top of page

6 of Water - Aaron Riah & Jenny Wren


Aaron Riah; Fanny Cleaver aka Jenny Wren.


Our Mutual Friend

    Aaron Riah is an elderly, benevolent Jewish gentleman who befriends the dressmaker, Jenny Wren. Jenny's lodgings are squalid and dank, her work – sewing dresses for dolls - tedious and poorly remunerated, she can barely walk, and her father is a hopeless alcoholic. Yet, she does not act like a victim. And though adolescent and small, she is wise beyond her years.


 Jenny's real name is Fanny Cleaver, so it's no wonder she changed it. She scolds her ne'er-do-well father, more mother to him than daughter. Crippled from birth, possibly as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, Jenny has about her a majestic strangeness. With a strong intuition, she has a child's knack of knowing more than she seems to know she knows.


 Jenny befriends Lizzie Hexam, recently orphaned and pursued by both Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone. She treats Lizzie with maternal care and nurturing, while with the men she adopts an attitude similar to the one she shows her drunken father – she infantilizes them. In doing so she shows she knows how men treat women, or at least how men treat her, and so she beats them at their own game. Unpropositioned, she nonetheless curtly informs Lizzie: “Why the latest news is, I don't mean to marry your brother.”


 Although a man, how Jenny treats Aaron Riah is different. In some ways, he is an outsider like Jenny. His Jewish identity has been leveraged against him by Mr. Fledgeby, trapping Aaron into a contract which forces him to be the face of Fledgeby's money-lending operation. Not only is the public's anti-Semitic willingness to see Aaron as a greedy Jew used against him, but in being exploited this way by Fledgeby, he is also sorrowfully aware as he tells Jenny that “in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people.”


 Early in the undertaking of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens received a disquieting letter from Mrs. Eliza Davis. In it, she informed Dickens he had done the Jewish people a great wrong in his portrayal of the corrupting Jew, Fagin, in Oliver Twist. Dickens replied that he had “no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one.” Yet, despite his self-defence, Dickens remained troubled. To atone, he created Aaron, the Jewish scapegoat caught in the clutches of a Christian money-lender. He also has Lizzie Hexam take refuge among a community of Jews, who treat her with tenderness and generosity. Near the end of the novel, Aaron elucidates explicitly what Mrs. Davis had compelled Dickens to ruminate on:


 It is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough — among what peoples are the bad not easily found? — but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say "All Jews are alike."


 In gratitude, Mrs. Davis gifted Dickens a copy of Benisch's Hebrew and English Bible with the inscription “Presented to Charles Dickens, in grateful and admiring recognition of his having exercised the noblest quality men can possess – that of atoning for an injury as soon as conscious of having inflicted it.”


 Eventually, the motherly child Jenny Wren moves in with the grandfatherly gentleman Aaron Riah. Recognizing the damaged and alienated in each other, they form an unusual but hearty bond. A union untroubled by prejudice, selfishness, or even the deathly darkness that pervades the dank, sooty world of Our Mutual Friend. As Jenny sings like a bird from the rooftop of Riah's den: “Come up and be dead! Come up and be dead!”


Shorthand : hard-won happiness - harmony - well-being - strange bed-fellows - prejudice overcome - a unique niche - finally reaping what was sewn - nostalgia - infantilization - hiding away from the world - new clothes from old cloth - working through a difficult past in the here and now to achieve a pleasant future - a dream come true.


bottom of page