Charles Dickens wrote no fairytale endings – or did he?

The great writer’s final complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, could be described as a typical Dickens fairytale – if only there were such a thing

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Steven MacKintosh in the 1998 TV adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.
Steven MacKintosh in the 1998 TV adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.

Charles Dickens was 53 when he finished Our Mutual Friend – and kept working furiously until he died five years later. He had no idea that when he wrote “The End” on 2 September 1865, it would be the last time. He also wrote enough of the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood to show that his creative fires were still burning before he was struck down.

Yet it’s significant that this was the great writer’s final novel. There’s a strong temptation to regard it as Dickens’ last word and a culmination of the themes and ideas that had concerned him throughout his life. But such speculation should be treated with caution. It’s tricky to pin overarching patterns and philosophies on Dickens. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what a Dickens book may be, but there are as many exceptions as rules – as many contradictions as definitive statements.

I’d like to be able to say, for instance, that Our Mutual Friend demonstrates many of the social concerns that had occupied Dickens throughout his life. But, as Orwell pointed out in a famous essay about his Victorian forbear, it’s hard to know “where exactly” Dickens stands “socially, morally, and politically”. Orwell says Dickens was claimed by everyone from Marxists to Catholics who alternately saw him advocating for proletarian revolution or defending the old social order: “It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine.”

The Secretary and Miss Wilfer from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
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The Secretary and Miss Wilfer from Our Mutual Friend. Photograph: Alamy

Dickens could just as powerfully mock the cruelty and injustice of aristocratic France as decry the murderous injustice of the years following the 1789 revolution. He would just as fervently applaud a character like David Copperfield for making his way up in the world asthe Poor Law. But there’s also fierce loathing for the grim subsistence characters like Rogue Riderhood make from fishing up the detritus of the River Thames. There’s also a delight in the orderly inheritance of wealth in the story of John Harmon – and satisfaction that a servant like Mr Boffin should stay in his lane. When Harmon gets the loot that might otherwise have gone to Boffin, Mrs Boffin declares that it looks as if the “money had turned bright again, after a long, long rust in the dark and was at last beginning to sparkle in the sunlight”.

It’s often said that the typical Dickens female character is weak and placid, existing mainly to be subjugated into marriage with male protagonists, or to meet instructively painful ends if they fail to please the main man. But while characters like David Copperfield’s simpering first wife, Dora, may fulfil this stereotype, there are also radical departures. Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities knifes off aristocratic heads as readily as her more demure sister kisses that of her lapdog. Then, again in David Copperfield, there’s the gloriously self-assured Betsey Trotwood, not to mention the intelligent and determined Agnes. She is more than a match for that book’s narrator. Similarly, in Our Mutual Friend we see the saintly Lizzie Hexham and doting daddy’s girl Bella Wilfer safely set up in lives of adoring marital servitude. But the sharp Sophronia Lammle is not so easily led by her corrupt husband, while little Jenny Wren steals many of the best lines in the book – not least on the subject of her determination that she won’t let some dopey man march her up to the altar.

Staying with marital bliss, the ending of Our Mutual Friend could be described as a typical Dickens fairytale, if only there were such a thing. Yes, he gathers all the book’s many strands together at the end and ties them in an audaciously neat bow. Yes, he sets up his favoured couples in their fortunate 凯发官网网址多少homes. And yes, I sighed with satisfaction at the end. But then I considered what it had taken to get there. The brutal murders. The frustration and tragedy of Bradley Headstone. The injuries suffered by Eugene Wrayburn. And, most of all, the way Bella Wilfer was played and tested by people she trusted and depended on. The way her early spark had been quenched. This ending isn’t as ambiguous as the haunting final lines of Great Expectations, or as brutally chaotic as Barnaby Rudge, but it is not as reassuring as it first appears. Here, as in so much more of this huge and complicated book, not to mention all his other writing, Dickens feels more elusive the more you look at him.