My perpetual friend

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The original cover. If only there had been more pictures.

Since I last gave an update, Mini Book Club (me + spouse) has finished two more Victorian novels: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. After a long roll-call vote of the club members, we agreed that Lady Audley is our favorite book to date.

Our Mutual Friend, quite frankly, was a slog for me (thus my new title: My Perpetual Friend, because I thought I’d never finish it). Often touted as the pinnacle of Dickens’ critique of Victorian society, especially its treatment of the poor, it brought home to me, more than any other Dickens book I’ve read, the serial nature of the man’s publishing. In short: so many words, so little plot.

I’m not saying the writing was bad. Dickens’ mastery of character is on full display here, and at times the book made me laugh out loud. In one of my favorite chapters, describing a dinner party at the home of the Podsnap family, Dickens skewers the culture of the upwardly mobile, labeling it “Podsnappery.” But the fun parts were interspersed with what I can only describe as vignettes, leading me to imagine, at times, Dickens at his desk, thinking, “What the hell am I going to send in this month?”

Lady Audley’s Secret, on the other hand, felt much more modern to me. Though it, too, was originally published as a serial, there is a much stronger feeling of suspense, and very little wallowing in situational detail. And if you’re not already impressed with Braddon, consider this:

  • She wrote more than 80 novels.
  • She bucked social norms by living with a man without marrying — at least until his wife, who was in a madhouse, died.
  • She not only took care of her eventual husband’s children from his former marriage, but had six of her own.

That’s right: 11 kids, 80 books. Suck on that.

Next up: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, clocking in at 650 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. I sure hope it’s a page-turner.

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