Monday 26 December 2011

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

Doctor Who is on downstairs, and since I am both (a) not a fan of Doctor Who, and (b) a coward, I am sitting in my room and writing a blog post about Great Expectations.  There is something of a link, though, since people in Britain will be able to watch an adaptation of Great Expectations on 27th December - I'm looking forward to it, even with Dickens adaptations being, in general, not so great.  What makes Dickens so brilliant, to my mind, is the way he writes the narrative, and the pacing of the dialogue - which is usually lost on television, for some reason.  More on that later...

I actually started Great Expectations over a year ago - I held off reading it too quickly in the final days of December 2010 lest it unsettle my Top Books of 2010... and yet, the year whirled by, and I finished it after having compiled my Top Books of 2011.  It might have been on there.  Now we'll never know...

What can I possibly say about Great Expectations (1861) and Charles Dickens?  I suspect the outline of the plot is known to most of us - Pip looks back on his life, starting with a graveyard encounter with a terrifying convict... Miss Havisham... Estella... Jaggers... and Bob's your uncle.  Because, of course, the plot is too complicated and strange to recount in any detail.  The characters are too many and manifold, some of which (like Miss Havisham) have entered the nation's consciousness - others, equally wonderful, have not.  Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who complains at all times of having to 'bring him up by hand', is equally wonderful an invention.  Kind, honest Joe Gargery ("Pip - what larks!"), with his twisting attempts at speech, meaning all sentences seem to start with the word 'which', is about the loveliest character in any novel I've ever read.  Here he is, in conversation with Pip, who has stopped visiting Miss Havisham and is now Joe's apprentice (the typos are his):
"Here am I, getting on in the first year of my time, and since the day of my being bound I have never thanked Miss Havisham, or asked after her, or shown that I remember her."

"That's true, Pip; and unless you was to turn her out a set of shoes all four round - and which I meantersay as even a set of shoes all four round might not act acceptable as a present in a total wacancy of hoofs --"

"I don't mean that sort of remembrance, Joe; I don't mean a present."

But Joe had got the idea of a present in his head and must harp upon it.  "Or even," said he, "if you was helped to knocking her up a new chain for the front door - or say a gross or two of shark-headed screws for general use - or some light fancy article, such as a toasting-fork when she took her muffins - or a gridiron when she took a sprat or such like ---"

"I don't mean any present at all, Joe," I interposed.

"Well," said Joe, still harping on it as though I had particularly pressed it, "if I was yourself, Pip, I wouldn't.  No, I would not.  For what's a door-chain when she's got one always up?  And shark-headers is open to misrepresentations.  And if it was a toasting-fork, you'd go into brass and do yourself no credit.  And the oncommonest workman can't show himself oncommon in a gridiron - for a gridiron is a gridiron," said Joe, steadfastly impressing it upon me, as if he were endeavouring to rouse me from a fixed delusion, "and you may haim at what you like, but a gridiron it will come out, either by your leave or again your leave, and you can't help yourself---"

"My dear Joe," I cried in desperation, taking hold of his coat, "don't go on in this way.  I never thought of making Miss Havisham any present."

"No, Pip," Joe assented, as if he had been contending for that all along, "and what I say to you is, you are right, Pip."
Now, you either do or don't find that incredibly funny.  I do.  I really do.  But what I cannot accept is that it is boring.  How Dickens has got the reputation for being boring, I cannot imagine.  Maybe it's those TV adaptations, after all?  Because I believe that Dickens is, perhaps after P.G. Wodehouse, the best comedic writer that Britain has ever produced.

