Thursday, January 7, 2010

Favorite Passages: Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

In this blog, I constantly refer to War and Peace and the lit class in which I was required to read it. However, I never mention that we read two other large and unwieldy novels in that class also: Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. I'm particularly fond of the latter. Our Mutual Friend is a massive, strange, suspenseful blend of mystery novel and social observation. Up until the last 100 pages or so, in which everything I thought about the book and its characters was completely obliterated by the author, I was in total rapture. And no part of the book made me happier than the terrific character of the creepy school teacher, Bradley Headstone. Besides having quite possibly the best character name ever, Headstone is a perfectly incompetent and murderous Dickens character. So, for this week's Favorite Passage, I decided to use the reader's first glimpse at Headstone, a wonderfully-written Dickens description.

From: Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent man of six-and-twenty. He was never seen in any other dress, and yet there was a certain stiffness in his manner of wearing this, as if there were a want of adaptation between him and it, recalling some mechanics in their holiday clothes. He had acquired mechanically a great store of teacher's knowledge. He could do mental arithmetic mechanically, sing at sight mechanically, blow various wind instruments mechanically, even play the great church organ mechanically. From his early childhood up, his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage. The arrangement of his wholesale warehouse, so that it might always be ready to meet the demands of retail dealers - history here, geography there, astronomy to the right, political economy to the left - natural history, the physical sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in their several places - this care had imparted to his countenance a look of care; while the habit of questioning and being questioned had given him a suspicious manner, or a manner that would be better described as one lying in wait. There was a kind of settled trouble in the face. It was the face belonging to a naturally slow or inattentive intellect that had toiled hard to get what it had won, and that had to hold it now that it was gotten. He always seemed to be uneasy lest anything should be missing from his mental warehouse, and taking stock to assure himself.

Suppression of so much to make room for so much, had given him a constrained manner, over and above. Yet there was enough of what was animal, and of what was fiery (though smoldering) still visible in him, to suggest that if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, had chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man in a ship's crew. Regarding that origin of his, he was proud, moody, and sullen, desiring it to be forgotten. And few people knew of it.

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