Illuminated initial H

Henry James, then just a young writer out to make a name for himself, did not like Charles Dickens's last complete novel; as he reported in his 21 December 1865 review for The Nation, he found it too loose, baggy, disorganized, sentimental, and (as Elizabeth Gaskell would say) "Dickensey." It was, he contended, lacking in subtlety of characterization, and relied too heavily on whimsical caricature and superficial analysis of motivation. In short, it was everything that James felt a Dickens tended to be, but what a novel should not be; it is, he unhesitatingly pronounced, "the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works" (786, cited in Grass, 1). (This comment also encapsulates the somewhat negative sentiments of early reviews in The Saturday and Westminster Reviews, and summarizes the feeling of the reviewer for The New York Times.) Alfred Lammle's self-serving evil, he contends, is as simplistic as Jenny Wren's crusty goodness is unreal. He did not like Our Mutual Friend, and subsequent generations of critics and scholars, says Sean Grass, have (mistakenly) received James's judgment as holy writ. "This is an enormous shame, for Our Mutual Friend is certainly one of Dickens's most profoundly thoughtful and deliberately artistic books" (2), contends Grass in his engaging narrative about the chequered history of one of the most significant novels in the Dickens canon.

Cover of Grass's book

Cover of Charles Dickens's "Our Mutual Friend": A Publishing History. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Although this review focuses on the introduction and chapter 4, the story of the inception and reception of the novel is worth reading cover to cover, including such appendixed materials on Dickens's separation from his wife of over twenty years, Catherine (from the Times, 7 June 1858, and his involvement in the Staplehurst railway accident in 1865. It all amounts to a surprisingly good read, the rebuttal of Henry James's thoroughly biased review to numerous contemporary pronouncements on Dickens's last complete novel.

Herein is the great good of DICKENS as a popular writer. It is objected by the fastidious that he excels in depicting the vulgar side and scenes of life; that there is a gross relish of the comfortable and convivial in his pictures; that he exalts mere disposition above heroism, and makes good-nature a sublime virtue. In these very objections we find the evidence of his superior claims and his benign mission. ["Literary: Charles Dickens' Last Novel," New York Times, 14 December 1865, pp. 4-5, cited in Grass, 246]

The values of the age as reflected in such contemporary reviews exalt a Dickens that became less than fashionable by the end of the century, but recall for us today his incredibly broadly based appeal as a writer of fiction in the early and mid-Victorian periods. This present review cannot do justice to the complex thread of Grass's argument, and so focusses on just a few of the chapters. Here, then, are the constituents of this interesting "reception" work, mandatory reading for anybody who intends to teach Our Mutual Friend:

Introduction: Our Mutual Friend: "The poorest of Mr. Dickens's works"
1 The Man from Somewhere: Ellen Ternan, Staplehurst, and the Remaking of Charles Dickens
2 The Cup and the Lip: Writing Our Mutual Friend
3 Putting a Price upon a Man's Mind: Our Mutual Friend in the Marketplace
4 A Dismal Swamp? Our Mutual Friend and Victorian Critics
5 The Voice of Society: Our Mutual Friend since 1870
Appendix 1: Dickens, Ellen Ternan, and Staplehurst
Appendix 2: The Manuscript, the Proof Sheets, and the Berg Copy
Appendix 3: Contemporary Reviews of Our Mutual Friend
Appendix 4: Selected Bibliography of Editions of Our Mutual Friend.

Should we take Chapman and Hall's losing money on the nineteen-month venture as confirmation that, that, in the judgment of the reading public, too, this was "Mr. Dickens's weakest performance to date"? The author of this new book on the critical and popular reception of the much-maligned Our Mutual Friend in order to counter this misperception has actually examined the balance sheet for Chapman and Hall's bargain with Dickens, as well as contemporary responses other than James's. In fact, given its overall positive reception, Our Mutual Friend is not a 'lesser novel requiring resurrection' because it has never died. As we can see in the 83-page appendix containing forty-one early reviews of the novel, it was received at the time as a worthy addition to the Dickens canon, and evidence that the master had not lost his touch, even though his last outing in the extended part-publication form had been Little Dorrit, published in nineteenth months between 1856 and 1857 — in other words, some eight years before the last number of Our Mutual Friend appeared in November, 1865. A hard bargainer in his later career, Dickens wrung from Chapman and Hall some £6,000 for half-copyright, eventually leaving the firm with a net loss £700 (to which its extensive advertising campaign and overprinting of the opening numbers likely contributed). But that loss is the beginning rather than the end of the story: "By not haggling over the price, Frederic Chapman kept Dickens happy and so secured his continued cooperation for any new works, the People's edition, and nearly £10,000 of back stock, as well as for the immensely profitable Charles Dickens edition of his works that they brought out beginning in 1867" (75). Chapman and hall lost a little to ensure profits in the long term.

