Sean Grass unravels Dickens’ last finished novel

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Charles Dickens’s final novel, Our Mutual Friend, wasn’t exactly his greatest success. At least not in 1865, when it was originally published.

However, scholarly interest in the novel has grown substantially over the past 30 years and Sean Grass, an associate professor of English, explores that interest in his new book, Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History.

Grass said Our Mutual Friend is notable for what it reveals about Dickens as an author during the last decade of his life. The novel was written and published in monthly installments between 1864 and 1865, the same span of time that his health began to decline. Despite his obstacles, Our Mutual Friend is considered by many to be one of Dickens’s most sophisticated works.


“The way we critique the novel has changed,” Grass said. “There was a time that people were only interested in similes, metaphors, personification. Now, studying issues of race, gender, sexuality and economic status are important, and those were huge issues in the 1860s as well. New critical approaches have helped Our Mutual Friend become more relevant in recent years.”

The purpose of Grass’ book is to aid the ongoing critical reassessment – and provide a greater foundation for it – by giving a publishing history of Dickens’s novel. This includes a comprehensive account of how Dickens came to write the novel and the choices he made while writing and revising.

One of Our Mutual Friend’s loudest critics was Henry James, who opened his review of Dickens’ novel with the verdict that it was the “poorest” of the famed author’s works. This famous review, published in The Nation in 1865, has followed Our Mutual Friend for a century.

“He really dismissed the book,” Grass said. “My book rewrites that history. There were 41 published reviews of Our Mutual Friend between 1864 and 1865. Only four were negative, and two of these came in magazines that had long been hostile to Dickens because of his political views. Given how prominent 20th-century scholars made James’ review, and the impression it left of Our Mutual Friend being a ‘bad book,’ I was shocked by this low number.”

Grass also came across a few other surprises during his research of the novel and of Dickens’ life. One of the most memorable moments came while he was researching at the New York Public Library, when a librarian brought him a first edition of Our Mutual Friend that had been “grangerized.”

“The book was full of extra materials, including the original pen and ink sketches of the novel’s illustrations—sketches that Dickens himself had inked the captions onto,” Grass said. “I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. What’s remarkable is that even the library seems to have forgotten that they owned this copy of the novel, with all of its fascinating extra parts.”

Interleaving such extra materials into a book is called “grangerizing” because it is named for British biographer and book collector James Granger, who famously collected related material from other published sources and inserted them between the book’s original pages. Typically, the books were unbound and then rebound with the added information. These extra notes, drawings and clippings added further context and color to Grass’ book.

Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: A Publishing History includes four appendices that offer contemporary accounts of Dickens’ Staplehurst railway accident, information on archival materials, and transcripts of all contemporary reviews of Dickens’ novel. It is available at Ashgate Publishing.

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Contact: Sean Grass, English, (515) 294-3625, Jess Guess, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-9906,