Study Guide

Our Mutual Friend Setting

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19th-Century London (and Surrounding Area)

Throw out your London guidebook vision of bobbies on bicycles, beefeaters, quaint teashops, and nannies flying around with umbrellas. Actually, throw out your London guidebook. Our Mutual Friend will make you want to stay far, far away from Merry Old England.

Most of this book's action takes place either in the streets of London or along the river Thames. In many of his books, Dickens describes his London setting with painstaking detail, but his focus in Our Mutual Friend lies more with the river, as we find in passages like this:

[A] boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. (1.1.1)

Ooh, who wants to go swimming?

Dickens goes on to focus on the "slime and ooze" of the river rather than anything beautiful (1.1.3), because let's face it: Dickens didn't think London was the greatest place in the world.

He was writing during a time when the English thought the British Empire was the center of the universe (just look at the way that most maps literally center on England) and he took any opportunity he could to remind them that London was actually a dirty, polluted city that had been ruined by corruption and greed.

In fact, the adjective "Dickensian" refers firstly to "relating to or similar to something described in the books of the 19th-century English writer Charles Dickens, especially living or working conditions that are below an acceptable standard," and only secondly to "written by or in the style of Charles Dickens."

So yeah: squalor (especially London squalor) is kind of Dickens' thing.

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