Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Collins Classic, HarperPress 2010 (1861)
Characters stick in
my memory: Estella,
Joe, Miss H. And yours?
I find it hard to distinguish between the images furnished by my first reading of this and by the BBC serialisation in the 60s. I suspect that the TV version came first and influenced my rather rapid reading of the novel where I omitted all the characterisation, social commentary, landscape descriptions and comedy in favour of rooting out the plain narrative. So, Great Expectations for me then was a mix of two themes, the rags-to-riches story of Pip and the boy-meets-girl-but-it-doesn’t-go-smoothly tale of Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and hang the rich tapestry of life in early 19th-century rural Kent and teeming London which Dickens grew up with.
I’m so glad I gave this a second chance, and that with maturity and experience am able to more fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Dickens’ story. Yes, the overarching themes are there: Pip’s abandonment of the forge to pursue a gentleman’s life followed by the eventual Return of the Prodigal Son; and the hopeless obsession with the haughty Estella who almost until the last (and we never find out the whole story) rejects him while leading him on. And yet, of course, you can’t spin out a serialised story in three lengthy parts just by dwelling on an individual’s rise in the world and an unrequited love.
Dickens repays a close reading of the text, even without the scholar’s motivation. First, there is the cast of wonderful characters, eccentrics, villains, heroes and gentlefolk. The tragic Miss Havisham, Mr Wopsle the actor manqué and the lawyer’s clerk Mr Wemmick all fall into the first group; Orlick, Drummle and Compeyson are first-rate villains; Jaggers and Provis are indubitably if unlikely heroes; and Pip’s closest acquaintances, some of whom he woefully neglects, come as close as possible to gentlefolk, whatever their station in life.
Pip, who narrates his own story, is of course all that critics suggest he is — gullible, vain, infatuating, insipid, ambitious, disloyal — in fact, for much of the latter half of the book the kind of archetypal man-about-town waste of space who deserves to fall flat on his face. But by the end he gains redemption of sorts, and you hope he’s gained wisdom. In this he is a sort of fallible Everyman and perhaps, as many of Dickens’ protagonists were, a reflection of the writer’s own fears and foibles: it’s easy to view the portrait by Daniel Maclise and to foist onto Dickens Pip’s characteristics. On the other hand Estella, when I first encountered her, reminded me of Martha, my first childhood crush at the tender age of ten — distant, disdainful, possessed of poise and brains but unobtainable. A second reading reinforced these impressions but didn’t quite resolve for me the mystery of Estella’s capitulation, if that is what it is.
Dickens’ own childhood familiarity with the prime locations in this book, London, Chatham and Rochester, add verisimilitude to Pip’s experiences and vividly bring alive the events that happen in these bustling, or gloomy, or dank and foggy places. And in amongst the tragic happenings that percolate Great Expectations we mustn’t forget the comic personalities and situations that leaven the disappointments; and even if one or two chapters appear a little indulgent and seem to just bulk out the narrative, that’s hardly surprising when the public were devouring the previous installments and Dickens was trying to keep a step or two ahead.
I’m pleased, then, that I gave a Dickens novel my undivided attention when I completed it a century and a half after its publication in 1861, and doubly pleased that I was much more able to appreciate it than my younger self. The Collins Classic edition gave the full text with the revised, more upbeat, ending; granted that this was a budget edition I was still a little disappointed by the shortness of the introduction and by the glossary particularly, which, apparently directed at foreign students, included historic terms and phrases from a number of Victorian novels but very few, it seemed, from this novel itself.
Revised and expanded edit of review first posted May 2012