OUR MUTUAL FRIEND.*
MR. DICKENS has, and always has had, one radical defect as a novelist,—that no characteristics of men and manners take hold of his imagination with force and accuracy unless they have for him the piquancy of oddity. All his common-place characters of the middle rank are worse than poorly drawn, they are wholly un- natural,—made melodramatic by an artificial emphasis placed on their sentiment, or their good-nature, or their courage, or their generosity, or disinterestedness, or their selfishness, or peevishness, or some other common trait, in order to justify Mr. Dickens's imagination in writing about them. He cannot see any justifica- tion for describing average human nature as it is ; he regards things and persons which strike him with a certain surprise, which dint themselves in his memory as moral curiosities, as the only true subjects for his art. Hence he often describes the lowest vulgarity as it is, and in its essence, almost pure from exaggeration, because it produces the same pungent effect on his own fancy, as an oddity in his own station and class would do, but throughout the range of his works you will find no character that is without grotesqueness to one of his class sketched with even tolerable power. Mrs. Gamp is admirable, and she is the very essence and type of monthliness in a nurse ; but then a monthly nurse is a grotesque incident of family life, even to the father of a numerous offspring. The Dodger is sublime, and he is the essence of young thieves; but then a young thief, to whom the language of thieving has beeeme an unaffected and scientific technology, is a grotesque moral object even to a Londoner who • Our Uutaal Friend. By Charles Dickens. 2 vols. London: Chapman and
suffers yearly by his depredations. Mr. Toots is a grand con- ception, and in him is embalmed for ever the feeble-minded, good- natured, over-drilled sort of youth, product of high-pressure boarding-schools, who, "when he began to have whiskers, left off having brains ;" but then a lad who delights in waistcoats and in writing letters to himself is a grotesque product, even though the proper product, of that high-pressure education which seems in- vented to manufacture and multiply such figures. Ralph Nickleby and Nicholas Nickleby would be common-place, middle-class men if Mr. Dickens could draw such,—but the former, though a City bill-broker, is made grim and dark as a brigand of Salvator and the latter is always either feeble and sentimental or in heroics. If Mr. Dickens tries to paint a figure that is not to him intrin- sically remarkable, he makes it so by all sorts of false emphasis and melodramatic pauses. Therefore he is always best in dealing with what is to him in itself odd, grotesque, and ridiculous, what needs no treatment to satisfy his craving for impressiveness. From such subjects he can often distil and double distil the humour till the picture becomes far more than a wonderful copy,—indeed a creation of a rare imaginative order,—fill the non-essential ele- ments completely dispersed,—but then he needs a subject which is capable of this treatment, something sufficient to mould an • ence out of,—an occupation at least like monthly nursing or
ttireving, and not a mere personal trick like biting your thumb,' or walking crookedly, or anything of that sort, out of which he Will sometimes endeavour to create a character, and naturally only succeed in whittling the end of a stick.
Our Mutual Friend has, in isolated bits, much of Mr. Dickens's old humour in it, much observation that nobody but Mr. Dickens could have observed, much humorous exaggeration that nobody but Mr. Dickens could have heaped together, but when, in the postscript, he talks of art in relation to the story of this book, no one who has read it intelligently could suppress a smile. In an old curiosity shop there may be much that is very amusing and interesting, and there may even be art in the way in which the curiosities are grouped so as to set each other off, but if you try to invent not many stories, but one, to account for their being together, you are likely to show about as much art as Mr. Dickens has shown in this series of often amusing and striking caricatures embodied in a most preposterous tale. Mr. Dickens has no need to defend himself against the charge that the will case is improbable. As he justly observes, many more improbable ones are to be found in the registers of the Probate Court. But when the heir to a fortune disguises himself in the absurd melodramatic way of which Mr. John Harmon is guilty, avails himself of the supposition of his own murder to avoid the duty of claiming his fortune, and lurks about making eloquent speeches to himself at various crises of the tale on the disappoint- ments of his life,—when the uneducated dustman who owns Mr. John Harmon's fortune, detecting him in his disguise, suddenly developes first-rate powers as an actor, and disguises himself (morally) as a miser in order to bring the young lady to whom Mr. Harmon is attached to a due sense of the worthlessness of money, —when this melodrama within melodrama goes on seriously for many months, and succeeds as a moral discipline for the worldly young lady in question,—and, when around this central plot, epi- cycles of minor plot, equally melodramatic and ridiculous, revolve, each introducing a new grotesque figure, or perhaps a group of new grotesque figures, to the reader, we must say that for the author to talk of the art of the narrative, sounds a little like irony on himself, though he might perhaps without equal absurdity speak of the art with which the numerous grotesque contrasts are packed together inta the limits of the same picture.
