Our Mutual Friend By Charles Dickens.
Who has not heard of Charles Dickens?
He wrote many well known novels - A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and The Old Curiousity Shop.
But who amongst you has ever heard of, or read, Our Mutual Friend?
Definitely NOT me.
"Strike the keynote!" Dickens liked to tell himself in the terse working notes for his novels in progress. The opening sentence of Our Mutual Friend strikes that keynote dark and hard: "In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in." Dickens instructed his artist, Marcus Stone, to accompany the scene with a keynote illustration, titled Bird of Prey: The man, one observes, has caught something - but what is it precisely? A corpse, it transpires. "I will make you fishers of men," our saviour said. He did not mean it in the sense that Gaffer Hexam fishes for his fellow kind (suicides, in the main) out of that filthy river, whose "big stinks" in summer would bring the whole city to a standstill.
Our Mutual Friend is haunted by death and God's grim curse: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Dickens himself, during its composition, was lucky to escape being killed (as scores of his fellow passengers were) in the terrible Staplehurst train accident, on June 9. 1865. He, like Hexam in his boat, had a young girl in attendance on that fateful trip - his mistress, Ellen ("Nellie") Ternan. It is plausibly surmised the couple had recently buried their love child (bear the fact in mind reading the death of orphan Johnny in Our Mutual Friend). Plausible too that the angelic Lizzie Hexam may be an idealized portrait of Nellie.
Better read this article fast or you will have to pay to read it.