Introducing “Great Expectations” (1861) the proposer drew attention to the key facts of Dickens’ biography. These included the formative years he spent as a child in a boot-blacking factory while the rest of his family were in the debtors’ prison, and his early years as a law court reporter. This novel was the second last complete novel Dickens was to write. The episodic method of original publication could be detected in the book, but the proposer did not feel it harmed the novel. For the proposer, this novel, even when little was happening, was simply scintillating – in its descriptions, which evoked the very texture of what was being described, its subtle humour, its characters, and in so many different ways. But perhaps Dickens was an acquired taste – how did the wider group feel?
Slightly more than half of the group were in the pro-Dickens camp. “My favourite author after Shakespeare, whom I read again and again”. “Coming back to the novel again after a long period I found more layers in it than I expected – simply superb”. “It was all intelligent design”. “I particularly love the humour”. “Above all I love the texture of his writing – the freshness and vitality of the language, the originality of the similes and metaphors, the brilliance of perception on every page”.
A substantial minority tendency – several of whom had bad memories of Dickens being force-fed to them at school – was less enthused. Some disliked the dated language. They felt the novel rambled, particularly in the middle section, eg in the passages about the Pocket family and the extraneous scenes about plays (but wait a minute, interjected the majority tendency, this is an unusually compact and disciplined novel for Dickens!). It was dark in every sense – both descriptively and in the dysfunctional relationships it portrayed.
One – although a fan of other nineteenth century novelists – had disliked Dickens as a young reader. He had liked him a bit more this time, but still found fault with the sentimentality, the characters being portrayed as caricatures, and the implausibility of the plots. Give him a cooler, more rational author! Indeed, he ventured to suggest (hot-foot from an audience with the Emperor Alex, no doubt coincidentally) that Dickens’ faults might be characteristically English! And was it not telling that Scott had outsold Dickens in the nineteenth century (half the novels sold in the nineteenth century being by Scott), and must have had a bigger international reputation?
Daggers drawn and we were off. Have you forgotten about Dickens’ fame in America? That Tolstoy quoted him as a major influence? That Marx said: “Dickens issued to the world more political and social truths than have been issued by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together”. And Scott was writing earlier with fewer competitors.
Sentimentality? Well, suggested one, much of the “sentimentality” revolved around the figure of Joe, and Pip’s feelings really comprised guilt mixed with nostalgia for life in the forge. But most readers did find sentimentality, and sentimentality was by no means a feature of all Victorian novelists. The problem was that Dickens lost his sense of humour when writing in sentimental vein. And there were some surprisingly brutal comments from Pip about old people needing to die – wasn’t violence the flip-side of sentimentality, as could be witnessed in American culture?
More political incorrectness! Whatever next?
Well the next thing was a dog running into the room with a strange sort of plastic light shade round its neck. It nosed through the legs of the group but no-one seemed to notice except your correspondent. Was I imagining this? How much of that el cheapo red had I had? But back to note-taking…
Too many implausible coincidences for the minority report! But, hold on, were they so implausible when you think that Jaggers was the fulcrum of the plot, bringing the protagonists together? Modern authors also used coincidences as plot devices – for example Ian Fleming. And the book was certainly a fine illustration of how one chance event – Pip meeting the convict on the marshes – could determine the whole course of a life.
And when were the events set? The proposer resolved this by pointing out that Dickens had left a manuscript note of dates for planning the novel. This suggested that Magwitch was born in 1760 and Miss Haversham in 1764, and the opening scenes of the novel set in 1803.
And what age was Pip meant to be when he recounted his tale? Some felt he was telling the tale just after his final encounter with Estella – for no reference was made to any subsequent events. Others, however, felt that the nostalgic, almost elegiac, tone suggested this was the work of a man near the end of his life.
Dickens’ heroes and heroines were normally cardboard cut-outs, with his great characters being the comic minor players, defined by some memorable trait or phrase (such as Pip’s sister being “on the rampage”). However, Pip and Estella were more interesting than most. Pip was very rare amongst Dickens’ characters in undergoing a transformation of character through experience. (Well, if these characters are interesting, how boring must his other heroes and heroines be, observed one). But there was agreement that Magwitch and Miss Havisham were great characters, and most found the minor characters such as Pumblechook highly amusing. Miss Havisham was a deliberately fantastical character (suffering, in Pip’s words, from a monstrous “vanity of sorrow”).
