Last week we talked about Dickon; this week we’re talking about Dickens, in particular, the attractive guys found in “Our Mutual Friend.”
I am cheating on this one a little bit, because I’m mostly going to base this off of the 1998 BBC miniseries. I’ve read the book, but it’s been a few years. Plus, the BBC does a pretty good job of portraying the story while not laying on the sentimentality present in the book that might be a little bit alienating to a modern audience.
I have a complicated relationship with this story. There are great characters, excellent plot twists and the classic Dickensian portrayal of Victorian London’s more unsavory aspects. The story is peppered with some of the most colorful characters in Dickens’ repertoire, including one of my favorites, Mr. Venus, the taxidermist and “articulator of bones.” Timothy Spall’s portrayal of him in the movie is nothing short of brilliant, and his sincere struggles to gain the hand of his lady love, Pleasant Riderhood, who is hesitant to marry him because of his trade in bones, make Venus one of the most endearing characters in the book/movie, as well as one of the most quirky and fun.
In spite of how much I adore Mr. Venus, he’s just not my type. And here is where the complicated part of my relationship with the story comes in: there are a couple of guys in it who fit the bill, yet in some ways, I’m a little disgusted by their behavior.
Take Eugene Wrayburn, who is played soulfully by Paul McGann. He is indolent, bored, dissipated and totally selfish. However, he’s also totally hot, and it is his single minded pursuit of Lizzie Hexam that makes him so. Up until the point that he meets her, he is simply another upper class younger son layabout who depends on his father’s resources to live, since his career doesn’t afford him the luxuries to which he was born. At the same time, though, he is idealistic. He resists his father’s plans for him to marry for money, and bemoans how futile his lifestyle is, saying that he could be energetic if he had something about which to be energetic. His interactions with his friend Mortimer Lightwood also show us how playful and witty he is.
So, fine, he’s not all bad. Not at all. However, the qualities that make him attractive and sympathetic are the same ones that make him into a character whose motivations you have to question. (Which, in a vicious cycle, makes him even more attractive, because it’s like he’s a real person with faults.) Eugene loves Lizzie, but won’t marry her because she would be an outcast in society for marrying so far above her station. But instead of letting her go, he keeps pursuing her, because of his own fascination with her and because he knows she’s attracted to him. She even leaves town at one point, fearing for his safety at the hands of another man who is pursuing her, Mr. Headstone, as well as to save herself from her attraction to him, and he still follows her. Stalker much, Eugene?
On the one hand, who cares? Who doesn’t want some man who is so desperate for your mere presence that he will stop at nothing to find you? (As long as he is attractive and a nice guy, and not some crazy person, like Mr. Headstone. We do have standards here at the Thoreaus of Passion.) Eugene is frantic in his search for her, and when he finds her, he tells her that all he wants to do is talk to her. She has to caution him away from touching her, because they both know what will happen if he does. Holy Crap.
On the other hand, what the hell, Eugene? He can’t decide how their relationship is going to proceed, and he just doesn’t know whether or not he is going to ruin her. How’s that for a relationship in which both partners love and respect each other? It is only his brush with death at the hands of Bradley Headstone that moves him to finally marry Lizzie. Luckily, they are surrounded by friends who support them, and so Lizzie is not made to suffer the indignity of being an outcast by marrying him. Eugene’s idealism is realized, as he is able to marry for love, and, realizing how close he came to ruining her, he remains thankful to Headstone for almost killing him and finally forcing him to a decision. Dreamy, I know.
Then there is Julius Handford/John Rokesmith/John Harmon. These are all the same people, although ultimately, John Harmon is the man’s real identity. He neglects to mention this little tidbit to his wife, however. No big deal though; he’s just trying to make sure that she loves him for who he is, instead of for his money.
The story behind all of this is that John Harmon’s father was estranged from his son. At his death, the father’s will stipulates that his son can only have his fortune if he agrees to marry a woman, one Bella Wilfer. The reason his father chose this particular woman is because he saw her in a park one day when she was young and being a total brat to her father. On the boat to London from his home abroad, Harmon hatches a plan with a crew member on the ship, in which they will switch identities. Harmon will see if he can make Bella love a poor man, before finally revealing himself as her rich suitor. The plan backfires, however, when the crew member drowns after already having taken on Harmon’s identity. Instead of revealing himself at this point, he decides to take on an alias, John Rokesmith, and carry on with the plan of wooing Bella. By this time, the Boffins, who inherited the Harmon money in place of John receiving it, have taken Bella into their home, because they feel bad for the girl seeing as how her hopes for becoming the wife of a rich man have just been dashed. They plan to set her up in society the same way they’re setting up and rubbing elbows with the upper crust. John Rokesmith becomes Mr. Boffin’s secretary.
Normally, I don’t like to give huge plot summaries here, but this plot is so convoluted that you really have to know the story in order to understand how tricky the situation between John and Bella is. Towards the beginning of the story, Bella is troubled by how poor she is, and very easily adapts to the lifestyle of the rich and heartless of the upper society. She rejects John when he first tells her that he cares for her, and it is only after she begins seeing the effects of money on Mr. Boffin in his seemingly cruel behavior towards John that she admits her feelings for him.
It is fun to watch their regard for one another grow. John’s relief and happiness when Bella rejects the Boffin’s money in favor of a life with him is palpable, and their reunion scene and subsequent wedding are heartfelt in their sweetness and whimsy. Steven Mackintosh’s portrayal of John as genuinely excited in these scenes is adorable and really captures the playful tone Dickens used in crafting them.
In addition to being adorable, John Rokesmith/Harmon is a mysterious badass, in that specifically 1990’s sort of way. Steven Mackintosh has him strut around in his dark Victorian suits, with that slight slouching gait that you wanted your boyfriend in high school to have, and his ability to juggle his crazy situation with ease makes him totally attractive in his capability. He is one of those men who is going to Get Things Done. His physique is rather diminutive, but no matter, it just makes it easier for him to slip in unnoticed and accomplish things.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that I want Bella to slap him. Or something! Fine, I understand him wanting to be sure of her love before marrying her, because he is wary about being taken advantage of due to his money. But they get married, and even then, it takes a police investigation for him to finally reveal to her that he is, in fact, the guy that she was originally supposed to marry and that they are totally loaded. And she doesn’t even get mad at him. I guess the blow is softened when you have enough cash to absorb the impact a bit. What irks me is that there are no repercussions for him hiding all of this from her. At the same time, the treatment of her character seems patronizing. He wants to test her loyalty, and then later tells her that she seemed so happy that he didn’t want to risk losing that. This is no simple matter of rounding down in your count of the number of pairs of shoes you own because you are ashamed for your spouse to think that you are somehow related to Imedla Marcos. This is like revealing that you are Imelda Marcos.
Overall though, I have to say that I love these characters. Watching the series is like a guilty pleasure, and even though I want to, I can’t stay mad at them for too long. Although Eugene probably wins the badass contest, they are both fun, and luckily they ended up with women who seem to be more willing to put up with them than I would be. For myself, I can just watch, yell and occasionally throw one of my shoes at the TV when Our Mutual Friends misbehave.