During the second half of his thirty-five-year career as a novelist (that is, from The Pickwick Papers of April, 1836, through November, 1837, to the September 1870 number of the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood) Dickens wrote voluminously, but in fact he made more money (thanks, in part, to shrewdly working his American copyrights) and wrote far fewer novels after the mid-point of that career. That is, in addition to the Christmas Book novellas and countless journalistic pieces in Household Words and All the Year Round, only six of his fifteen novels post-date the year 1853. And far from being "loose" (that is, poorly structured), these later works are highly unified and disciplined, rendered cohesive by unifying imagery and themes. And yet, unlike A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations dating from this same period, Our Mutual Friend languishes, perhaps, as Grass concedes, because its "central marriage plot [is] far too saccharine and unconvincing" (2):

Yet if Dickens disappoints us occasionally in his last finished novel, he rewards us richly, too, and in ways that often carry Our Mutual Friend far beyond the achievements of his earlier books. He may never have drawn a character more psychologically credible than Eugene Wrayburn, more menacing than Bradley Headstone, or more compelling than Lizzie Hexam, each of whom is drawn with a subtlety that Dickens rarely approaches in his earlier fiction, and that his detractors often claimed he was simply incapable of. Likewise, his attack on "Podsnappery" and other upper-class hypocrisies cuts as deeply and cunningly as anything in Little Dorrit (1855-57), just as his portrayal of the dehumanizing power of capitalism broadens and deepens the critique he began in Great Expectations. And, if the Bella/John marriage plot fails finally to move us, we nevertheless hurtle through the novel's closing chapters, propelled by Headstone's mounting rage, his savage attack on Eugene, and the grinding torments he undergoes at the hands of the novel's other consummate villain, Rogue Riderhood. [3]

Grass points out that the number of years between the last number of Little Dorrit (June 1857) and the first (May 1864) number of Our Mutual Friend may explain the amount of thought that Dickens put into the planning of this last complete novel — Dickens's meticulous plotting, manipulation of language, and deeply embedded patterns of imagery to produce a narrative as tight as his shorter efforts in those intervening years, A Tale of Two Cities (1859, in All the Year Round and Great Expectations (1 December 1860-3 August 1861, also in All the Year Round). Those shorter novels Dickens wrote chiefly to preserve the economic viability of his new weekly journal; in contrast, he wrote Our Mutual Friend to demonstrate his continuing mastery of the novel form, to prove to himself as much as to his public that he could still combine commercial and critical success.

And, despite James's carping and an apparent financial loss sustained by Chapman and Hall on the publication of the novel, Grass makes the point that Dickens actually "made more money from Our Mutual Friend than he had ever made from a novel in his life" (84), even though England's mid-sixties recession made it difficult for any publisher of any novelist to make money. But did Dickens's publishers really lose money in their compact with Dickens?

After all, had Dickens simply published Our Mutual Friend under the standard terms of his old contracts with Bradbury and Evans, asking for no money up front but granting the house a ¼ share plus 12.5 per cent commission, Chapman and Hall would have made £2,500 and Dickens would still have gotten more than £7,000. It would have been, in other words, a runaway success, particularly compared against other novels published during these same years. . . . [84]

