I was afraid something like this would happen: I’d get ahead of myself on the reading side of the equation, while slacking off on the writing side. I finished Our Mutual Friend more than a week ago—and that’s when the problem started. I wanted to compose just the right entry for this singular accomplishment. And so I procrastinated. On my writing, but not my reading. (I might as well not breathe as not read!)
I enjoyed this reading experience so much, and hated to see the final pages scroll by on my iPad. I’ve marked my passage through the book on my Reading Dickens blog. So one final note here should be sufficient.
As the last chapters played out, I couldn’t help noticing that Dickens seems to have lost track of narrative time. In “Setting Traps,” the first chapter in the fourth and final section, Bradley Headstone—with murder in his heart—follows Eugene Wrayburn to Lizzie’s village, leaving Rogue Riderhood on the Plashwater Weir. However, for the next two chapters, we turn to the Boffin narrative, first with the Lammles’ failed sycophancy and then with Silas Wegg’s blackmail. Then, for two more chapters, we follow the wedding, early married life (a bit too many details), and pregnancy announcement of John and Bella—events that must have happened over the course of several months. Finally, at chapter 6 of this section, we return to the same evening of chapter 1, and Headstone finally attacks Eugene. There is a similar shuffling of time in subsequent chapters, as we leave Eugene again (is he dead or alive?) to find John Harmon identified, Wegg defeated, the Boffins elated, and baby Bella “inexhaustible.”
Imagine the book’s original readers having to keep track of all these story lines, while receiving the story in monthly installments! Dickens recognized the challenge, writing in the postscript:
Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for, it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom.
I love that image Dickens creates for himself, as master craftsman, confident in his skill. But because he actually weaves stories—not cloth—there’s also something magical, something of the fairy-tale, about this image. And perhaps a little menacing, too, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.