Whenever humorous writing is discussed, it's a matter of course to point out that humour is impossible to explain, and if you don't find something funny then no amount of argument will change things.  And that's true.  But I think I can pinpoint what it is I love most about Dickens' humour - and it's the verbal tics he gives characters.  I think it's seen better in Our Mutual Friend, but it's present in all the Dickens novels I've read (which amounts only to four, come to think of it.)  Whether it's Jaggers' insistence upon precision or Joe's 'larks' or Wemmick's 'portable property', there is no author, except Patrick Hamilton, who uses repetition so perfectly.  He threads these traits through his novels, always ridiculous but never impossible, and holds together his plots filled by these delightful grotesques.  Grotesque in the sense of odd and exaggerated rather than disgusting.  His characters are not realistic, but, hidden in the surrealism of the stories and their enactors, lie truths and humanity and reality.  Wonderfully sewn up with the absurd.

But Dickens, of course, is not simply a wonderful dance of the ridiculous - the sort which inspires Spark, Comyns, Bowles - but a constant tightrope between the funny and the saccharine.  For while Dickens' reputation for dullness is unwarranted, there is plenty of evidence to support the stereotype of orphans dying, overpowered by the force of their own virtue, Little Nell, etc. etc.  This is the sort of thing which survives most in film and TV adaptations, with inevitable tinkly piano music, and it is an image which does Dickens a disservice.  This strain is mostly kept at bay in Great Expectations, but does escape a bit in the final third.  I tire of it myself, but if that aspect of Dickens' writing were not present, he'd probably be even meaner than Evelyn Waugh.  No sadistic writer ever came up with the ogres and tyrants of Dickens - but because they are not realistic, they are not truly terrifying.  They are menacing only encased in the pantomime and carnival of Dickens' extravagant language.

But it is deservedly Miss Havisham whose light outside Great Expectations has burned brightest.  She is a true original.  Spurned on her wedding day, she lives for years in that moment, in a festering wedding dress.  And she has raised Estella to be cruel and incapable of love, hoping to punish men in revenge for her own broken heart.  Pip is snared.
Then Estella being gone and we two left alone, she turned to me and said in a whisper:

"Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown?  Do you admire her?"

"Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham."

She drew an arm round my neck, and drew my head close down to hers, as she sat in the chair.  "Love her, love her, love her!  How does she use you?"

Before I could answer (if I could have answered so difficult a question at all), she repeated, "Love her, love her, love her!  If she favours you, love her.  If she wounds you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces - and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper - love her, love her, love her!"

Never had I seen such passionate eagerness as was joined to her utterance of these words.  I could feel the muscles of the thin arm round my neck, swell with the vehemence that possessed her.

"Hear me, Pip!  I adopted her to be loved.  I bred her and educated her, to be loved.  I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved.  Love her!"

She said the word often enough, and there could be o doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love - despair - revenge - dire death - it could not have sounded from her lips more than a curse.
As I said earlier, too much happens in Great Expectations to attempt a summary or even an introduction to the plot.  What I really wanted to address is, simply, that Dickens is not dull.  If you've got that impression from television or hearsay, please go and pick up Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend.  I also find Hard Times hilarious, but I recognise that even amongst Dickens-lovers that is rather rare.  I think he is a brilliant comedian, and genuinely unique - although I have mentioned a few other authors in this post by way of comparison, there is really nobody even close to being like him.  You might hate him.  But if you do end up hating Dickens, please hate the real Dickens, and not television's chocolate-box version of him.


  1. Wonderful post, Simon. GE is my favourite Dickens & I'm always moved by Joe, especially at the end when he takes Pip home to recover from the fever. I plan to read some Dickens next year & I'd like to reread GE yet again, there are so many triches in it. Not sure I'm looking forward to the new adaptation. You're right, they rarely get it right although the David Lean film had some wonderful scenes in it.

  2. I certainly don't hate Dickens, but I have found him hard to read (after reading three of his books I hasten to add). I take your point about adaptions, however I do think his style of writing works rather well in other media and I did enjoy the recent (2005) adaption of Bleak House with a wonderful performance by (amongst others) Gillian Anderson. As I haven't read this book, I cannot comment on whether it was in any way the "real" Dickens. I failed to find the Pickwick Papers funny; irritating was my view of it I am sorry to say.

