Our Mutual Friend is a satiric masterpiece about money. The last novel Dickens completed, and perhaps his most angry, it sounds all the great themes of his later work: the innocence and venality of the aspiring poor, the hollow pretensions of the nouveau riche, the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt everyone it touches. Among those caught up in the ruthless forces of change in Dickens's London are the archetypal innocent Noddy Boffin, who 'inherits' a dustheap where the trash of the rich is thrown; Silas Wegg, a grotesque, one-legged man with unlimited fantasies of grandeur and power; Mr. Veneering, Member of Parliament, whose house, furnishings, servants, carriage, and baby are all 'bran-new'; and Alfred and Sophronia Lammle, who marry one another because each wrongly believes the other is rich.
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December 31, 1991
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Excerpt from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.
The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognisable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look-out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boat-hook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in a cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight headway against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as she watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.
Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. Half savage as the man showed, with no covering on his matted head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow and the shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief Iying low on his bare breast in a wilderness of beard and whisker, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was business-like usage in his steady gaze. So with every lithe action of the girl, with every turn of her wrist, perhaps most of all with her look of dread or horror; they were things of usage.
'Keep her out, Lizzie. Tide runs strong here. Keep her well afore the sweep of it.'
Trusting to the girl's skill and making no use of the rudder, he eyed the coming tide with an absorbed attention. So the girl eyed him. But, it happened now, that a slant of light from the setting sun glanced into the bottom of the boat, and, touching a rotten stain there which bore some resemblance to the outline of a muffled human form, coloured it as though with diluted blood. This caught the girl's eye, and she shivered.
'What ails you?' said the man, immediately aware of it though so intent on the advancing waters; 'I see nothing afloat.'