Monday 17 December 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 14 - "Great Expectations"

Dickens (49 yrs.) photo by G. H. Watkins (1861)

Charles Dickens finished writing A Tale of Two Cities by early October, 1859 – just before setting off on a brief (for him) provincial tour of England, in order to deliver a series of fourteen public readings. He did more of these readings through the Christmas season – what had now become an annual event at St. Martin’s Hall in London – focusing, as usual, on “A Christmas Carol”.

Dickens decided to stay in London through the winter months, and he rented out the family’s house at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He was anxious to plan out, far in advance, the novels that would be serialised in his weekly magazine, All The Year Round – after A Tale of Two Cities had finished its run at the end of November. He had already agreed to publish Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, but knowing – from bitter experience – that a successful serial was crucial in maintaining good sales of his periodical, he looked even further ahead. Dickens had admired George Eliot’s “Scenes From Clerical Life” (1858) - published in Blackwood’s Magazine - and her first novel, Adam Bede, which had recently been released (1859). He asked her to submit a story. She toyed with the idea for a while, but then declined, saying that she just didn’t have the time. He then approached Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Lever.

Opening scene from David Lean's 1946 film of Great Expectations:
Magwitch (Finlay Currie) meets Pip (Tony Wager)

In January, 1860, Dickens began writing a series of essays for All The Year Round using the persona of the “Uncommercial Traveller”. Eventually, this collection stretched all the way to October – sixteen essays in total. The spectre of his lost childhood haunted these nostalgic reminiscences: stories full of unhappy and solitary wandering, looking back at his past with deep longing and regret. It was in one of these essays (“Travelling Abroad”), for example, that he recalled himself as “a queer young boy” walking past Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, with his father, and his father telling him that he might eventually own a home like that, if he were to persevere in life.
Dickens was desperate to keep busy; he was dissatisfied with life, and his days were marked by melancholy. Since the separation from his wife Catherine, the family home was not a happy place. As an intimate of the family noticed, Charles had become “restless, despotic, and miserable.” He tended to be remote and unfeeling with the children. He liked his children when they were infants, but became much less affectionate as they grew older. He hated noise in the house and was constantly lecturing them about their untidiness. They had become a sad family now, because of the parental rift. And most of the children lived in the shadow of their extraordinary father – sensing that they were “failures” in their father’s eyes. To top it all off, his favourite child, Kate – she was most like her father – announced that she was planning to marry Wilkie Collins’s younger brother Charles and move out of Gad’s Hill Place. Dickens was very upset by his daughter’s marriage; he didn’t really approve of her intended partner, and he felt he was being abandoned at a particularly difficult time.

Pip teaches Joe Gargery to read

Dickens then decided to sell Tavistock House in London and spend the summer and autumn months of 1860 at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He sold the London home by August for 2,000 guineas. He was happy to rent a new place for the family in the City, if that became necessary. Down in Kent, he began to make continual improvements at Gad’s Hill – these renovations and refurbishments would go on for the next ten years.
In August of 1860, Dickens began “meditating a new book.” He would start actually writing it three weeks later. In the interim, he set about a campaign of ignoring the immediate past and planning steadfastly for the future. In a general tidy-up of Tavistock House prior to selling, he suddenly burnt all of his past correspondence. In an apparent need to wipe out memories of his married life, and to re-set the past according to his new agenda, he immolated baskets and baskets of letters – a rich collection of correspondence from the likes of Thomas Carlyle, William Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Arthur Tennyson. Letters received for the past twenty years of his life. What a loss! In his struggle to establish a new life, and to settle himself after the turmoil of the last couple of years, he was starting to build layers of regret and, even, hatred for people and situations from the past.

