Our Mutual Friend is the last novel Charles Dickens completed during his lifetime; The Mystery of Edwin Drood was left incomplete when the author died in 1870. The novel was published in 20 parts spread over 19 months (the final installment was a "double issue"), beginning in May 1864 and concluding in November 1865. Each installment included two illustrations and a selection of advertisements. This form of publishing had been devised early in Dickens's career and used regularly up until the mid 1850s. At that point, Dickens moved to publishing his novels largely in weekly (as opposed to monthly) serial form; his return to the older format with Our Mutual Friend meant that he now had to produce more material for each installment, and he seemed to find this challenging, especially as he struggled with ill health and a traumatic accident (see the section on "Our Mutual Friend and the Staplehurst Incident"). In fact, Dickens eventually stopped receiving the advance payments his contract stipulated because he had fallen behind with deadlines.
Despite the struggles he encountered during the writing process, Charles Dickens seems to have been contemplating some of the key elements of the novel years before he began. In 1850, while acting as editor of the journal Household Words, he had overseen the publication of an essay called "Dust or Ugliness Redeemed" by Richard Henry Horne. This essay describes a London dust-heap and includes references that seem to echo some of the characters and themes of the novel. Our Mutual Friend is also significant because it marks the first time Dickens collaborated with a new illustrator, Marcus Stone. Dickens's previous novels had all been illustrated by Hablot Browne.
The critical reviews of the novel were considerably less positive than what was typical for a Dickens novel. Most famously, author and critic Henry James opened his review by complaining that the novel was "the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works." Possibly as a result of this initially lukewarm reaction, Our Mutual Friend has received less attention from literary critics and scholars than some of the other works. However, it has still been well-regarded by many, and has been adapted several times as a television serial.