One of the main themes of the novel was that of identity. Miss Havisham wanted to forge Estella’s identity as a man-hater, just as Magwitch wanted to turn Pip into a gentleman. Both these representatives of an older generation wanted to live vicariously through the younger. Orphans – lacking identity – abounded. Wemmick explicitly had two identities – the heartless one for the law office, and the other for home. Clothes were often the expression of attempts to find a new identity, most amusingly in Pip’s scenes with Trabb the Tailor (and wasn’t Trabb’s boy one of the funniest of Dickens’ creations, particularly in the scene where he humiliated the rich returning Pip?). And even the apparently irrelevant scenes with Wopsle at the theatre showed another country dweller trying to find an urban identity, while Mrs Pocket showed someone who had sought the enhanced identity of a title.
And what about Jaggers? There was much amusement at the satire on his legalistic mode of conversation and on his coaching witnesses, part of the wider attack on the legal establishment in the novel. Particularly fine was the dinner scene in which he – and Wemmick – displayed to Pip just the tiniest amount of humanity. And were we to assume that his human nature was displayed more fully in a relationship with his housekeeper – she of the thick wrists and wild temperament – which Victorian mores could not allow Dickens to portray directly?
The majority tendency were fans of Dickens’ descriptive writing. Imagery of marshes, mists and the dark decay of London haunted the novel. Mist was deployed as a symbol to convey both a sense of mystery about the past and of uncertainty about the future. Dickens’ later novels such as “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were similarly powerful in their use of dark brooding imagery.
Dickens could be seen as the poet of urban squalor. Although he portrayed it as horrible, he also conveyed a sense of fascination, and it was difficult even nowadays to see parts of London without seeing it through his eyes as “Dickensian”. One of his devices for creating atmosphere was to depict things – buildings, trees or furniture for example – as people. Thus:
“ Mr Jaggers’s room was … a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it…”
At the same time as he anthropomorphised things, he would depict his comic characters, particularly his caricatures, as things – for example describing Webbit’s face as a post box.
(And there was the dog with the plastic cone round its neck running round the room again… why could no-one else see him?)
Dickens was the great Victorian novelist of the city (while Hardy was the great Victorian novelist of the countryside). People had flooded into the cities with the Industrial Revolution, and there was a need for artists to provide them with ways of feeling about, seeing, and interpreting urban life. Dickens’ fondness for endings that showed unexpected family links between characters could be seen as responding to the sense of isolation that people felt in the amorphous mass of the city.
So what of the ending of this novel? What did we make of Pip’s behaviour? Arguably he had only done two good things in his life: helping Magwitch (out of fear) and helping Herbert (partly out of a patronising misunderstanding of his capability). On the other hand, he had finally gone back to accept the moral compass provided by the lowly born Joe (a gentleman in the moral not the financial sense) and Biddy. And he had been shamefully manipulated. Well, yes – but wasn’t rushing back to propose to Biddy having ignored her for years just another example of his presumption?
Was Pip a broken man at the end? For some yes, and Estella was a broken woman. For others they had both learnt and were simply sadder and wiser. They had been purged of snobbery in Pip’s case and heartlessness in Estella’s (“sorted out by Bentley Drummle” in one member’s inimitable phrase). We reached agreement on the formula that they were broken but not ruined.
Was Dickens right to change the ending at Bulwer Lytton’s suggestion? For some suggesting reconciliation with Estella put a sentimental gloss on what would have been a fairly hard-edged conclusion. For others the new ending was famously ambiguous. Others wondered if it really mattered – there were other novels such as “The Return of the Native” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” which worked well with alternative endings.
So – challenged the minority tendency – was Dickens really much read these days? Well, you could find copies of all his novels in the bookshops, which was more than could be said for many famous modern authors. And think of the large number of his characters, such as Mr Micawber, Uriah Heep, Miss Havisham or Oliver Twist who had become household names embodying certain types of human behaviour. The endless television dramatisations no doubt also contributed to keeping him in people’s minds.
Dickens lent himself to television, suggested one, because he wrote his scenes in dramatic form. Unfortunately, however, television tended to take the drama but miss out the humour. And what a great sense of humour! Just imagine what, for example, Dickens would have made of a Book Group solemnly discussing his work when a dog with a gigantic plastic collar round its neck was running between their legs…
(So I hadn’t imagined it! What a relief! A tumbler of negus for me, please!)
Soon the assembled company was spilling out into the autumn night, with the minority tendency conceding to the majority tendency that the book had at least been more enjoyable than they had feared. Not that anything said had made either party change its mind…