Manuscript page - first page of Great Expectations

So Dickens began writing Great Expectations at the end of September, 1860. The germinating idea – the relationship between the convict (Magwitch) and the innocent boy (Pip) – came to him first as an idea for one of his “Uncommercial Traveller” essays. He described the notion as “a very fine, new, and grotesque idea.” The original form for the novel (length and frequency) had to be changed because of the situation at All The Year Round. A Tale of Two Cities had been followed by Wilkie Collins’s very popular A Woman in White. When it was completed in late August, 1860, Charles Lever’s novel – A Day’s Ride – began its run. It proved to be a failure, unfortunately, and sales of the magazine plummeted. Yet again – like the time he used The Old Curiosity Shop to salvage the magazine Master Humphrey’s Clock – Dickens was called upon to revive his periodical by writing a novel of his own. It meant creating a weekly serial about the same length as  A Tale of Two Cities – the previous Dickens novel, which had inaugurated his most recent weekly magazine. By early October Dickens had selected the name of the novel and started work on the serial in its new format. He planned to publish the first instalment in December, and he wanted to have two months of story in hand by then.

Pip cries after telling Biddy he wants to be a gentleman

In the very early stages of composition, Dickens read David Copperfield again, in order to ensure that he didn’t include unconscious repetitions of the boyhood tale he had written in that book. He reported to his close friend John Forster that his re-acquaintance with the earlier book was quite an emotional experience; he was “affected by it to a degree you would hardly believe.” By the middle of October Dickens had four chapters complete. He found that he was writing with such ease and spontaneity that he could ignore the working notes that he had prepared. And he didn’t bother referring to anything in his notebook, apart from retaining a few of the names he had come up with for some of the novel’s characters. Great Expectations, Dickens wrote, was to chronicle the life of a “boy-child like David [Copperfield]”. The protagonist was Pip, an uneasy, guilt-written young lad. Dickens went down to Gad’s Hill from London, in order to concentrate on his writing; and by the end of October he had another three chapters done – seven in all. When he did work in London, Dickens preferred to work in the bachelor quarters above his All The Year Round office in Wellington Street North.

Great Expectations issued in All The Year Round

Great Expectations, Dickens’s thirteenth novel, was issued weekly in All The Year Round from 1 December, 1860 to 3 August, 1861. The magazine was printed by Chapman and Hall. Dickens divided the novel into three parts, like A Tale of Two Cities, but he didn’t package the weekly instalments each month into a monthly issue. He was satisfied to release the 36 consecutive numbers just in All The Year Round. And, unusually for him, the length of the weekly parts varied. Shortly after the serialisation was complete, Chapman and Hall published the book in three volumes (October, 1861) – a common practice in the nineteenth century, although this was actually the first time that a Dickens novel was issued in this manner. Ironically – for a novel that is so intensely visual, full of compelling scenes – the original weekly instalments of Great Expectations went unaccompanied by any illustrations. That was the practice in Dickens’s magazines. Pictures were added in later versions of the book – like the set of F. W. Pailthorpe illustrations used in the 1885 edition.

Aged P. is introduced to Pip by Wemmick
(engraving by F.W. Pailthorpe)

The early response to Great Expectations was favourable. It was considered a return to the humour and pathos of his earlier, more accessible fiction. Dickens was delighted and often crowed about its popularity in the correspondence he was writing during the novel’s run: “It seems universally loved,” he wrote in one letter; “I suppose because it opens funnily, and with an interest too.” But he was not well at all during the writing of this book. He was constantly in pain – suffering from a condition he referred to as “facial neuralgia”. He experienced chronic pains in his left side, too – early symptoms, probably, of the stroke that would eventually kill him. He felt overworked. He always was pushing himself too much. He found a new place to rent at 3 Hanover Terrace, which faced Regents Park. He was planning to finish his novel by early June, but his work was interrupted again by a new series of six public readings.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman – a coming-of-age novel. It is narrated in the first-person – only the third of Dickens’s books to feature this device. In Bleak House half of the story is told in first-person by Esther Summerson, a young woman. That made it much different in technique to David Copperfield and Great Expectations, where the male first-person narrators are both stand-ins for the real Charles Dickens. Their stories feature locations and incidents from the author’s own life. Copperfield’s early childhood development includes David’s experiences working at the Murdstone and Grinby factory – reminiscent of the Warren’s Blacking Factory, near the Hungerford Steps, where Dickens worked as a twelve-year old boy, whilst his profligate father resided in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison in Southwark, with the rest of the family. Just after Copperfield begins his humiliating interlude at the factory in London, he befriends Wilkins Micawber, a delightful portrait of his always-debt-ridden father. Pip’s early experiences in Great Expectations are set in the marshes of Northern Kent, near where the River Medway empties into the North Sea. Dickens grew up here, in Chatham and Rochester, for about five years (1817-1822) – between the ages of four and nine. Dickens draws heavily on those early years – not so much for incidents and characters, but more for mood and setting.

Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket and John Mills as Pip in David Lean's
Great Expectations (1946)

The crucial difference in these two coming-of-age stories is the level of self-revelation they contain and the consistency with which the author’s self-knowledge is woven into the fabric of the book. David Copperfield explores Dickens’s tortured memories of the blacking factory, but as Copperfield grows into young adulthood, his growth as a character falters. David becomes rather bland – the latter half of the book tells us little about his development. Great Expectations, however, is more directly autobiographical than David Copperfield, and much more honest – it is shot through, from beginning to end, with a consistent account of Pip’s moral failings; and it provides a profound treatment of how a man, desperate to become a gentleman with expectations, descends into a snobbish selfishness, only to be redeemed at the end, once he realises his mistake and acts upon it. G. K. Chesterton points out, in his preface to the first Everyman Edition of the novel (1907), that the title Great Expectations could be applied to all of Dickens’s books, because all of his books “are full of airy and yet ardent expectations of everything.” George Bernard Shaw praised the novel as “all of one piece and consistently truthful”. And he wrote to G. K. Chesterton that the story of the adult Copperfield reveals nothing about Dickens’s inner life: “Clennam [from Little Dorrit] and Pip are the real autobiographies.” And George Orwell, a big Dickens fan, wrote that “psychologically the latter part of Great Expectations is about the best thing Dickens ever did.” If we look at the personal turmoil that Dickens had been going through for the last few years, it is easy to see how he broke through to this intense level of painful self-knowledge. Many of the issues he deals with In Great Expectations – passion, snobbery, false expectations, selfishness, passion, meanness – reflect the personal demons he was fighting in his own life. So the reason Dickens abandons the socio-political focus of Bleak House and Little Dorrit is to pursue a more personal vision – to project his own faltering sense of self-worth onto the flawed figure of Pip. And writing the book as a bildungsroman in the first-person was an obvious narrative strategy to achieve that psychological effect.

Bernard Miles as Joe Gargery and John Mills as Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)

Some of the major characters in Great Expectations reflect aspects of Dickens’s fragile personality. Pip, of course, is the obvious example – his desperate need to escape his humble background and lead the life of a “real gentleman” of expectations, is the underlying theme of Dickens’s life. His boundless ambition and incredible work-ethic seemed linked both to his desire for social advancement and to his fear of falling into debt and poverty. Pip’s selfishness reflects Dickens’s often ruthless self-regard. Pip is a self-made gentleman (with a wrong-headed idea of how he came into his expectations), but he is aimless – he has no sense of his place in the world, and no authentic values. He becomes infected by class snobbery. Abel Magwitch, the convict, also represents elements of Dickens’s sense of himself – a beneficent figure inspired to do good for others because of underlying feelings of guilt and shame. He helps others in order to feel better about his unfulfilled dreams. And Dickens’s current passion for Ellen Ternan – tied up with feelings of thwarted love and unrealised sexual yearning – is poured into his intense portraits of Miss Havisham and Estella. Interestingly, as Michael Slater points out in his introduction to the Everyman Edition, although many commentators think Estella is a character based on Ellen Ternan, it makes more sense to see her as a portrait of Maria Beadnell, the young woman with whom Dickens had been passionately infatuated with, and who eventually rejected him because of his lack of social position. Whether based on Ellen or Maria, the theme is the same – the love for an unattainable woman.

