickens sold his London residence, Tavistock House, to a Jewish couple, whom he befriended, he was compelled to make restitution. In Our Mutual Friend Dickens created Riah, a positive Jewish character. Dickens also, when editing Oliver Twist for the Charles Dickens edition of his works, eliminated most references to Fagin as "the Jew."

Staplehurst Accident

On Friday the 9th of June 1865 Dickens and his traveling companions, Ellen Ternan and her mother, were returning from a trip to France. They boarded the 'tidal train', which waited for steamers arriving on the tide, at Folkestone for the trip to London.

Just outside of the village of Staplehurst, about halfway between Folkestone and London, workmen were repairing a section of the rails on a bridge over the Staplehurst AccidentRiver Beult and had removed a 40 foot section of rail. The foreman of the work detail had consulted the wrong timetable and was completely unaware of the train bearing down on them at 50 miles an hour.

Unable to stop in time, the train jumped the gap in the rail and slammed into the bank on the far side of the river. The carriage carrying Dickens and his companions was suspended from the bridge and hanging down to the riverbed. Helping Miss Ternan and her mother out of the car Dickens then worked to comfort the injured and dying passengers, using his hat to carry water from the river.

Later he remembered that he had left that month's manuscript of his current novel, Our Mutual Friend, in the tottering railway carriage. He climbed back into the car and retrieved the manuscript.

In the aftermath of the accident Dickens felt "quite shattered and broken up", he would later report that he experienced "vague rushes of terror" even riding in hansom cabs. Dickens continued to suffer the ill effects of the ordeal until his death on June 9, 1870, exactly five years after the accident.

Dickens commented on the accident in a postscript in the last monthly installment of Our Mutual Friend dated September 2, 1865:

On Friday the ninth of June in the present year Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr. and Mrs. Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage -- nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn -- to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding-day, and Mr. Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone's red neckerchief as he lay asleep. I remember with devout thanksfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life the two words with which I have this day closed this book -- THE END

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