Of Golden Dreams and Silver Linings: The two female leads of Our Mutual Friend
By Hannah P.
There is a magical quality to the works of Charles Dickens. Despite the melancholy and harsh realities of life that are found in his stories, there is an element that transcends reality and moves into the realm of fantasy. Our Mutual Friend stands above the rest for me because it was the story that convinced me of Dickens’ brilliance. The many plotlines that weave into one another, the dozens of multifaceted characters, and the sweeping setting aren’t exactly unique to the story; Dickens was famous for his complicated tales and layered characters. But there is something special about this last finished work from Dickens. This special element could be the romance that adds heart to the dark tale, the themes of rebirth and redemption, or it could be the overarching mystery of the “mutual friend.” You might get a different response from each person you ask, because Our Mutual Friend doesn’t offer easy answers.
In such a complex story there is so much that one could discuss at length. Each character could have an entire book devoted to investigating the deep recesses of their minds, and every location (such as the Thames river or the dark streets of London) could have a research paper devoted to sorting out its complexities. I am sure in the future that I will have the opportunity to write about multiple issues from multiple angles, but this time I would like to focus on the female leads of Our Mutual Friend , Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam.
Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam are born into two separate social spheres, but both share the ill fortune of being poor. Bella’s hope of rising above her circumstances is to marry well, something that is almost assured in the beginning of the story. As a child, she so impressed a wealthy stranger that he wrote her into his will. This man fixed it so that his son, John Harmon, would only inherit his fortune by marrying Bella. So Bella’s financial future appeared bright, despite her being promised to a man she’d never met before. Because Bella’s early desires are only for rising above poverty into riches, this prospect isn’t overly daunting. But when the young John Harmon supposedly drowns on his journey back to England after the death of his father, Bella is left to mourn the loss of her prospects.
In contrast to Miss Wilfer, Lizzie Hexam’s hope of rising above her circumstances is instead through her own initiative and hard work. Her spirit and kindness earn her a place in the hearts of those she meets, and that helps her go a long way. She selflessly provides for her brother’s education and supports her father, despite the fact that both men don’t fully appreciate her efforts. When tragedy strikes and Lizzie’s father dies, she moves on and makes a better life for herself by assisting a dressmaker named Jenny Wren. However, the attentions of two different men, one a high-class barrister named Eugene Wrayburn, and the other a respectable schoolteacher named Bradley Headstone, alter her life when both become infatuated with her. The ensuing rivalry between the two men in this love triangle becomes darker and more twisted until attempted murder results.
Bella and Lizzie share other commonalities in their lives. Although from poor homes, they are close to their fathers, and both go through a tragedy that changes the course of their lives. However, this is where the similarities end. Both women have very different personalities, and their individual journeys alter them in different ways.
Bella’s character at the beginning of the story is self-centered and even a bit cold towards others. She professes that her life as a poor man’s daughter has made her desire money more than love. This flame is fanned when she is taken under the care of the Boffins, a kindly old couple who have inherited John Harmon’s fortune. She is exposed to the kind of life and riches that she has always dreamed of and entered into a society that encourages her making a “smart match.” Her desire for money is for practical reasons rather than greed, but it also keeps her from entertaining the attentions of the Boffins’ clerk, a man named John Rokesmith. Despite the fact that he is a kind and attentive man, she perceives his attentions as odd and repulsive. When Bella confronts John on this, he reveals his love for her and proposes, but his status as a lowly clerk blinds Bella to his fine qualities.
The turning point in Bella’s life comes when the Boffins begin to treat John Rokesmith with distain and injustice. She begins to see John Rokesmith in a new light as he bears his afflictions with patience and temperance, all the while never failing to show Bella kindness and consideration. When John’s love for Bella is made known to the Boffins, he is fired and forced to leave. But by this point Bella’s entire outlook has changed and she declares that she no longer values money more than love. She decides to leave the wealthy life of the Boffins and marry John Rokesmith, choosing the life of an ordinary housewife over the life of a wealthy social climber. Her decision is ultimately proved to be the best one she could have made when it is revealed that John Rokesmith is in fact John Harmon. John had made the most of his supposed drowning (a long tale that includes betrayal, robbery and murder), wanting to get to know Bella before revealing himself, and enlisting the help of the Boffins to test her motives and loyalties.
Lizzie Hexam’s journey is unique, for she doesn’t undergo any significant personality changes throughout the course of the story. She begins as a dutiful daughter and sister and ends as a dutiful and caring wife. Some might find her a hard character to identify with because of her perpetual goodness and call her “unrealistic.” But I find Lizzie to be a wonderful character of great moral depth, and her goodness isn’t “unrealistic” insomuch as it is a difficult standard to live up to. She is a strong woman, both physically and emotionally, able to show courage in the face of danger and her positive outlook keeps up her spirits in times of great trial. She comes to love Eugene Wrayburn because of his kindness towards her, calling him “so good, so very good.” When this relationship causes Mr. Headstone to view Eugene as dangerous rival and threatens Eugene’s life, Lizzie flees and hides herself away from Eugene as a means of protecting him.
Lizzie discovers that she cannot hide from the two men in this love triangle, and both find her again. Both come driven by passion, passions that overwhelm their better sense. Lizzie and Eugene admit the depth of their feelings to one another, but Lizzie is determined to follow social standards and refuses to let Eugene court her. Eugene’s love turns to a dangerous passion, and his good sense is dulled. He muses over taking Lizzie by force, but the jealous passion of Mr. Headstone prevents this from happening. Mr. Headstone beats Eugene and throws him into the river. However, Lizzie overhears the attack and rescues her love from drowning, her past experience on the river giving her the knowledge and strength to singlehandedly pull Eugene from the river and bring him to safety. Lizzie cares for Eugene, never giving up hope despite the grim outlook. The couple gets married on what appears to be Eugene’s deathbed, an event that brings friends like Bella to watch and wish them well.
A miracle along with Lizzie’s loving care keeps Eugene from succumbing to his injuries. While on the road to a long recovery, Eugene admits to a good friend that Mr. Headstone’s attack was actually a good thing in his eyes. The attack prevented Eugene from doing anything in his dangerous passion and ruining forever his chances with Lizzie. Instead, Eugene’s near-death experience brought them together and his previous anger towards Mr. Headstone turns to gratitude and forgiveness.
When comparing the lives and personalities of Bella and Lizzie, one could be asked to choose which character is more realistic or relatable. But as I stated before, there are no easy answers to be found in Dickens. The fact is both of these characters from Our Mutual Friend are wonderful; they act upon their own initiative, have heart, spirit, and courage, and don’t shy away from hard choices. Bella stands up to a supposed tyrant for the sake of another, and ultimately chooses love, and the prospective living of a poor man’s wife, over a wealthy life of ease. Lizzie sacrifices her own happiness for others, and refuses to let unfortunate circumstances direct her life. Bella and Lizzie help drive the story towards a satisfactory conclusion, both being rewarded for their difficult but admirable choices. They are principal characters, holding their own against the strong male leads, and are well worth studying (and perhaps even emulating) because of their praiseworthy qualities.
(previously published in Femnista , an online magazine hosted on www.charity's place.com)