Sunday, 6 December 2009

Radio 4: 'Our Mutual Friend'

So BBC Radio 4’s wonderful dramatisation of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend has finally ended, alas! It has been such a delight over the last four weeks, and makes one wonder what one will now find to fill the 15 minute gap each evening when it has been broadcast. ‘He do the police in different voices’, as Betty Higden remarks of Sloppy; and there were indeed some truly memorable voices coming through in this production, with Silas Wegg, Bradley Headstone and of course the Golden Dustman Boffin himself among the most haunting of them all.

I found myself turning back to Laura Donaldson’s essay ‘Boffin in Paradise, or the Artistry of Reversal in News from Nowhere’ (1990), which is still, as far as I know, the fullest account of Morris’s transformation of Our Mutual Friend in his utopia. Morris’s Boffin – or Henry Johnson, to give him his real name – makes a dazzling appearance to William Guest in the Hammersmith Guest House, hoping to lemon-squeeze plenty of information from Guest for the historical novels he, Boffin, is so fond of writing.

Donaldson gives an excellent account of Morris’s reworking of the 19th-century realist novel in his utopia, and at the end of her essay speculates on Nowhere’s political future beyond the last page of the book itself: ‘Recognizing the possibility that Nowherian society might grow too complacent in its utopian perfection, thereby losing its social vision, Morris ingeniously creates Boffin’s “curious” habit [of novel-writing] as a preventive measure against such a tragic loss’.

Food for thought here, indeed. If we should ever get a sequel to News from Nowhere (and I increasingly feel, 120 years after its publication, that we need one), and if in that sequel Nowhere does indeed politically degenerate, then its Golden Dustman Henry Johnson might, on Laura Donaldson’s showing, be a crucial figure in recognising and challenging those reactionary tendencies. He is certainly, we can say with confidence, far too memorable a character altogether to be introduced for two pages in chapter III and to be more or less entirely dropped thereafter!


Callan said...

You are not the only one who wants Morris to make more of Boffin in 'News from Nowhere'! Paul Meier writes 'It is a great pity that ... Morris does not give us any details of how the scavenger Boffin, the "golden dustman", caries out his task' ('William Morris: The Marxist Dreamer', vol 2 p.xi, note 82).

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