Our Mutual Friend is as wildly overblown as the society it depicted

Early on in Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens treats us to a description of a Thames-side pub: The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, already mentioned as a tavern of a dropsical appearance, had long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. Externally, it was a narrowlopsided wooden jumble of corpulent windows heaped one upon another as you might heap as many toppling oranges, with a crazy wooden verandah impending over the water; indeed the wholehouse,inclusive of the complaining flag-staff on the roof, impended over the water, but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on thebrinkthat hewill never go in at all. It’s gloriously fanciful, especially with that crowning metaphor of the nervous diver teetering over the water. And that’s just the start: there an astonishing image of the gnarled wood inside twisting into the “likeness of boughs”, where “upon an old corner cupboard of walnut-wood in the bar, you might trace little forests there, and tiny trees like the parent tree, infull umbrageous leaf.” As I read his descriptions of the bar – the cosy snugs, the red curtains “matching the noses of regular customers”, the landlady reading a newspaper by the fire – itallfelt more real than the pub at the end of my road. One story strand features a noveau riche family called – with characteristic audacity – the Veneerings, and the grasping socialites who come to sup at their table. Their conversation is consistently awful and hilarious, but their rapaciousness is so inhuman as to make them feel almost too much. To set those blaring images so high, and to causeus smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech yetakerank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us’! If you interchange “shares” with “price systems” this could be one of the more excitedly voracious passages from Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. A character called Boffin encompasses both of those terms, going from too good to be true, to too bad, and back again, with all the subtlety of napalm. Norcan I entirely rule out one day encountering someone who turns out to be just like Boffin, to prove me wrong.