JAN / FEB 2012: BY HANNAH PRICE
“Love is in all things a most wonderful teacher.”
There is a magical quality to the works of Charles Dickens. Despite the melancholy and harsh realities of life found in his stories there is an element that transcends reality and moves into the realm of fantasy. Our Mutual Friend stands above the rest for me because it was the story that convinced me of his genius. The many plotlines that weave into one another, the dozens of multifaceted characters, and the sweeping setting aren’t exactly unique to the story; Dickens was famous for his complicated tales and layered characters, but there is something special about this last finished work. It could be the romance that adds heart to the dark tale, the themes of rebirth and redemption, or the mystery of the “mutual friend.”
In such a complex story there is so much to discuss at length. Each character could have an entire book devoted to investigating the recesses of their minds, and every location, such as the Thames or the dark streets of London, could have a research paper devoted to sorting out its complexities. I would like to focus on the female leads of Our Mutual Friend, Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam.
They are born into two separate social spheres but both share the ill fortune of being poor. Bella’s hope of rising above her situation is to marry well, something that is assured in the beginning of the story. As a child, she so impressed a wealthy stranger that he wrote her into his will. He fixed it so that his son, John Harmon, will only inherit his fortune through marrying Bella. Her financial future appears bright, despite her being promised to a man she’s never met. Because her desires are only for rising above poverty into riches this prospect isn’t daunting, but when John Harmon drowns after the death of his father, Bella is left to mourn the loss of her prospects.
In contrast, Lizzie’s hope of rising above her poverty is through her own initiative and hard work. Her spirit and kindness earn her a place in the hearts of those she meets, and that helps her go a long way. She selflessly provides for her brother’s education and supports her father despite the fact that neither appreciate her efforts. When tragedy strikes and her father dies, she moves on to a better life by assisting a dressmaker named Jenny Wren. The attentions of two men, the high-class barrister Eugene Wrayburn and schoolteacher Bradley Headstone, alter her life when both are infatuated with her. The ensuing rivalry between them becomes darker and more twisted until attempted murder results.
Bella and Lizzie are both close to their fathers and go through a tragedy that alters their lives in different ways. Bella at the beginning is self-centered and cold. Her life in poverty has made her desire money more than love. This increases when she is taken under the care of the Boffins. She is exposed to the riches she dreams of and enters a society that encourages her making a “smart match.” Her love of wealth is for practical reasons rather than greed but keeps her from entertaining the attentions of the clerk John Rokesmith. Despite his kind attentiveness, she sees his attentions as repulsive; his lowly status blinds her to his fine qualities.
The turning point in her life comes when the Boffins begin to treat the young man with distain and injustice. She begins to see him anew as he bears these afflictions with temperance, while never failing to show her kindness and consideration. When his love for her is made known to the Boffins he is forced to leave. By this point Bella’s entire outlook has changed; she no longer values money more than love and decides to marry him, choosing to be an ordinary housewife rather than a social climber. Later, she discovers that he is in fact John Harmon. He made the most of his supposed drowning (a long tale that includes betrayal, robbery and murder), wanting to get to know Bella better and enlisting the help of the Boffins to test her loyalties.
Lizzie’s journey is unique, for she doesn’t undergo any significant personality shift throughout the course of the story. She begins as a dutiful daughter and sister and ends as a loving wife. Some might find her a hard character to identify with because of her perpetual goodness and call her “unrealistic,” but I find in her great moral depth and her goodness isn’t “unrealistic” insomuch as it is a difficult standard to live up to. She is a strong woman, physically and emotionally, able to find courage in the face of danger and her positive outlook keeps up her spirits in times of great trial. She comes to love Eugene because of his kindness towards her, calling him “so good, so very good.” When this relationship makes Mr. Headstone view Eugene as a rival and threatens his life, Lizzie hides from both as a means of protecting him.
Lizzie soon discovers that she cannot hide from them and is found by both. They come driven by passions that overwhelm their better sense. Lizzie and Eugene admit the depth of their feelings to one another but she is determined to follow social standards and refuses to let him court her. Eugene considers taking her by force but the jealous passion of Mr. Headstone prevents this. He beats Eugene and throws him into the river. Lizzie overhears the attack and rescues her love from drowning, her past experience giving her the knowledge and strength to singlehandedly bring him to safety. Lizzie cares for him, never giving up hope despite the grim outlook. The couple gets married on what appears to be Eugene’s deathbed, an event that brings friends to watch and wish them well.
A miracle along with Lizzie’s loving care keeps Eugene from succumbing to his injuries, and he admits that the attack was actually a good thing in his eyes, for it prevented him from ruining his chances with Lizzie. His near-death experience brings them together and anger towards Mr. Headstone turns to gratitude and forgiveness.
When comparing the lives and personalities of Bella and Lizzie, one could be asked to choose which one is more realistic or relatable. But there are no easy answers in Dickens. Both of these ladies are wonderful; they act upon their own initiative, have heart, spirit, and courage, and don’t shy away from hard choices. Bella stands up to a supposed tyrant for the sake of another, and chooses love and the prospective of living as a poor man’s wife over a wealthy life of ease. Lizzie sacrifices her own happiness for others and refuses to let unfortunate circumstances direct her life. Bella and Lizzie help drive the story to a satisfactory conclusion, and are rewarded for their hard but admirable choices. They are principal characters that hold their own against the male leads, and well worth studying (and perhaps even emulating) because of their praiseworthy qualities. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hannah Price thrives on creativity and loves to be inspired by the creativity of others. Her passion is storytelling in all its forms of expression. Some of those loves are American Sign Language, theater, film, audio drama and the varied mediums of art (painting, drawing, etc.). She wants to be involved in film production someday, as she is already involved in theater production and would like to be able to turn her hobbies into a full time occupation.