G. K. Chesterton was among the most astute and fair-minded of commentators writing in the early twentieth century upon the Victorian period. His work on Dickens is particularly rich and stimulating in its insights, connecting questions about stylistic and imaginative temperament with those about political and social identity, in ways that are often as surprising and provocative as they are entertaining. In the excerpt below, from Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911), he makes a case for Dickens’s last completed novel, published serially 150 years ago, suggesting that it represents a benign ‘Indian summer’ of vulgar farcicality, the ‘democratic’ mode with which the novelist began his writing career and which Chesterton sees as his greatest achievement. Interrogating the title of the book, he sees the inelegant awkwardness of its linguistic construction as a sign of the happy persistence of the uneducated within Dickens’s persona into the final years of his career. Whereas, according to Chesterton, amidst the ‘reaction’ and ‘decay’ of the 1850s, Dickens had become partially co-opted into the fashionable high society he initially railed against, in the very title of Our Mutual Friend he rebels against the ‘aristocratic sentimentalism’, which valued propriety and etiquette over justice and the good, into which he may have been slipping. In an ingenious spectral pun, Chesterton’s Dickens appears to be using his novel’s title to lay down his continued opposition to a corrupt social system that values the scholarly titles of universities and the landed titles of aristocracy above true merit.
Our Mutual Friend marks a happy return to the earlier manner of Dickens at the end of Dickens’s life. One might call it a sort of Indian summer of his farce. Those who most truly love Dickens love the earlier Dickens; and any return to his farce must be welcomed, like a young man come back from the dead. In this book indeed he does not merely return to his farce; he returns in a manner to his vulgarity. It is the old democratic and even uneducated Dickens who is writing here. The very title is illiterate. Any priggish pupil teacher could tell Dickens that there is no such phrase in English as “our mutual friend.” Any one could tell Dickens that “our mutual friend” means “our reciprocal friend,” and that “our reciprocal friend” means nothing. If he had only had all the solemn advantages of academic learning (the absence of which in him was lamented by the Quarterly Review), he would have known better. He would have known that the correct phrase for a man known to two people is “our common friend.” But if one calls one’s friend a common friend, even that phrase is open to misunderstanding.
I dwell with a gloomy pleasure on this mistake in the very title of the book because I, for one, am not pleased to see Dickens gradually absorbed by modern culture and good manners. Dickens, by class and genius, belonged to the kind of people who do talk about a “mutual friend”; and for that class there is a very great deal to be said. These two things can at least be said—that this class does understand the meaning of the word “friend” and the meaning of the word “mutual.” I know that for some long time before he had been slowly and subtly sucked into the whirlpool of the fashionable views of later England. I know that in Bleak House he treats the aristocracy far more tenderly than he treats them in David Copperfield. I know that in A Tale of Two Cities, having come under the influence of Carlyle, he treats revolution as strange and weird, whereas under the influence of Cobbett he would have treated it as obvious and reasonable. I know that in The Mystery of Edwin Drood he not only praised the Minor Canon of Cloisterham at the expense of the dissenting demagogue, Honeythunder; I know that he even took the last and most disastrous step in the modern English reaction. While blaming the old Cloisterham monks (who were democratic), he praised the old-world peace that they had left behind them—an old-world peace which is simply one of the last amusements of aristocracy. The modern rich feel quite at home with the dead monks. They would have felt anything but comfortable with the live ones. I know, in short, how the simple democracy of Dickens was gradually dimmed by the decay and reaction of the middle of the nineteenth century. I know that he fell into some of the bad habits of aristocratic sentimentalism. I know that he used the word “gentleman” as meaning good man. But all this only adds to the unholy joy with which I realise that the very title of one of his best books was a vulgarism. It is pleasant to contemplate this last unconscious knock in the eye for the gentility with which Dickens was half impressed. Dickens is the old self-made man; you may take him or leave him. He has its disadvantages and its merits. No university man would have written the title; no university man could have written the book.
Incidentally, though I think Chesterton is onto something, his analysis doesn’t quite fix down what is going on with this complex title. He seems to forget, for one, that the construction ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is one that belongs to one of the characters of the book, the illiterate Mr Boffin, when he employs it to tiptoe around speaking to Mrs Wilfer about her mysterious new lodger Mr Rokesmith.
‘By-the-bye, ma’am,’ said Mr Boffin, turning back as he was going, ‘you have a lodger?’
‘A gentleman,’ Mrs Wilfer answered, qualifying the low expression, ‘undoubtedly occupies our first floor.’
‘I may call him Our Mutual Friend,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘What sort of a fellow IS Our Mutual Friend, now? Do you like him?’
‘Mr Rokesmith is very punctual, very quiet, a very eligible inmate.’
‘Because,’ Mr Boffin explained, ‘you must know that I’m not particularly well acquainted with Our Mutual Friend, for I have only seen him once. You give a good account of him. Is he at home?’
As is so often the case in Dickens, the democratic quality of his writing rests on its capacious polyvocality, its inclusion of all sorts of voices and idiolects, which are quite different from those we would associate with the writer’s own subject position. Chesterton may well be right that other university-educated novelists would have thought twice about placing such a ‘non-U’ phrase at the helm of their narratives, but this may well be because Dickens’s versatility in ventriloquism meant that he was confident enough to try out a whole repertoire of different voices without fearing any in particular might stick!