London’s Fields in Our Mutual Friend

In his Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998) Franco Moretti argues that Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) represents a pioneering event within the history of English metropolitan fiction, in that this text innovatively gives shape to a ‘third London’ that mediates and connects up the fashionable ‘Stucconia’ of the West and the impoverished slumland of the East. To use a Dickensian pun, for Moretti the novel ‘articulates’ urban space in all its discontinuity and contradiction with a thoroughness that had not been attempted before, making legible a complexity (and an unevenness) that had in antecedent textual products been reduced or flattened out of perceptibility. Moretti is interested in how this novel newly renders the relation of different parts of the urban machine to one another, and in how it therefore allows readers to begin to recognise the city as a structural totality. In his (useful and energising) reading of the novel’s geography, then, Our Mutual Friend is most original for showing us the operation of a pre-existing London, which ideology’s obfuscation and the tardiness of generic evolution had kept hidden.

While I have found very helpful Moretti’s series of synchronic maps detailing the fluctuating geographical scope of each issue of the novel as it appeared month by month in its original periodical format, for me Dickens’s urban representation is remarkable also because it acknowledges the city as itself undergoing constant change, through the speculative building projects that continually redefined it throughout the nineteenth century. Although it includes no ‘before-and-after’ shots of London ‘under construction’, as Dombey and Son (1847) does, and stages no suspenseful encounters amidst the city’s suburban building sites, as several Wilkie Collins novels do, the borders of London in Our Mutual Friend are nonetheless subtly but repeatedly shown to be in a constant state of revision outwards. In the margins of its own narratives, the novel engages with the half-built or un-built margins of the metropolis, and thus addresses London’s unprecedented sprawl, a diachronic phenomenon that Franco Moretti’s two-dimensional reductions cannot encompass.

In Moretti’s ‘broad-brush strokes’ cartographical representation of the novel’s first monthly number, he places the Veneerings in the vicinity of Mayfair. In fact, although we can’t know from the text’s description precisely where they live (this geographical vagueness being an intentional element of Dickens’s satire upon these context-less characters), we do know it can’t be Mayfair, or anywhere in the relatively old part of London to the east of Hyde Park, for the narrator insists this is a ‘bran new quarter of London’, i.e. one that has only just been built. Just as the unknown Veneerings have only recently become accommodated within London high society, so the home in which they host their aspirational parties has only recently been constructed, and the neighbourhood in which it finds itself has only recently become transformed from rural fields to urban streets and squares. While the shiny Veneering residence implicitly invokes through negation its recent rural past, other spaces on the edge of the city in the novel are haunted by ghosts of the city to come, such as the Wilfers’ house  (a site I’m doubly interested in, not only for its contribution to sprawl’s representation but also for its depiction of lodging).

Bella’s family house is ‘in the Holloway region north of London’, not far from the dust-heaps of Boffin’s Bower. To one side of the house lies a ‘tract of suburban Sahara…where tiles and bricks were burnt, bones were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish was shot, dogs were fought, and dust was heaped by contractors’. The proximity of the Wilfer residence to the site known formerly as Harmony Jail, indeed, plays a key role within the plot, for it enables the circumstance of the back-story in which the deceased John Harmon Sr. writes the utter stranger Bella into his will in a kind of parody of a local bequest. (Having bumped into R Wilfer and his daughter on their Sunday walk in the neighbourhood Harmon Sr. decides to deploy her within his experimental last will and testament, banking misanthropically on his suspicion that the selfish little girl he overhears will grow up to be an even more offensive marriageable young lady, so that he can inflict emotional damage on Harmon Jr. from beyond the grave.) But to the other side of the house, the ‘fields and trees’ the narrator tells us also lie between the Wilfers’ suburbia and London proper are also significant, because they point to the city in potentia, a city whose future speculative building projects will surely triumph over the remaining rural space in a matter of years. When we read that scene from the latter part of the novel’s first book, in which the mysterious lodger Rokesmith in only an apparent accident chances upon Bella reading a new novel in the fields near her house, it is important that the setting is the residual rural hinterland, rather than a park or garden square fully contained by the city. In this relatively pastoral exception within a fairly relentlessly urban novel, Bella’s preference of books about money rather than books about love sounds a worrying note, alerting Rokesmith to her taste for capital (and by extension, the capital).

Whereas the London Dickens presents us with in the novel is unfinished and haunted with the ghosts of future cities, the nostalgic form of televisual adaptation requires a more stable referent from the settings in which it stages its reassuringly ‘period’ dramas. When the BBC filmed its most recent version of Our Mutual Friend, which aired in 1998, it avoided the confusion its viewers might have faced should there have been rural gaps left dotted around the shifting edge of the city, as the novel has it. The scene in question, towards the end of the first episode, relocates the encounter between Bella and her family’s new lodger in an urban public garden surrounded by black iron railings.

.BBC 1998 adaptation still

This different geography muddles matters. Bella (Anna Friel) and John (Steven Mackintosh) look like they might be figures in a Renoir or Caillebotte; those well tended borders and that elaborately wrought bench lend an air at once of fashion and formality that is misplaced in the context of a barely finished and decidedly unfashionable suburb. The enclosed space of the garden, moreover, surely foils the would-be lover’s pretence at bumping into the girl accidentally, which the open fields would have left an open possibility. Most importantly, the sound of noisy streets in the immediate background of the televisual frame undermines the sense of the unexpected pastoral under threat that is implied within the original textual version of this meeting. In the BBC adaptation, the vicinity of Holloway is less hybrid or ‘on the cusp’, and constitutes no variation upon the countryside at all but is thoroughly metropolitan, which signals (misleadingly) that Bella is likewise already a ‘finished’ urban product, completely at ease with the city’s logic of getting and spending. Removed from its rural context, there is less friction, less rub, in this scene of interrupted reading, between Bella (in her attractive awkwardness) as she is (or might be), and Bella (in her base mercenariness) as she represents herself.

Television creates its worlds via the limitations of sets set free by the infinitude of montage, a technique Eisenstein famously said he learnt from Dickens himself. His novels, however, are interested also in the gradual, addressing the way one thing seeps into and becomes another, over time, such as we might imagine occurs when the country becomes the city. Our Mutual Friend is fascinating because it points to these ‘gradual spaces’; at the edge of London, but does so through a narrative form that glories in discontinuities, in sudden jumps and cuts (as Moretti’s maps demonstrate). It would be good to have an adaptation that captured this tension better, and offered an urban geography as surprising, dynamic and comprehensive as the one he wrote.

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