Book three of Our Mutual Friend is really the story of Mr. Boffin’s fall from grace, but it’s a minor character, Pleasant Riderhood who really got to me, almost made me cry, in fact.
Pleasant is the daughter of Rogue Riderhood, one of the main villains in the novel. Rogue Riderhood began the novel rowing his boat along the Thames, fishing from it whatever livelihood he could, namely bodies and the goods they carried to the river on their final journey. While Lizzie Hexam’s father could make the same living, he could also maintain a sort of respectability; Rogue Riderhood is banned from every waterfront tavern in the neighborhood even after getting a more respectable job as a lock-keeper.
So when Pleasant Riderhood is called to what many believe to be her dying father she is surprised to see so many people concerned with his health. He has fallen into the river, nearly drowned, and been taken to Miss Abbey’s pub where he lies unconscious waiting for the doctor.
The pub-goers, who normally wouldn’t care if Rogue Riderhood lived or died, soon become caught up in the drama, sincerely hoping for the drowned man’s recovery.
It is something so new to Pleasant to see her father an object to sympathy and interest, to find any one very willing to tolerate his society in this world, not to say pressingly and soothingly entreating him to belong to it and it gives her a sensation she never experienced before. Some hazy idea that if affairs could remain thus for a long time it would be a respectable change, floats in her mind. Also some vague idea that the old evil is drowned out of him, and that if he should happily come back to resume his occupation of the empty form that lies upon the bed, his spirit will be altered. In which state of mind she kisses the stony lips, and quite believes that the impassive hand she chafes will revive a tender hand, if it revive ever.
The moment Riderhood recovers he becomes his old abusive self. The pub-goers turn their backs to him and Pleasant both, leaving her to care for the unlovable old man on her own just as she was before.
Something about this little five-page scene moved me greatly, much more than the central story of Mr. Boffin’s fall from grace. Boffin inherited great wealth unexpectedly in the opening chapters of the novel going from a very poor servant to a man of great wealth. By the end of the third book, Boffin has been thoroughly corrupted. He has become a miser. The illiterate Boffin even has his paid readers reading to him from a book of misers, object lessons that do not teach Mr. Boffin the correct lesson. By the end of the third book we learn that Boffin may even be hiding evidence of a will that would overturn the one that made him rich. He has gone so far in the wrong direction that Bella Wilfer, the young woman Boffin and his wife have more-or-less adopted, leaves him to return to her own impoverished family.
While I can’t say that I remembered Boffin’s story from the first time I read Our Mutual Friend 20 years ago, I certainly saw this particular plot coming. Boffin’s fall from grace feels forced to me; I can see the hand of the author attempting to teach the reader a lesson. It’s well done, mind you, this is Charles Dickens, but it doesn’t work as well for me as the short scene with Pleasant Riderhood did.
Although there is this one speech….
Boffin, who has become aware that Rokesmith, his secretary, has expressed his feelings for Bella to her confronts him in the presence of both Bella and Mrs. Born:
You slander the young lady; you with your affections and hearts and trumpery,” returned Mr. Boffin. “It’s a piece with the rest of your behaviour. I heard of these doings of yours only last night, or you should have heard of ’em from me, sooner, take your oath of it. I heard of ’em from a lady with as good a headpiece as the best, and she knows this young lady, and I know this young lady, and we all three know that it’s Money she makes a stand for–money, money, money– and that you and your affections and hearts are a Lie, sir!”
Up to this moment, everything he is saying about Bella Wilfer is true, but hearing this spoken aloud at the expense of Mr. Rokesmith moves Bella as much as it moves the reader. We know that Mr. Boffin is right and we know that Bella is realizing her mistake and we can see just how far down Mr. Boffin has fallen. It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment, an artful piece of both plotting and character development, and it must make for a wonderful scene when acted. It almost makes me want to watch the BBC series.