THE MUTUAL FRIEND by Frederick Beach


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Episodes and summing-ups from the last years of Charles Dickens, as effort-fully researched, feverishly imagined, and artily placed in the mouths of: Dickens' manservant Dolby (who, at book's opening, is dying in 1899); wife Kate; a household servant-wench; mistress Ellen Ternan; and the Great Boz himself. Dolby recounts, in enervating detail, Dickens last Public Reading tours: the massive ego, the cruel humor (vulnerable Dolby stammered), the obsessive preparation, the death-courting insistence on going full-throttle while recreating Bill Sikes' murder of Nancy. Kate Dickens tells--with implausibly un-Victorian sturm und drang--her grief over Charles' infidelities: ""My tongue grew thick in my mouth and I thought I would choke with myself and die at his door."" Whore-turned-servant Barbara (Dickens was a do-gooder employer) tells how she exposed the old bozo's hypocrisies and seduced his young son. And Ellen Ternan gets molto explicit (""His organ was a great red sausage"") so there'll be no further doubts about the nature of that relationship. Finally, dying Dickens rambles around it all again, his ""summing-up dreams"" blending with those of the dying Dolby 30 years later. Busch is as writer-y a writer as ever forged an image, and occasional scenes flare, but anything worth learning from this belabored book is worth hearing from Edgar Johnson, whose biography Busch acknowledges as his chief source.

Pub Date: March 29th, 1978
Publisher: Harper & Row