    Happy Christmas!

  3. Your post certainly whets my appetite to read GE - although I am looking forward to the TV - if only for Gillian Anderson. This year I will read some more Dickens - I've not read any since The Christmas Carol for book group some years ago, and have read plenty at various times previously.

  4. I too love Great Expectations though my favourite Dickens is Bleak House. I do find Joe funny but it's humour pierced with sadness and compassion, especially when he visits Pip in London and is so ill at ease, making Pip so shamefully embarrassed. But one thing that's so great about the novel is the way the older Pip, narrating, is able to look back at his younger self and see how crass he was. I recently watched the David Lean film which I have seen umpteen times, and loved it all over again. My mother actually designed the costumes so was responsible for that iconic Miss Havisham look which has so firmly fixed itself in everyone's consciousness. But I am looking forward to the BBC version and don't agree about TV adaptations -- the recent Bleak House was wonderful, and so was Little Dorrit. Gillian Anderson was brilliant in BH and I'm sure will make a terrific Miss H. So hooray for Dickens in whatever medium. Happy boxing day to you!

  5. And by the way I totally agree with Dark Puss about Pickwick Papers which I have never succeeded in even finishing. Dickens definitely improved with age. Try reading Bleak House, Dark Puss!

  6. I love your post Simon! You're right, Dickens adaptations for TV somehow miss the humour. There were a lot more of them around when I was a child, and I used to find them scary! I was in my twenties when I first overcame my prejudice and read my first Dickens novel. I've never looked back since. In fact I've been rationing them because I don't want to run out. Alas, there are only two to go: Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood. I guess I'll have to start all over again when I'm done with those. Maybe of all those I've read, I recall Pickwick Papers as the funniest, but Our Mutual Friend is my favourite. Not just because of the funny characters, but also because of the wonderful descriptions of the River Thames. To me, in fact, the river is a major character of the novel.

  7. I'm doing a "deep dive" into Dickens in January, so was very pleased to read your post. GE and Bleak House are at the top of my stack, along with Nicholas Nickleby, A Short History of England, and Tomalin's new bio. I came to appreciate Dickens as an adult. Giggled my way through Pickwick, and found some little jewels of wisdom in David Copperfield. I think over here that it is the school system that ruins Dickens for most - force feeding GE to high schoolers in painful spoonfuls of analysis and setting them off from ever attempting him again.

  8. You're so right about Joe Gargary; he's so poignantly funny. I love the scene at the Gargary's Christmas party, where poor Pip is being harangued by the guests and Joe (who daren't speak up in his defence) pours more and more gravy on Pip's plate to make up for it.

    Like lots of people I didn't think I liked Dickens until recently, based on some weird prejudices instilled from I don't know where. But now I've read GE and Bleak House, and am half way through Nicholas Nickleby, and am a thorough convert. I'm hearing a lot about Our Mutual Friend, so perhaps that should be next.

  9. My favorite scene in this book is Gargary's Christmas party

  10. I could never get in to Dickens myself. Which of his books is best to start with?

  11. Lyn - thank you! I agree, that scene with Joe (and his misunderstandings during it) are so touching. I must watch the David Lean film again, especially now I know I know the costume designer's daughter!

    Peter - you can step down, soldier! You have tried him enough :) I must dig out Bleak House, which I have on DVD somewhere.

    Annabel - I think GE is a good place to start Dickens Proper, so good luck

  12. Harriet - I have been telling EVERYONE about your mother designing the costumes - very exciting! Of course I made something of a sweeping statement in my review, and I didn't see Bleak House when that was on, but I do think this latest GE (or, at least, part one of it) was a case in point. It was fine; atmospheric, etc., but the exuberance and wit of Dickens wasn't there. They'd just got the gloom and a bit of the mystery. I just don't see how grotesques can be done successfully off the page?

