While visiting the skulls, warious and mummified birds of Mr. Venus, I neglected to say anything about Mr. Venus himself. His hair is dusty, that is the important thing to know, dust-colored and dusty. Our Mutual Friend is built on giant mounds of dust:
By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,-- all manner of Dust. (I.2)
Humphry House, in The Dickens World, tell me that “[t]heir chief value was in the ashes, which were used for brick-making, while the soot section of the heap was good for manure” (167), and the mounds are a source of great wealth, worth all kinds of fuss with wills and blackmail and disguises. The dust heaps were in the northern suburbs of London, “a tract of suburban Sahara,” and they coat the entire city in their grit.
I'd give the dustman five shillings, to carry you off in the dust cart. (II.5)
Now that is Jenny Wren, if it matters, threatening her alcoholic father. Fortunately for him she does not have five shillings to spare. The surreal dust mounds are so metaphorically promising that I was almost disappointed with how little use Dickens makes of them, although the fact is that the dust is mentioned constantly, as metaphor and reality. The “dust cart” threat is good by itself, but made better since we know where that dust cart will take the old man.
The collection and storage of waste is the economic center of Our Mutual Friend, whether in dust heaps or bone shops, but less dusty economic activity is also possible. The novel begins with Lizzie Hexam and her father fishing a corpse out of the Thames. That is how he makes his living, looting the pockets of dead men and collecting rewards.
The gentlemen of the novel avoid the dust, too. They traffic in Shares: “As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world” (I.10). In other words, in the terms of Our Mutual Friend, they make money from nothing at all, not dust but air, which once in a while goes poof. Or not poof, as it should, but smash:
'And what is to happen next?' asked Mrs Lammle of the skeleton.
'Smash is to happen next,' said Mr Lammle to the same authority. (III.12)
Look, there is another skeleton, more bones, a metaphor here (it is in the closet), but an unusually intrusive one. To recap: money in Our Mutual Friend can be made from nothing, or from garbage. Garbage is more difficult but more stable. There will always be garbage.
Note to Richard: This is not the post I promised to write, something about Crazy Dickens, but it is preparatory.