The eerie little dolls' dressmaker is perhaps the best sketch in the book. The peculiar effect of her deformity on her mind is a subject with just enough of mixed pathos and oddity, to exhaust the great power which Mr. Dickens has of inventing' appropriate variations for the same thread of idea. Her preternatural acute- ness and incisiveness, the way in which she punctures a subject with her thought, just as she stabs (in pantomime) those whom she addresses with her needle, the abrupt mixture of business and fancy in her conversation, the sharpness of her discipline for her drunken father, and the mystical beauty of her dreams, are all parts of a real figure, grasped with that truth of detail by which Mr. Dickens always makes so profound an impression on the mind of his readers when there is any depth or reality behind the surface picture. The following, though not one of the most striking veins in this grotesque, but curiously real conception, is one of the best adapted to convey its weird shrilliness to the reader. The other interlocutors in the conversation are a school- 'neater and his pupil:— " Fine ladies,' said the person of the home, nodding assent. 'Dolls.' I'm a Dolls' Dressmaker.'—'I hope it's a good business ?"—The person of the house shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. No: Poorly paid. And I'm often so pressed for time! I had a doll married, last week, and was obliged to work all night. And it's not good for me, on account of my back being so bad and my legs so queer.'—They looked at the little creature with a wonder that did not diminish, and the schoolmaster said, 'I am sorry your fine ladies are so inconsiderate.'— 'It's the way with them,' said the person of the house, shrugging her shoulders again. And they take no care of their clothes, and they. never keep to the same fashions a month. I work for a doll with three daughters. Bless you, she's enough to ruin her husband.' The person of the house gave a weird little laugh here, and gave them another look out of the corners of her eyes. She had an elfin chin that was capable of great expression ; and whenever she gave this look, she hitched this
chin up. As if her eyes and her chin worked together on the same wires'.
- Are you always as busy as you are now IP= Busier. I'm slack just
now. I finished a largo mourning order the day before yesterday. Doll I work for lost a canary-bird.' The person of the house gave another little laugh, and then nodded her head several times, as who should moralize, Oh this world, this world P--`Are you alone all day ?' asked Bradley Headatono. 'Don't any of tho neighbouring children-7'
— ‘ Ah, hid!' cried the person of the house, with a little scream, as if the word had pricked her. Don't talk of children. I can't bear children. / know their tricks and their manners.' She said this with an angry little shake of her right fist close before her eyes. Perhaps it scarcely required the teacher-habit, to perceive that the dolls' dress- maker was inclined to be bitter on tho difference between herself and other children. But both master and pupil understood it so.— ' Always limning about and screechifig, always playing and fighting, al- ways skip-skip-skipping on the pavement, and chalking it for their games ! Oh, I know their tricks and their manners !' Shaking the little fist as before. 'And that's not all. Ever so often calling names in through a person's keyhole and imitating a person's back and legs. Oh, / know their tricks and their manners ! And I'll tell you what I'd do, to punish 'am. There's doors under the church in the square— black doors, leading into black vaults. Well ! I'd open one of those doors, and I'd cram 'em all in, and then I'd lock the door and through the keyhole I'd blow in popper.'—'What would be the good of blowing in pepper ?' asked Charley Hexam.—' To set '0112 sneezing,' said the per- son of the house, and make their eyes water. And when they were all sneezing and inflamed, I'd mock 'em through the keyhole. Just as they, with their tricks and their manners, mock a person through a per- son's keyhole !'—An uncommonly emphatic shake of her little fist close before her eyes, seemed to ease the mind of the person of the house; for she added with recovered composure, No, no, no. No children for me. Give me grown-ups.' It was difficult to guess the ago of this strange creature, for her poor figure furnished no clue to it, and her face was at once so young and so old. Twelve, or at the most thirteen, might be near the mark. 'I always did like grown-ups,' she went on, 'and always kept company with them. So sensible. Sit so quiet. Don't go prancing and capering about ! And I moan always to keep among none but grown-ups till I marry. I suppose I must make up my mind to marry, one of these days.'"
