Well, what a book to end 2013 on, as I have to admit that I have been reading Charles Dickens celebrated ‘Great Expectations’ right up to the deadline of today which AJ and myself set for this, the third, instalment of Classically Challenged, and I think having completed it I might have a bit of time off from reading for a while. This I have to admit has been the book I have been looking forward to the most and the least all at once. For years and years, much to the dismay of my mother and grandmother and several followers and a few critics of the blog, I have gone on and on about how I didn’t, and wouldn’t, like Charles Dickens and that he was simply paid per word and so wrote too many of them, without having read a word. Well, now I have and I have to hold my hands up and say that I was wrong. That said, I don’t want any ‘I told you so’s’ because whilst it truly was very much a book I enjoyed, and will most probably read Charlie-Boy again because of, I still have the odd reservation.
It seems a little silly to sum up the story of Charles Dickens thirteenth, unlucky for some but not for him, novel because I am pretty sure most of the world knows it, however here it is. ‘Great Expectations’ is really the story of Pip, Pirrip Philip, and his young and formative years. As we meet him, well as we learn after he is accosted and scared to death by convict Abel Magwitch in a cemetery, he is living with his sister and her husband, the local blacksmith, on the breadline in the marshes of Kent. Soon after, at the request of his uncle-in-law Uncle Pumblechook, he finds himself at Satis House and hired in a way as the playmate of the adopted daughter, the rather cold Estella, of a wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham. He falls in love with Estella and his meeting with her and Miss Havisham seems to be the start of a change in his life as whilst training to be a blacksmith with his uncle Joe he receives a large income from an anonymous benefactor and can instead become a gentleman, only as we go on with Pip’s journey we discover great fortune might not bring him happiness or the love he so wants.
Of course this is not the whole story, merely a teaser if you have yet to read the book, as following these events Dickens weaves twists and turns into the narrative which I wasn’t expecting (no pun intended) along with random off shooting stories for some of the lesser characters which create one of these wonderful Dickensian worlds I have always heard so much about.
Did I enjoy the story? Yes. Was it what I expected (pun not intended)? No. In many ways ‘Great Expectations’ was much more than I could have wished for. I became completely immersed in the world that Dickens’s created for Pip and followed his life with great interest. I loved the gloomy and dark opening of the misty marshes at the start, and was completely hooked by Miss Havisham from the first scene in which we met her. In fact I did at several points wonder why on earth Charles Dickens had not just written an entire book about her. I mean in hindsight the tale of Miss Havisham and the forever jilted bride has become the most famous part of this tale hasn’t it?
“I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”
When Miss Havisham appeared, a lot like when Magwitch appears in the cemetery, the book really came alive for me. The gothic elements of it all, and indeed the pre-Victorian London did spring to life when Pip’s journey takes him there. I will say though that if the story was merely just about Pip without these extra characters, or just about him and Estella (why he fell for her I simply couldn’t understand), I don’t think I would have fared so well. He is a bizarre character in many ways, not likeable really but not dislikeable, and one I couldn’t decide if Dickens liked or not as sometimes he seemed to be the butt of Dickens jokes. Here was a shocker for me; Dickens is really quite funny when he wants to be. Pip seemed to like being a bit of a victim, which sounds awful but there are people out there like this, and rather a drama queen and I would find myself laughing out loud at things when they happened to him, was Dickens wanting us all to do this I wondered?
“I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.”
These wonderful quotes do bring me to a very important topic – Dickens’ prose. Overall I really liked it; I was at its heart proper storytelling. It is this storytelling nature that makes me think it is so interesting that prose that was written for the masses and serialised has become seen as some of the greatest around. He creates atmospheres and characters brilliantly, sometimes merely in a name we learn everything about a characters traits, whilst also introducing lots of strands of stories weaving off to the left and right of the main narrative. He is a little over wordy though on occasion, being paid per word I am sure I would be too, but occasionally this can become repetitive and on occasion I found myself thinking ‘blooming heck Mr Dickens, why use a word when you can use six paragraphs?’ Part of this might have been my impatience of wanting to know what happened and part of it might simply be that I was reading it straight, not in serial, and with a deadline – either way I noticed it, it wasn’t a major problem it just made me wonder if the sense of atmosphere and wonderful characters could sustain me through a monster like ‘Bleak House’ for example? Also, how on earth did Dickens want to make this story even longer, as was the original plan?
This all makes me sound rather grumpy and as if I didn’t like it and I did. I think what frustrated me though was that I think Wilkie Collins does it better (which I fancy having made on a t-shirt) especially the twists and the suspense in his books and yet doesn’t get half the credit Dickens does, it seems unfair. That small point made, I got a lot more than I expected (pun now intended) from ‘Great Expectations’. It was far, far, far more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I loved the atmosphere of the novel, especially when it was at its darkest, and some of the characters – mainly Miss Havisham – will stay with me for years to come. I was also impressed by how funny it could be in parts. Oh and, as this seems to be a big point of discussion with this book, I much preferred the original ending that Dickens came up with to the revised, but we can discuss that in the comments not to give anything away for those who you who haven’t read it, or Dickens, yet – and I would recommend everyone give this book a whirl.
So who else has read ‘Great Expectations’, though really I know probably most of you who visit here have and I am very late to this Dickensian party, and what did you think? Who is still a bit dubious? Now I have given this a whirl, and you have seen what in his books/prose do and don’t work for me, would you suggest I try next? Oh and don’t forget to check AJ’s thoughts when they go up, he is poorly so they may be late.