It’s been a good few years since I’ve read any Dickens novels (15 to be exact when I stumbled through “The Mystery Of Edwin Drood”) but I was certainly keen to do so after reading Peter Ackroyd’s majestic biography earlier this year. I hadn’t read “Great Expectations” since I was at college and rediscovering this now has put Dickens back up into my Top 3 most-read authors (ironically leap-frogging over his biographer Peter Ackroyd).
I have had a copy of this on my shelves for decades. When I was 18 an Aunt bought me the introductory offer for a Charles Dickens book club from Heron Books. I bought a few more myself over the next few months but became miffed that some of the bigger books were printed in two volumes and thus cost twice as much and so cancelled my subscription. My aunt had thought it sensible that I should buy books that would last rather than paperbacks and she was right as my one chunky volume of “Great Expectations” has certainly lasted.
Once again my feelings about this, Dickens’ 13th and penultimate finished novel have been confirmed. In the first part, really up until Pip goes to London, we not only have Dickens’ best writing and story-telling but one of the greatest opening sections of any novel ever. (Ditto the 1946 film version which scared the living daylights out of me as child and may be one of the reasons why my response feels so entrenched). The encounter on the marshes, the Christmas meal, the capture, Miss Havisham and Estella are all exceptional moments. When Pip moves to London with his Great Expectations intact (or when John Mills becomes Pip in the film) the disappointment begins to creep in. His relationship with the Pocket family, Wemmick and his aged parent, Drummle and Startop would probably involve me more in other of Dickens’ novels but here it feels like he is treading water, in reality, keeping the monthly editions churning. Admittedly, as the plot thickens when Pip is faced with the truth about his fortunes things certainly pick up if not quite to the level of the sheer magnificence of the opening.
This does, however, taken as a whole, remain one of Dickens’ greatest works and deserves a lofty place in the canon of English Literature. It is one of the great first-person narratives. There is the controversy of the three endings which Dickens wrote, which I can vaguely recall but always find myself having to look up the information about that because I can’t seem to retain how they are different (although I do know how this aspect influenced John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”). The version I read favoured the third ending, although this is apparently not always the case in the published editions available. I think, being of a cynical nature, I might have approved of the less happy ending which Wilkie Collins persuaded Dickens to revise- I’m not sure Estella could ever be trusted.
First published in 1861. “Great Expectations” is available in many versions in all formats.