Grass makes this point abundantly clear by comparing Our Mutual Friend's runs and profits to those of Dickens best-seller of the 1850s, Bleak House. He notes that, although sales slumped a little after the early numbers, which opened strongly with 38,00 and an additional run of 2,500, this was often the way with Dickens's monthly serials, and by September 1853 total sales of monthly parts amounted to 700,000, yielding Dickens a profit of £10,000. For his next novel, a similar falling off after the initial number occurred, so that the last double number of Little Dorrit amounted to just 29,250 copies after total sales of 43,000 for No. 1. But the novel's sales in total still amounted to 650,000 parts, earning Dickens about £11,500. However, the economic climate of the 1860s was very different from that of the roaring 1850s, in part owing to the cotton shortages resulting from the American Civil War. This was

compounded in Britain shortly after by the liquidity crisis of 1866-67 which reached its zenith on 12 May 1866 when the bank lending rate soared to 10 per cent. At the time the United States accounted for one-third of British book exports, and during 1861-64 these plummeted in value from more than £150,000 annually to scarcely £50,000. In January 1863 Sampson Low, who represented Harper & Co. in England, wrote to Wills [Dickens's subeditor] to alert him that Harper, in its financial distress, could not renew its agreement to pay £250 per annum for advance sheets of All the Year Round. [86]

Soon after Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his sabre at Appomattox Court House, the American market began a quick rebound, but that, of course, was after the conclusion of the serial run of Our Mutual Friend. The new illustrated periodicals such as Cornhilland Once a Week had suffered dramatic reversals, so that All the Year Round's retaining its circulation of 100,000 is really an achievement for Dickens and his staff, especially when one considers that the Extra Christmas numbers hit the quarter-million mark consistently in those years, although Grass merely mentions "larger totals." Meanwhile, popular writers such as Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and George Eliot continued to demand huge sums for new fiction, putting the squeeze on such firms as Smith, Elder and Chapman and Hall. Although they were in no danger of failing, several other publishers did go bankrupt at that time. Ironically, this financial squeeze may explain, argues Grass, for Chapman and Hall's paying so much for Our Mutual Friend in 1863: "trapped in a down market, they were, like other houses, looking around them for sure bet" (88). So, did Chapman and Hall miscalculate, especially since, as Robert L. Patten contends, part-publication of novels in monthly shilling numbers by 1864 had "pretty well run [its] course" since this method did not lend itself to subsequent publication of a book as a triple-decker, the three-volume format favoured by the new lending libraries. (Dickens, perhaps to meet the demands of this corporate buyer, issued the novel in two volumes, the first appearing half-way through the serial run.) Dickens's competitors in a tight market included Ellen Wood, Thomas Trollope, George Augustus Sala, Percy Fitzgerald, Amelia Edwards, W. M. Thackeray, Wilkie Collins — and Dickens himself. And herein lies the sagacity of Chapman and Hall in compacting with Dickens at this time, for by doing so they were able to make considerable profits on new volumes in the Cheap and Library Editions:

From April 1847 to September 1852, Chapman and Hall reissued an old novel roughly every six months, and it may be more than coincidence that the single new novel in parts that Dickens produced during these years, David Copperfield, was one of the worst sellers of his career. For almost the next twenty years, Chapman and Hall sold between 200,000 and 350,000 of these parts annually, providing Dickens with a steady income of around £175 per year. [90]

Just as Our Mutual Friend was entering its fourteenth monthly number, in June 1865, Chapman and Hall issued yet another inexpensive format, the People's Edition, beginning with the ever-popular Pickwick, at just two shillings per volume — that is, for the same price as just two monthly parts of Our Mutual Friend. Profits on sales of 135,000 volumes by the end of 1865 yielded Chapman and Hall profits of £1,358, and during the serial run of the loss leader the publishers "sold some 800,000 weekly and monthly parts, and 170,000 bound volumes, earning gross receipts of more than £15,000" (91). In other words, Chapman and Hall may have lost money on the novel, but the residuals of their agreement with Dickens more than offset those losses, particularly from the sales of cheaper versions of Pickwick, which had remained Dickens's most popular novel for thirty-five years: "during 1867-70 Chapman and Hall had to print it four times for a total of 76,000 copies" (95). Against that popularity we may compare the sales of Our Mutual Friend: 380,000 monthly parts and 2,700 two-volume editions, generating £2,700 in revenue. Furthermore, in its afterlife the novel sold well, in the 18-volume Charles Dickens edition, beginning in 1867, with half-a-million volumes sold by the time of Dickens's in 1870, thanks in part to sales of Pickwick, amounting to 76,000 volumes.

