The recent adaptation of Great Expectations screened by the BBC made me decide to revisit this book by Dickens, which I have not read for many a year. I remember studying it at school for my English Literature O Level, a process which is the kiss of death to enjoyment, and then read it again a few years later. Since then nothing. However, the story, characters and quotes have stayed in my mind all my adult life so it obviously made an impression on me.
So I turned to it again, some forty years older and, I hope, wiser with more Dickens under my belt and more knowledge of the author from various biographies and crits I have read and found that this made a huge difference. When I first read it I simply thought Estella was an unpleasant nasty spiteful little girl with no understanding of why she behaved that way, Pip a scared little boy who grew up to be rather snobby and unpleasant and ashamed of his origins, and I disliked them both.
Now of course it is impossible to read any of Dickens’s works that feature a childhood without realising how much of the childish misery and terror described was experienced by the young Charles. David Copperfield is the most autobiographical of all his works and the author reacquainted himself with this work before he wrote Great Expectations. Pip’s sad childhood, with the exception of Joe, is similar in many ways to that of David Copperfield, both orphaned and both at the mercy of an unkind guardian.
Later when Pip is in London and is a ‘gentleman’ his treatment of Joe and Biddy is pretty unforgiveable, but now I view this with a more understanding eye. Dickens, as we now all know, treated his wife shamefully and behaved appallingly and, in my personal onion, I think he knew that he had and suffered for it for the rest of his life. He made excuses for his actions calling Catherine an unfit mother and saying the children disliked her also, a classic example of a guilty person trying to shift the blame to the victim. It made Dickens miserable, though he would never admit it, and I believe his self knowledge left him feeling conscience stricken and unhappy for the rest of his life.
I find a reflection of this in Pip. He is snobbish and weak and rejects Joe and is ashamed of him, and yet deep down he knows he is wrong and unkind in his attitude and seeks to constantly reassure himself that he means no harm. As the narrative is in the first person, there are many passages when Pip tells the reader and reassures them what a fine fellow Joe is and that he really should appreciate him more. He admits he is treating him badly as if acknowledging this will bring some kind of absolution for his actions.
Pip is an abused child, not only physically, his sister seemed to beat him regularly with ‘the Tickler’ but is also denigrated and made to feel worthless by all around, including Mr Pumblechook, and it is here that Joe is unable to help at all. Joe is portrayed and accepted by most readers as a kind, almost saintly person, but I rather disagree with this when he is so passive at the treatment Pip receives as a child. Though Pip defends him stoutly it is clear that Joe belongs to the ‘anything for an easy life’ school of thought and he makes no attempt to stand up to his wife. I think this is what makes Joe so forgiving and understanding of Pip’s later rejection – he knows that he let him down.
So we have one abused child and then we have another – Estella. Adopted and brought up by Miss Havisham to hate men and to wreak revenge on the whole race on Miss Havisham’s behalf, she may have had all she wanted in the way of riches and education, but personality was stunted and ruined by the mental abuse she unknowingly underwent.
The three main protagonists in Great Expectations, Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham are all, therefore, damaged people and it is this struggle against their upbringing and their search for happiness which is at the heart of this book. For me, at any rate. This is what I found so fascinating about this latest read and which proves to me why a classic is a classic. I have re-read many of Dickens, the Brontes, Eliot as I have grown up and matured and each time find something new in it which I did not spot before. One example is Mansfield Park. When first read, oh boring thought I, boring dreary priggish Fanny Price. Then I read it a second, third, fourth time and many more re-reads and now I think it is close to being Austen’s most mature and finest book.
But what else can I say about Great Expectations? I could go on and on or hours I loved this so much. Characters which I thought peripheral and only pop up once or twice, or not at all in dramatisations, are here to be enjoyed. Mr Pumblechook, pompous and full of himself who likes to tell everyone he was Pip’s friend and mentor once he was up in London and owning to this enhanced his reputation when, as we all know, he treated him badly. Jaggers, the solicitor who I always remember washing his hands with scented soap, these little descriptions do stay with one. Then Wemmick, lovely kind Wemmick with a mouth ‘like a post box’. (Many years ago there was an actor Randolph Scott who always played in old Hollywood westerns who had such a mouth. It was square and like a slit and when I first read the description of Wemmick this actor popped into my mind and has stayed there ever since. Very annoying).
Then there is the Aged P. I called my mother this for years, with affection I hasten to add, and she understood why and liked it. The relationship between Wemmick and his parent, his delightful little house altered to look like a castle which he kept totally separate from his City persona, is sheer delight and here Pip finds true friendship and support.
Herbert Pocket – a marvellous character, lively and humorous and a loyal and true friend. I love his nickname for Pip, ‘Handel’ because of that composer’s Harmonious Blacksmith, thus showing Pip that though he knows his origins it makes no difference to him.
I was totally absorbed by this re-read. I simply could not put the book down. Knowing the story so well I slipped into it straight away and was thus able to enjoy much more of the detail and humour than I had hitherto. I also found the final scenes with Miss Havisham moving which I never had before as, alone and deserted by Estella, it becomes clear that she loves Pip;
“Oh what have I done?” she cried despairingly.....and so again, twenty, fifty times over. What had she done!
“Miss Havisham, you may dismiss me from your mind and conscience....but Estella is a different case....”
“Yes, I know. But Pip, my dear” There was an earnest womanly compassion for me in her new affection”
And then after the fire which eventually kills her:
“I leaned over her and touched her lips with mine, just as they said, not stopping for being touched ‘Take the pencil and write under my name’ I forgive her”
Pip now loses one of the mainstays of his life and he returns to London to face Magwitch for whom he now has great affection and, in the attempt to get him out of the country which fails, he then has to sit at his deathbed and lose him too.
“As the days went on, I noticed more and more that he would lie placidly looking at the white ceiling, with an absence of light in his face, until some word of mine brightened it for an instant....”
“You always wait at the gate don’t you dear boy?” “Yes, not to lose a moment of the time”
“Thankee dear boy. God bless you! You’ve never deserted me dear boy”
I pressed his hand in silence for I could not forget that I had one meant to desert him”
I had difficulty in reading this last page as my eyes had filled up and were very blurry. I found it all inexpressibly moving.
So at the end of the book Pip has lost everything. His two mentors, Miss Havisham and Magwitch. His friend Pocket has gone abroad for his firm (this is one of the most disinterested gestures made by Pip as it was he who provided the capital for this venture all unknown to Herbert), he has lost Estella who has married the vile Bentley Drummle, all his money has gone and he becomes desperately ill. He is nursed tenderly by Joe and I feel the wheel has now come full circle. He cares and tends for Pip as he failed to do when Pip was a child, Pip learns to love and appreciate him once more and Dickens brings it all to a sombre and serene conclusion.
And what of Estella? We know that Dickens wrote a very downbeat ending when Pip returns after many years from working abroad and they meet briefly and go their separate ways. Though I can understand that this is more in tune with the final resolution, part of me is rather glad that he was persuaded to write a happier ending though I am not sure that Dickens was ever comfortable with it.
“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place and as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her”
Oh how I loved reading this again. I have endeavoured to remember what my OU tutor said when I was writing an essay and to put my thoughts into order and tie them all up at the end when writing this post. I am not sure I have succeeded but if it makes you want to read or re-read Great Expectations then my tutor can go hang and I will be a happy bunny.
Why did I leave it so long to read this again? Answer comes there none....