“The Voice of Society”

August 25, 2011

Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend is David’s favorite book.  He’s been wanting me to read it for a while, and so I’ve just finished it.  I can see why he loves it, and I’m glad to have read it, too.  It’s nice sharing these kinds of things together.

To introduce some key characters:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London.  Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new.  All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new…

There was an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s, when not in use, to whom the Veneerings were a source of blind confusion.  The name of this article was Twemlow.  Being first cousin to Lord Snigsworth, he was in frequent requisition, and at many houses might be said to represent the dining table in its normal state.  Mr and Mrs Veneering, for example, arranging a dinner, habitually started with Twemlow, and then put leaves in him, or added guests to him…

…charming old Lady Tippins on Veneering’s right; with an immense, obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon, and a dyed Long Walk up on top of her head, as a convenient public approach to the bunch of false hair behind, pleased to patronize Mrs Veneering opposite, who is pleased to be patronized….

Since the book has 800 pages, it has enough room to cover just about any theme you might think of, and it does.  He delves into characters richly, but I love the way he nabs their hearts at the outset by the names he gives them.  Headstone never has a chance with a name like that.  I also love the way the good guys get the good stuff and the bad guys get the grief.  (And there’s plenty of stuff in between, and oh, horror, isn’t every English Lit teacher reading this now bowing his head under the weight of this simplistic summary of one of the finest British writers ever, but this is a blog post, after all.)

I also love the way Dickens makes the whole story come round, how all the characters fit, and how he cuts to the heart of the sublime:

The Veneerings have been, as usual, indefatigably dealing dinner cards to Society….

‘Tormentor!”…’You know what I mean, and you trifle with my impatience.  Tell me something…about the married pair.  You were at the wedding.’

‘How was the bride dressed?’…

…retorts Lady Tippins….’…such a ridiculous affair is condemned by the voice of Society. My dear Mrs Veneering, do let us resolve ourselves into a Committee of the whole House on the subject.’

(‘Now I wonder,’ thinks Mortimer, amused, ‘whether you are the Voice of Society!’)

What does Brewer say?

Brewer says what Boots says.

Good gracious!  My Twemlow forgotten!  My dearest!  My own!  What is his vote?

Twemlow has the air of being ill at ease, as he takes his hand from his forehead and replies.

‘I am disposed to think,’ says he, ‘that this is a question of the feelings of a gentleman.’

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir.’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual.  ‘I don’t agree with you.  If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady…’

‘Ths lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘you repeat the word; I repeat the word.  This lady……if such feelings on the part of this gentleman induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady.  I beg to say, that when I use the word, ..I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man.  The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred….’

‘I should like to know,’ sneers Podsnap, ‘whether your noble relation would be of your opinion.’

‘Mr Podsnap,’ retorts Twemlow, ‘permit me.  He might be, or he might not be.  I cannot say.  But, I could not allow even him to dictate to me on a point of great delicacy, on which I feel very strongly.’

Somehow, a canopy of wet blanket seems to descend upon the company, and Lady Tippins was never known to turn so very greedy or so very cross  Mortimer Lighwood alone brightens.  He has been asking himself…., ‘I wonder whether you are the Voice!’  But he does not ask himself the question after Twemlow has spoken, and he glances in Twemlow’s direction as if he were garateful.  When the company disperse–by which time Mr and Mrs Veneering have had quite as much as they want of the honour, and the guests have had quite as much as they want of the other honour–Mortimer sees Twemlow home, shakes hands with him cordially at parting, and fares …gaily.

And so I say, “Hah!”  (Hee, hee).  You tell ’em, Dickens!







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