Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I'd give the dustman five shillings, to carry you off in the dust cart.

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.


  1. This is really excellent, the symbolic backdrop of the tale. I should make this book the next thing I read.

    Money is so important in Dickens' writing. Possibly the most important thing. Or is commerce a metaphor for basic survival? Because there's money in Tale of Two Cities, but that book's central image is blood running in the streets, innit? And as I wrote that last sentence I finally got it about the duality of Carton/Darnay and the idea of good/bad being relative historical labels. So, progress, right?

  2. The last 3 "big" novels - Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and this one - all have similarly amazing symbolic backdrops, where Dickens takes a handful of rich but not by themselves complex markers (dust, fog, shadows) and does everything he can think of with them. And he can think of more than just about anyone.

    Dickens is actually kind of odd with money. It is almost an abstract force in his world. Trollope is the writer who knows the exact income of his characters and how they earn it, and who writes about characters who know as much as he does. Money is important to Dickens, but vague.

    Dickens is far more interested in work than in money or commerce.

  3. Kind of the anti-Henry James, then, whose characters generally have money but don't work. As if James himself had no idea where money came from or what work (as in labor) was. Which may be true.

    Maybe what I'm noticing in Dickens isn't either money or work, but poverty and class consciousness. I'm not sure. I'll have to read more Dickens and think about that.

    Your posts on Dickens' use of shadows was nice work, too. By the way.

  4. That's OK, Tom, I can do dust and I'm occasionally patient to boot (plus the absence of your Crazy Dickens post(s) actually gives me more time to read up on the Buenos Aires litmag wars from the 1920s--my new hobby). Cheers!

  5. Oh thanks.

    Yes, poverty, the absence of money, is a clear and meaningful position. Dickens is great at describing poverty, many kinds of poverty, poverty in every color and size.

    I am more ambivalent about his approach to other classes - whenever I have written about Dickens and the "gentleman," or the wealthy characters who believe in the Religion of Christmas, I'm trying to get at way Dickens changes his thinking over time. He changes a lot. His imaginative reach expands.

    The comparison with James is apt. Sometimes I think that Trollope and Balzac were the only 19th century writers who really knew how money worked.

  6. This is to say I do read your posts.

  7. Thanks for visiting, Nana - same to you (meaning I read your posts whether or not I comment).

    You know, I had not connected the two, but I wonder if Armah knew Our Mutual Friend. Beautyful Ones and the Dickens novel share some imagery of the filthy city.