The root of all evil…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Old Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.
Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…
It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.
Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.
In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.
The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.
That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.
All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.
The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….
* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *
The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!
It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.
* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *
Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.
I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.
“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”
Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.
The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.
To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…