I have reserved a shocking number of library books this summer. Every day there’s a phone call: “This is the Public Library to notify– [computer struggle to pronounce alien syllables of my name] Miz Frizz-bee–that you have–[improvised struggle to pronounce number] f-iii-ve– books on reserve until ___.” Okay, so I ride my bike down to the library and look at the books carefully. If I take home The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, there will be no room for anything else. Do I want The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains?Do I really want the biography of Dickens?
I go home with three.
The library books sit there. I can’t stop reading Dickens. I’m three-fourths of the way through Our Mutual Friend, his last finished book. It’s an intriguing but agonizing novel–very funny in parts, because Dickens has a hyperbolic sense of humor and is a master of comic dialogue, but also terribly sad–and it’s in such a dark London, much darker than that of David Copperfield. Many characters live in such grisly circumstances that they can’t escape. Who can forget Betty Higden, who is terrified of dying in the workhouse? After losing her grandchild, Johnny, she tramps the roads trying to sell little tidbits to make a living, because, as she tells Mr. Boffin, she won’t accept money and needs very litle. Finally she falls sick on the road, and ends up fleeing a town when a man insists the parish must be informed. She makes it to the Thames–and Rogue Riderhood, a criminal and lockkeeper, cheats her of all her money. Then Lizzie Hexam finds her. Thank goodness! But poor Betty! I”m haunted by her.
Lizzie Hexam, one of my favorite characters, is the devoted daughter of an ignorant waterman accused falsely of murder. After his death on the river, she goes to work and lives happily with a crippled dollmaker, but her luck runs out when her brother’s rigid schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone, becomes obsessed with her and begins to stalk her. Because he also stalks and threatens to kill her friend, Eugene Wrayburn, an indolent gentleman lawyer who is in love with her but too snobbish and cynical to declare his own intentions, she moves away.
And then there’s the well-educated Riah, the compassionate Jewish friend of Lizzie and the dolls’ dressmaker, who works for the cruel Fledgling as the front for a moneylending business because he has no choice.
And what has money done to Mr. Boffin?
The writing, of course, is great–greater than anybody’s. I’m tangled up in Dickens! But don’t worry, I’ll read something else soon.