Just as Grass in the first three chapters employs the statistics of Dickens's contract with Chapman and Hall and their sales of Dickens's latest and previous novels to demolish the argument that Our Mutual Friend was not a commercial success, so Grass analyses a substantial body of criticism, from the period in which the novel was published and since, to demonstrate that reviewers responded to the new book in a manner much more positive than James's. Grass's narrative of the publishing history, compelling in its evidence, omits only the reception of Marcus Stone's illustrations, which gave the novel a sixties look — although he discusses the evolution of the monthly wrapper in some depth. Everybody recognized that Dickens had changed illustrators, but no one could determine whether the change was for the better or not, as contemporary reviews tantalizingly reveal considerable ambivalence. The role played by the Marcus Stone wood-engravings (not the old steel-engraved illustrations of Phiz) in the sales of monthly parts remains to be considered.

Whereas both David Copperfield and Great Expectations "enjoyed nearly universal critical acclaim" (101), Our Mutual Friend was not without significant detractors in print. Grass describes the late 1970s "critical revitalization" (147), the book's new-found popularity with poststructuralist critics, and the proliferation of paperback versions in the mid-70s, a part of its "renaissance since roughly 1970" (7) after a long period of neglect. The resurgence of this novel was a twentieth-century phenomenon: for example, although by 1920 Dickens's works had been adapted for film at least seventy times, only one of these — "Eugene Wrayburn" (1911) — was based on Our Mutual Friend. In this regard, its popularity on the small screen has been an established fact since 1970.

The Novel's Reputation, 1865 to the Present

In Chapter 4, "A Dismal Swamp? Our Mutual Friend and Victorian Critics," Grass begins with John Forster's equivocal review in the Examiner for 28 October 1865, in which Forster acknowledges the book's unity of design, "fancy" (Dickens's term for imaginative power), its telling descriptions, and well-wrought characters, but then concludes that Our Mutual Friend "will never rank with his higher efforts . . . [because] it wants freshness and natural development" (p. 681, cited in Grass, 97). Since, however, a modern reader would encounter the Examiner review only in critical editions (it appears, for example, in its entirety between pages 175 and 178 in this book), his remarks in The Life of Charles Dickens, issued by Chapman and Hall not long after Dickens's death, touched far more readers, and were much more significant in shaping the attitudes of posterity. According to Forster in his chapter on the novel (a passage not fully quoted by Grass),

It has not the creative power which crowded his earlier page, and transformed into popular realities the shadows of his fancy; but the observation and humour he excelled in are not wanting to it, nor had there been, in his first completed work, more eloquent or generous pleading for the poor and neglected, than this last completed work contains. Betty Higden finishes what Oliver Twist began. [vol. 2, p. 211]

This is a book for which Forster had tremendous respect — but he could not love it.

While the bulk of Dickens's work, even the vastly popular Pickwick, Dickens's funniest book, remains in the past, even as it was often a reminiscence of an earlier era already irretrievably of the past at the time of writing, Our Mutual Friend is a post-industrial novel a hundred and fifty years ahead if its time, providing a cogent analysis of the personal and social consequences of capitalism as it was in the mid-sixties of the nineteenth century and as it continues to evolve at the multi-national level today, compelling us to sacrifice environment and even climate for economic viability.

As industrialism runs its course and capitalism matures and evolves, Dickens will become — has become — more and more relevant. And if this so, it may be that Our Mutual Friend, in all the nightmarish glory of its indictment of Veneering and Podsnap, of public welfare that terrifies rather than raises up, of an economic system that depends upon and exults the detritus of the human lives wrecked upon its shores, may yet supplant Bleak House and Great Expectations as the "best" book, the most important book, most read book that Dickens ever wrote. Of how many literary works, even among the most enduring, can we say with confidence that they resonate more strongly 150 years later than they did in their own day? [Grass, 157]

Related Material


Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. Volume the Second: 1847-1870. The Charles Dickens Edition. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, originally in 3 vols., 1872-4; rpt. 1895.

Grass, Sean. Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History. Burlington, VT, and Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. xiv+ Pp. 274. Cloth. Il. ISBN 978-0-7546-6930-2.

Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Waugh, Arthur. A Hundred Years of Publishing, Being the Story of Chapman & Hall, Ltd. London: Chapman and Hall, 1930.

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens reviews

Last modified 20 May 2014