    Marina - aw, thank you! You are definitely a Dickens aficiando, I have to admit that, before GE, the last Dickens novel I read was in 2004 - but I will certainly pick another up before 2018! They are so vast and myriad that I'm sure you could start again and find lots of new things. And I love your point about the river in OMF - so true.

  13. Susan - I agree, Dickens at school is difficult - I think the reader needs to be swept along with him, but reading chapter by painstaking chapter. I was lucky to have a wonderful English teacher who brought all the humour out of Hard Times (even though he didn't like the novel himself!) Hope your dive into Dickens goes well :)

    Victoria - I'd forgotten the gravy scene until you mentioned it - isn't it brilliant? Such a Dickens idea. I delight in readers finding the real Dickens behind his reputation - WHY do people think he's boring, why?

    ac - thanks :)

    Ruby - well, I started with Hard Times, but I understand that a lot of people fail with it. I think Great Expectations could actually be a good way to start, but I have only read four Dickens novels so I'm not the best person to dispense advice! I think GE or Our Mutual Friend would be a good representation, though.

  14. Brilliant post Simon. I have just this minute finished catching up on the BBC's adaptation of GE and I thought it really did the book justice. Gillian Anderson was just perfect as Miss H. I suppose many people will have watched it without actually reading the book so hopefully it'll shake off the cobwebby image and encourage people to pick it up!

    Dickens is a perfect winter read. All of the frost and Victoriana is right up my street. Just finished The Christmas Carol for the first time and the writing is so evocative that it only took just a couple of pages to banish Kermit and Miss Piggy from my mind's eye....

  15. "Now, you either do or don't find that incredibly funny. I do. I really do. But what I cannot accept is that it is boring. How Dickens has got the reputation for being boring, I cannot imagine. Maybe it's those TV adaptations, after all? Because I believe that Dickens is, perhaps after P.G. Wodehouse, the best comedic writer that Britain has ever produced."

    I am one of those who do find Dickens incredibly funny and I honestly dont understand how people miss it. I have re-read several sections of Pickwick Papers over the years to drive away the blues..and even a non-comical novel like Great Expections is brilliantly funny in parts. Dickens was a genius.
    I think the reason that people get bored by Dickens is because their first experience of his work is as 13-14 year trying to deconstruct it as part of high school assignments.
    Even if some of Dickens books are about young adults/kids they are not children's book - you need some understanding of human nature and maturity of the English language to truly appreciate his work.
    The TV adaptations may do their damage but they actually simplify the work - I think people tend to get scared by the sheer volume of words and pages when it comes to Dickens.

  16. I just finished watching the tv adaptation of GE just yesterday and was thinking about how truly evil some of Dickens' creations are. I read GE at school and although I liked it and his other books, I don't think I really appreciated how funny yet how dark Dickens truly is until now. Makes me want to go and read more.

  17. I don't hate Dickens, and I haven't read enough of his work to make a fair judgement of him as an author. But the only one of his books that I've enjoyed is A Tale of Two Cities (which incidentally was the only one I read as a child, and that by choice, so he hasn't been spoiled for me by school experience). Apart from that I've read David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations and Dombey and Son, and found them largely dull, not at all funny, and frankly not really worth the effort - and it was an effort! What am I missing?

  18. Relish - thank you! And you're so right - although I don't have any other 'seasonal' authors, Dickens only feels right in winter. The long, dark evenings to read long books?

    Vipula - thanks so much for your comment - sometimes, when people (like my brother) say he isn't funny, I doubt myself.. but he is, he is! So, so funny. I must read The Pickwick Papers, I think it'd be up my street.

    Sakura - that's always my hope with TV adaptations - that they send people to the books! He really is the master of dark comedy.

    Rosie - sorry to hear that! I don't you're ever going to find it funny, then - I think comic books either work for each reader, or they don't, and no amount of effort and reasoning will change that! I'd cut your losses... ;)


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