Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Sean Grass. Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Sean Grass. Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History

Article excerpt

Sean Grass. Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History. Ashgate Studies in Publishing History: Manuscript, Print, Digital. Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xiv + 274. $109.95.

This recent book is clearly written and well researched, and will be a useful tool for anyone interested in how Dickens came to write his last completed novel, and in how and why he gave it the form he did. It will be no less useful for those studying the critical reception of the novel, either in its own time (1864-65) or in subsequent years.

Sean Grass quotes Henry James in the subtitle of his introduction, "Our Mutual Friend: 'The poorest of Mr. Dickens's works'," and suggests quite clearly that James's negative review of December 1865, while vastly influential, fails to tell the whole story. Though he believes Our Mutual Friend is "almost certainly too massive and strange ever to become popular now" (3), he concludes that it "may be the very richest of Dickens's works" (8).

Chapter one, "The Man from Somewhere: Ellen Ternan, Staplehurst, and the Remaking of Charles Dickens" sets the novel in its biographical context, focusing particularly on Dickens's life in the years after 1857. Grass argues that Dickens essentially remade himself, and remade his career, by leaving his wife Catherine, engaging in a clandestine affair with Nelly Ternan, beginning his career as a professional reader, breaking with publishers Bradbury and Evans, launching All the Year Round, and (largely) abandoning monthly serialization. Grass makes a compelling case, though he claims that Great Expectations represents Dickens's first experience of "the three volume format" (35), overlooking Oliver Twist, published in three volume form over 25 years earlier. Some readers may be surprised to see events of the mid-to-late 1850s considered as context for Our Mutual Friend, but Grass demonstrates their relevance, without going overboard: he does not claim Bella Wilfer is modeled on Nelly, nor does he argue that the Staplehurst accident had any direct influence on Our Mutual Friend beyond Dickens's retrieval of the manuscript from the railway car, as outlined in Dickens's Postscript.

In his second chapter, Grass engages with textual issues concerning the composition of the novel, considering Dickens's memoranda book, the number plans and manuscript of the novel, and the surviving proofs. Grass covers much familiar territory, including the stories of Marcus Stone bringing Dickens to the "original" of Mr. Venus's shop, and Dickens's creation of Riah as a response to the protests of Eliza Davis over Dickens's representation of Fagin in Oliver Twist, but he also offers new material, most interestingly the notion that Dickens is indebted to Charles Reade's novel Very Hard Cash, originally serialized in All the Year Round, for the germ of Betty Higden: Reade's novel includes a character, "Old Betty," who "had a horror of the workhouse" (43).

Grass provides interesting and valuable color illustrations for this chapter, offering facsimiles of three pages of Dickens's number plans, six pages of Dickens's manuscript, three pages of corrected proofs, and a page from the first edition, as well as reproductions of Marcus Stone's initial sketch for the wrapper of the parts, the finished wrapper, and an original sketch and the published version of Stone's most successful design for the novel, "The Bird of Prey." For the most part, Grass focuses his attention on Dickens's "overwriting" and "underwriting," giving much weight to the placement of early chapters treating Mr. Venus and the marriage of the Lammles. Dickens's revisions of individual sentences and phrases are not Grass's principal concern here. Grass identifies a grangerized copy of the novel, now in the Berg collection, as "a stunning repository of materials related to Our Mutual Friend' (55), though its most salient features are copies of the wrappers and advertisements (better studied by examining a copy of the novel in parts) and Stone's original pen and pencil sketches for the novel, which are worthy of study (and were noted 30 years ago in Brattin and Hornback's Our Mutual Friend: An Annotated Bibliography), but which ultimately shed more light on Stone's work than on Dickens's. …

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