Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

I may have just finished my MA in Victorian Literature, but I’m quite unfamiliar with Charles Dickens’s novels. However I had read A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) before I started Great Expectations, so I knew I was in for a treat. I wouldn’t consider myself a Dickens enthusiast but I do believe he is one the greatest storytellers of all times. With Great Expectations, your attention is caught from the very start with the gripping scene of the young orphan Pip being threatened by a convict on the run. I find it tricky to summarise a Victorian novel like this one; they are filled with more or less relevant story lines and characters, and chances are we all have different opinions as to which are better or more important. Essentially, this is the story of Pip who is destined to be a blacksmith but, thanks to an anonymous benefactor (ah, generous Victorian benefactors, how I wish they still existed today!), goes to London to be educated and become a gentleman.

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My copy is from the Penguin English Library collection, with an afterword by George Bernard Shaw (2012) – it’s very pretty but has seen better days indeed

What makes this novel stands out from the rest is Miss Havisham. When Pip is a boy, she requests he comes to visit her and her adoptive daughter, Estella, every week to play. Miss Havisham is an old woman for whom time has stopped on her wedding day, when she received a letter from her fiancé putting an end to the union. She is still wearing her wedding dress and her moth-eaten veil, and in her house, clocks have stopped at the same time and the table is still ready for the wedding reception – including the rotten leftovers of the wedding cake. The scenes in which little Pip visits Miss Havisham are my favourites, by far. Dickens uses Gothic tropes such as ghostly apparitions, the old mansion that serves as a prison – Estella being trapped in this time capsule by her adoptive mother – and introduces quirky characters in scenes that do not make much sense to Pip or the reader. In a little house in the yard, there is a boy who asks Pip if he wants to have fight, Pip has to walk Miss Havisham in a wheel chair singing a blacksmith song, etc. It’s all so wonderfully strange, I loved the atmosphere and really took time to savour my reading of these passages.

One of my favourite things to find in Victorian novels is London, or rather, characters walking streets I walk too. This might be personal as I find that some people are quite indifferent to it when I share my joy of reading novels that take place ‘RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET! OH MY GOD, IT’S HERE, IT’S WHERE I LIVE! I’M LIKE A VICTORIAN, I KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT’. I should also add that I come from a place which is absolutely never mentioned in novels, or films, or TV, or anything for that matter. I guess that if you’re from London or its surroundings, it not very surprising for you to see familiar places in films or books. But in any case, Dickens describes London in such an atmospheric way and writes about places that you can still see today. For example, in Great Expectations, the lawyer, Jaggers, has his office in Little Britain (the part of the street along Postman’s Park probably looks very much like what Dickens had in mind) and when Pip walks around Smithfield, he mentions the strong smell coming from the meat and poultry market which can definitely still be smelt today (although the current building was built a few years after the novel was released so I am sure the smell was nauseating back then).

A picture of Little Britain I took about a year ago

All in all, Great Expectations is a wonderful novel to read as it is thoroughly entertaining. Despite its length, it’s also very accessible in its writing style and subject matter. After all, social mobility, money and heartbreak are still at the core of our concerns today.

Cover image is a still from David Lean’s adaptation of the novel (1946).

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