Silas Wegg, too, the wooden-legged parasite and plunderer, though far below this last picture in every characteristic,—in reality, depth, and in the deepest sense even in humour,—is one of those really humorous extravagances peculiar to Mr. Dickens, which every one recognizes as a pure extravagance, and yet every one laughs at. He is a kind of ill-conditioned, selfish, low-class Dick Swiveller, with the same happy art of adapting songs to the emergencies of daily life, but with a grasping and sour, instead of a sunahiny and careless, bias. His interest in the fate of his own amputated leg, and desire to possess it, when articulated by a master of that craft, is thrown in just to give that double flavour of absurdity to a study of this sort in which Mr. Dickens delights. It is far less unforced and natural than the picture of Dick Swiveller, still it has the great carver's peculiar touch upon it, and will amuse as long as literary gurgoyles continue to attract the student of this kind of art. A better figure of the same sort is Mr. Venus, the low-spirited articulator in question, who has articulated Mr. Wegg's amputated leg for hint, and been unable as yet to dispose of it. The scene in which the former proprietor of that limb souuds the present proprietor on the chance of repossessing him- self of it, is one of the best in the book, and ends with a touch of humour such as Mr. Dickens has seldom surpassed in his most humorous sketches :—
" When he deems Mr. Venus's wheels sufficiently lubricated, Mr. Wegg approaches his object by asking, as he lightly taps his hands together, to express an undesig-ning frame of mind : And how have I been going on this long time Mr. Venus ?'—'Very bad,' says Mr. Venus, uncom re= misiugly.—' What? Am I still at home ?' asks Wegg, with an surprise. Always at home.'—This would seem to be secretly agree. able to Wegg, but he veils his feelings, and observes, Strange. To what do you attribute it ?'—' I don't know,' replies Venus, who is a haggard melancholy man, speaking in a weak voice of querulous com- plaint, to what to attribute it, Mr. Wegg. I can't work you into a miscellaneous one, nohow. Do what I will, you can't be got to fit. Any- body with a passable knowledge would pick you out at a look, and say, —"No go ! Don't match!"'—' Well, but hang it, Mr. Venus,' Wegg expostulates with some little irritation, that can't be personal and , peculiar in me. It must often happen with miscellaneous ones.'—' With ribs (I grant pa) always. But not else. When I prepare a miscel- laneous one, I know beforehand that I can't keep to nature, and be miscellaneous with ribs, because every man has his own ribs, and no other man's will go with them ; but elseways I can be miseellaneous. have just sent home a Beauty—a perfect Beauty—to a school of art. One leg Belgian one leg English, and the pickings of eight other people in it. 'rid& of not being qualified to be miscellaneous! By rights you ought to be, Mr. Wegg.'—Silas looks as hard at his one leg as he can in the dim light, and after a pause sulkily opines that it must be the fault of the other people. Or how do you mean to say it comes about?' he demands impatiently.—' don't know how it comes about. Stand up a minute. Hold the light.'.—Mr. Venus takes from a corner by his chair, the bones of a leg and foot, beautifully pure, and put to- gether with exquisite neatness. These he compares with Mr. Wegg's legs, that gentleman looking on, as if he were being measured for a riding-boot. 'No, I don't know how it is, but so it is. You have got a twist in that bone, to the best of my belief. I never saw the likes of you.'—Mr. Wegg having looked distrustfully at his own limb, and sus- piciously at the pattern with which it has been compared, makes the point: bet a pound that ain't an English one !'—' An easy wager, when we ran so much into foreign ! No, it belongs to that French gentleman:— As he nods towards a point of darkness behind Mr. Wegg, the latter, with a slight start, looks round for 'that French gentleman,' whom he at length deacries to be represented (in a very workmanlike manner) by his ribs only, standing on a shelf in another corner, like a piece of armour or a pair of stays.—' Oh!' says Mr. Wegg, with a sort of sense of being introduced; 'I dare say you were all right enough in your own country, but I hope no objections will be taken to my saying that the Frenchman was never yet born as I should wish to match."
