Cloudy to clear

Sometimes the past feels more real than the present. But I have been surprised by this feeling of things being a little surreal. I look around me and I can’t quite remember how I got here. The intermediate steps might have been intermediate, yet I feel a need to reach back for them at times, to feel for those moments where I made a choice or discovered a sense of conviction.

I am reminded of this by the Dickens novel I have been reading. I don’t manage very much at a time, so I may take in an episode or chapter, and when I later come back to the book, I find it has moved to another set of characters and a different, if related, scene. There is no obvious main character around whom the plot revolves, which means there are a number of plot threads to keep hold of and you don’t quite know which bits are ultimately going to be most significant. I have just reached a part where a young girl changes her mind about the older man who had been a business contact but also a supportive friend to her, and who she had started to distrust. I had to look back a number of chapters to find the place where this distrust had begun to set in. Jenny is a canny person, but her sharp eye and the necessity of fending for herself against the odds have taught her to guard against falling prey to others’ faults. There is a moment when, as she looks on, the old man is trapped into compromising himself by the employer for whom he acts, leading her to rush to the conclusion that he is the ‘wolf’, the creditor who will not be appeased.

Before she is able to put two and two together in such a way that she can re-form her judgment of this man, Jenny spends some time in the dark, avoiding him – despite the fact that she has so few people on whom she can rely. Her own father is to all intents and purposes her dependant: the habits of his alcoholism seem to have drained away any capacity in him to see what he might do for her. And yet she never rejects her father: she is too duty-bound, seeing him as the child who needs her as opposed to the parent he might and should have been. Her reality is too stark for this even to be the subject of discussion: she accepts her lot as she has also accepted her physical disability and the suffering that has accompanied her growing years.

But what, then, of these unvoiced disappointments? What happens when they are left hanging? Because it feels like these ought to be a big deal but when there is nowhere for them to be articulated, they cannot do anything other than colour the atmosphere of everyday life.     

Our Mutual Friend is a novel that carries a number of unusual surprises however. For whilst it is threaded through with suspicion, and most of the characters either practice suspicion or are the subject of it, actually what is revealed in the end is that it is often a person’s goodness that has been hidden and has to be found out. It is as if the world has become one in which it is harder to believe that people have certain values and qualities than to suspect they are corrupt. The most generous man in the novel is perceived by others to be developing increasingly miserly interests, but to read his behaviour in this way is to see only what exists on the surface. The plot is deeper than those who are carrying out their own little acts of detection are able to realize.

Goodness eventually makes its appearance; often accompanied here by the sound of laughter. Mrs Boffin laughs heartily when her husband is exonerated, and when others are finally able to see that the man by whom she had always stood was worthy of her good faith. Mr Boffin, too, had chuckled to himself as he reflected of an evening on the impression he had created all day, for the purpose of demonstrating to a young woman in his care that the pursuit of money can be a dangerous trap. Laughter is the honest person’s reward. It is enjoyment, plenty, unabashed confidence. It is the thing that doesn’t have to be hidden any more.

Laughter has got my attention recently. That adult-to-adult laughter sometimes goes dormant within me and it is wonderful to have moments where you feel it unexpectedly awakening again. The body calls back to itself and makes its own sort of sense. Things don’t have to be justified through any other means.

In Our Mutual Friend, the character who laughs the hardest and most often is also one of the least privileged. Ungainly and awkward, long-limbed Sloppy has little to recommend him to the casual eye. But he is so quick to laugh when he does, on occasion, appear, that he carries a rather unique presence within the novel. The old woman who has taken him in comments that ‘You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’ The visitors to whom she is introducing him look at him out of politeness and he, in response, ‘suddenly threw back his head, extended his mouth to its utmost width, and laughed loud and long’. I sense he is there as an example to us all.

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