Trabb's boy mocks the pretentious Pip

Like David Copperfield, Dickens’s other first-person coming-of-age story, Great Expectations is full of fascinating characters: Joe Gargery, Pip’s brother-in-law, a very simple man – but one of deep kindness and humility – whom Pip abandons because of his lowly position; Biddy, who becomes Joe’s wife – another of Dickens’s warm, nurturing women characters; Herbert Pocket, a good-hearted, but often ineffective friend of Pip’s during his up-and-coming early London days; Mr. Jaggers, a London lawyer, who is constantly washing his hands, because of the low-life criminals he deals with on a daily basis; the amusing John Wemmick, Mr. Jaggers’s clerk, who insists on maintaining two distinct personas – the town Wemmick, who will only discuss the legal business of his employer, and the country Wemmick, who will entertain other, more personal, issues in the privacy of his home; and the delightful Trabb’s boy – a character who particularly impressed G. K. Chesterton because he is a supreme example of Dickens’s amazing ability to capture in only a brief vignette something very profound about human nature.
Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Jean Simmons as Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)

And then there is the astonishing pair of females who inhabit Satis House – Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham, in some ways, is at the centre of the story. She is surely one of Dickens’s greatest creations – she embodies a simple idea, but is fleshed-out so brilliantly that she repels us at first because of her twisted cruelty, but yet finally prompts our sympathy because of her eventual remorse for the way she has twisted the mind and heart of Estella, and caused such mental suffering for her and Pip. Miss Havisham embodies the terrible psychological cost of brooding too much on past betrayals. Estella, herself, is the ultimate femme fatale – gorgeously attractive, but with a heart of ice. Trained by a twisted mother to attract men and then torment them. From their very first meeting, Pip is helplessly enthralled by her grace and beauty. And it is Estella’s contempt for him – he thinks it is just because of his coarse manners and lowly position – that drives him to want to be a gentleman, and to reject the life and family he had been born into.

"What have I done?" - Miss Havisham begs forgiveness from Pip

Great Expectations is often thought of as Dickens’s artistic masterpiece. It is certainly my favourite Dickens novel. It was the first book of his that I read – back in the mid-60s. And then it was a set book for me in two different English courses at university. It’s the book of his that I know best. And every time I read it, I am caught up again in its spell. Unlike many of Dickens’s other novels – which can be very discursive, and structurally flawed – this book is tightly plotted, and the wonderful cast of characters is used economically both to advance the plot and illustrate its themes. Although  readers at the time applauded Great Expectations as a return to the humour and pathos of the past, it is still a book suffused with sadness. As Michael Slater points out, everything in the story is portrayed as “grey, rainy and melancholic”. And the narrative tone is one of disillusionment and sadness, mixed with ironic and knowing reflections on human nature – the moral failings of people and the corruptions of society. And yet despite all that, the book still seems uplifting – because its central character, its protagonist, is redeemed by his hard-won self-knowledge.

Estella allows Pip to kiss her

Charles Dickens finished writing Great Expectations on 11 June, 1861. All the physical problems he had been enduring (“facial neuralgia” and pains in his side) suddenly went away. When he showed the proofs of the final chapters of the novel to his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright, who had been following the monthly issues with great interest, Bulwer-Lytton argued with Dickens to change the ending – which had Pip and Estella meeting for the very last time and going their own separate ways. He considered that ending too harsh. He thought their redemption (Pip through self-knowledge and kindness, Estella through suffering) deserved something better. Dickens relented. He went back to Gad’s Hill Place and within a few days he revised the conclusion. In the final scene, Estella says they will “continue friends apart”; but Pip declares, as they leave the ruined grounds of the former Satis House: “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” It’s an ambivalent ending that allows you to decide their fate for yourself. George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell both thought the original ending was better, because it was more real. When I first read the book as a teenager, of course, I wanted Pip to finally win Estella. Now I see that Shaw and Orwell were right. Regardless of how the book ends, however, the journey itself is a wonderful ride.

John Mills as Pip in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the fourteenth of a series.]

Next: Our Mutual Friend

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Great Expectations by Michael Slater (1992); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

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