There are good and humorous sketches, too, of Rogue Rider- hood, the scoundrelly waterman, whose low cunning and malice are so peculiarly inarticulate of speech that he denominates the only three decently-educated men of his acquaintance Governor,' Tother Governor,' and Totherest Governor,'—of Mr. Inspector, who conducts the investigation into the supposed murder with such cheery good-humour, and of Mrs. R. Wilfer the majestic, whose mother uttered, on occasion of her too great humility in rejecting a man of lofty stature and intellect, this remarkable warn- ing, "This will end in a little man," and who, in recalling the amenities of her father's social circle could remember "as many as three copperplate engravers exchanging the most exquisite sallies and retorts there at one time." Bradley Headstone, the school- master with strong passions -and mechanized understanding, is a caricature without humour, as Mr. Dickens's didactic caricatures usually are. His intention is evidently to throw discredit in some way on the monotonous training given to pupil-teachers,—but he only succeeds in showing how a man of violent passions, who had really been taught to exercise a considerable control over them, was yet unfortified by the educational system he had undergone to resist vindictive anger of the deepest kind. Perhaps no educational systems ever did or could succeed in teaching that lesson. Miss Peecher, the schoolmistress, and her pupil-teacher, Mary Anne, are equally extravagant, but rather more humorous sketches.
The worst, thing, however, in the book is Mr. Dickens's futile and ridiculous attempt to draw ambitious " society " in the middle class. Mr. Podsnap, the representative of the British Philistine, always casting every sort of view behind him—in pantomime of , course—which does not suit the prejudices of the rich respectables, may perhaps have in it some slight gleam of humour, though it is humour hard to see through the conceited mannerism with which Mr. Dickens shows it off. But Lady Tippins, the Veneerings, Boots, and Brewer, and Buffer, and that butler who pours out the wine, and whom Mr. Dickens makes a great point of likening to an analytic chemist, and calling "the analytic" with infinite pride as often as he can during each dinner party, are all forced productions, absurdly unlike what they,are meant to caricature, and with no more of the fresh bubbling humour of Mr. Dickens's old fun left in them than has a glass of soda-water of imprisoned air, after it has stood for an hour. The truth is that the nearer Mr. Dickens comes to the life which is that of his own class, the more he is obliged to indulge in moral contortions in order to ' fit it for his style of art at all. All the figures which he intends to make ridiculous as those of ambitious middle-class people, are about as like them as the vulgar valentines of men with exag- gerated noses which you see in shop-windows towards the beginning of February are to the people you see about the streets. The same may be said of Mr. Mortimer Lightwood and Mr. Eugene Wrayburn and their friendship. Two friends who talked to each other in this conceited and affected style would deserve to be whipped like schoolboys. The whole middle-class life, including Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Lammle, is simply vulgar and detestable art. Mr. Dickens will say that he meant to make the figures vulgar and affected,—which is not true, by the way, of the two young law- yers. But he might easily do that without making his art vulgar and detestable. It is the vulgarity of the caricature of which we complain, the complete want of insight into common-place cha- racter, not merely the substitution of single caricatured features for the whole figure, but the absence of humour, the presence in its place of hate, in the mode of delineating that feature. When Mr. Dickens caricatures the foibles of a class below his own, he does it
with a sort of amused sympathy, and therefore he is humorous ; but when he caricatures his own class, or a class above his own, there is nothing of this sympathy. He tries to be a satirist instead of a humottrist, and he fails ridiculously, absolutely. There is no power of which Mr. Dickens is more utterly destitute than the power of satire. The descriptions of the Veneering dinner parties and their social circle are amongst the very worst of his writings —self-conscious, affected, malicious, extravagant, vulgar. The contrast between the kindliness of his humour, the genial laughter of his manner, in such pictures as that of the dolls' dressmaker, or Dlr. Venus, and the painful scream of his taunting mannerism in describing Lady Tipping and Veneering is very striking, and worth minuter analysis for any one who cares to understand his genius.