top of page

10 of Earth - Boffin's Bower

with Silas Wegg & Vincent Venus


Nicodemus 'Noddy' Boffin aka The Golden Dustman;

Silas Wegg; Vincent Venus; Henrietta Boffin.

Roman à Clef:

Henry Dodds; J. Willis.


Our Mutual Friend

      Boffin's Bower is the name for the fine house off Cavendish Square, inherited by the servant Boffin from his recently deceased employer, the rich miser Old Harmon. On the land surrounding Boffin's Bower is heaped mountains of dust – Victorian London ran on coal, the average home burning 11 tons of coal annually. The resulting ash and trash were collected by dustmen who dumped this lucrative refuse in dust heaps owned by wealthy contractors. There, workers known as sifters, up to their waists in dust, rummaged through the piles which were mixed with street sweepings, separating the fine dust to be sold as fertilizer. The coarser dust, mixed with clay, was sold to make bricks. Other objects discovered in the dust were sold for profit, such as rags, bones, and scraps of metal.


 The terms of the miser's will see his dust estate devolve on the Boffins at the presumed death of his only son, John Harmon. The Boffins are good-natured people who take into their home John Harmon's disenfranchised fiancé Bella Wilfer as well as John Harmon himself, now going by the alias John Rokesmith and hired as confidential secretary to Mr. Boffin at no salary. With no children of their own, Mrs. Boffin arranges to adopt the orphaned great-grandson of the poor child-minder, Betty Higden, but the child dies before this can happen.


 Noddy Boffin is an illiterate man concerned to fit his new image of the wealthy man. He hires the peg-legged ballad seller Silas Wegg as tutor, to read to him from books of history in order that he may gain worldliness, but Wegg it turns out is hardly more literate than he. Wegg is convinced something of inordinate value lies hidden within the heaps of dust and he determines to find it for himself. He befriends the taxidermist Vincent Venus, who has obtained Wegg's amputated leg and is willing to sell it back to Wegg for a price. Wegg, unsure what to call the item, refers to it in the 1st-person: “Am I still home?” This preoccupation with physical objects as agents of completion, mocked in the commodification and exchange of knowledge iterated in Boffin's self-edification and elsewhere in the novel [i.e.: Bradley Headstone and Charley Hexam], underscores a fundamental misplacement of value Our Mutual Friend is at pains to communicate. The most obvious and commonplace variant of this is money, illustrated by the Lammles and Veneerings as well as Bella Wilfer's monetary ambitions and Noddy Boffin's growing covetousness.


 When Wegg finds an old will of Old Harmon in the masses of dust, he endeavours to blackmail Mr. Boffin, thereby revealing he is a man lacking not only in appendages but in values. Similarly but in contradistinction, Mr. Boffin's imitation of his erstwhile employer, the miser Harmon, engenders a revaluation of property and probity in Bella Wilfer. And although she and her future husband John Harmon appear elsewhere in the Earth suit, their presence and ultimate union – a venture through potential harm to harmony – is implicit here in Boffin's Bower. For, in the end, the value of this or any book is not in its physicality, nor the rote recitation of its words, but in its intrinsic value. That is, its ability to edify, not its edifice - that which, when ashes return to ashes and dust to dust, remains invaluable.


 Noddy Boffin is loosely based on Henry Dodds, a London ploughboy who made his fortune sifting through Victorian rubbish. Vincent Venus is based on J. Willis, a taxidermist and articulator if bones. In 1870, the American abolitionist and labour movement activist Jenny Collins established Boffin's Bower, a social centre for working women in Boston, the name of which was lifted from Dickens' novel. Our Mutual Friend is the author's last completed book, and its association with the ultimate card of the Minors is not coincidental. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is coincidental in the way Dickens' conceived of coincidence, that is: real and happening all the time if only we care to see it, and a fundamental building block of existence. The dense lapidary structure of the novel is analogous to the dust heaps of Boffin's Bower, calling attention to Our Mutual Friend's language and artificiality, and standing as Dickens' rebuttal to Realism. From the filth and detritus of Victorian society, in the mutuality between cup and lip, Dickens salvaged and assayed what there was of true value and, akin to the miser Old Harmon, willed it to us.


Shorthand : Great inheritance – odd family – dirty trade – the stone the mason threw away – accumulated income – material wealth – jolly good fortune – unquestionable will – gratis help – bowery dowry – what's the word? - the world too much with us - concerns of legitimacy – the culmination – the value of value - the matter, sifted.

bottom of page