What can I possibly say about Great Expectations (1861) and Charles Dickens? I suspect the outline of the plot is known to most of us - Pip looks back on his life, starting with a graveyard encounter with a terrifying convict... Miss Havisham... Estella... Jaggers... and Bob's your uncle. Because, of course, the plot is too complicated and strange to recount in any detail. The characters are too many and manifold, some of which (like Miss Havisham) have entered the nation's consciousness - others, equally wonderful, have not. Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who complains at all times of having to 'bring him up by hand', is equally wonderful an invention. Kind, honest Joe Gargery ("Pip - what larks!"), with his twisting attempts at speech, meaning all sentences seem to start with the word 'which', is about the loveliest character in any novel I've ever read. Here he is, in conversation with Pip, who has stopped visiting Miss Havisham and is now Joe's apprentice (the typos are his):
Now, you either do or don't find that incredibly funny. I do. I really do. But what I cannot accept is that it is boring. How Dickens has got the reputation for being boring, I cannot imagine. Maybe it's those TV adaptations, after all? Because I believe that Dickens is, perhaps after P.G. Wodehouse, the best comedic writer that Britain has ever produced."Here am I, getting on in the first year of my time, and since the day of my being bound I have never thanked Miss Havisham, or asked after her, or shown that I remember her."
"That's true, Pip; and unless you was to turn her out a set of shoes all four round - and which I meantersay as even a set of shoes all four round might not act acceptable as a present in a total wacancy of hoofs --"
"I don't mean that sort of remembrance, Joe; I don't mean a present."
But Joe had got the idea of a present in his head and must harp upon it. "Or even," said he, "if you was helped to knocking her up a new chain for the front door - or say a gross or two of shark-headed screws for general use - or some light fancy article, such as a toasting-fork when she took her muffins - or a gridiron when she took a sprat or such like ---"
"I don't mean any present at all, Joe," I interposed.
"Well," said Joe, still harping on it as though I had particularly pressed it, "if I was yourself, Pip, I wouldn't. No, I would not. For what's a door-chain when she's got one always up? And shark-headers is open to misrepresentations. And if it was a toasting-fork, you'd go into brass and do yourself no credit. And the oncommonest workman can't show himself oncommon in a gridiron - for a gridiron is a gridiron," said Joe, steadfastly impressing it upon me, as if he were endeavouring to rouse me from a fixed delusion, "and you may haim at what you like, but a gridiron it will come out, either by your leave or again your leave, and you can't help yourself---"
"My dear Joe," I cried in desperation, taking hold of his coat, "don't go on in this way. I never thought of making Miss Havisham any present."
"No, Pip," Joe assented, as if he had been contending for that all along, "and what I say to you is, you are right, Pip."
Whenever humorous writing is discussed, it's a matter of course to point out that humour is impossible to explain, and if you don't find something funny then no amount of argument will change things. And that's true. But I think I can pinpoint what it is I love most about Dickens' humour - and it's the verbal tics he gives characters. I think it's seen better in Our Mutual Friend, but it's present in all the Dickens novels I've read (which amounts only to four, come to think of it.) Whether it's Jaggers' insistence upon precision or Joe's 'larks' or Wemmick's 'portable property', there is no author, except Patrick Hamilton, who uses repetition so perfectly. He threads these traits through his novels, always ridiculous but never impossible, and holds together his plots filled by these delightful grotesques. Grotesque in the sense of odd and exaggerated rather than disgusting. His characters are not realistic, but, hidden in the surrealism of the stories and their enactors, lie truths and humanity and reality. Wonderfully sewn up with the absurd.
But Dickens, of course, is not simply a wonderful dance of the ridiculous - the sort which inspires Spark, Comyns, Bowles - but a constant tightrope between the funny and the saccharine. For while Dickens' reputation for dullness is unwarranted, there is plenty of evidence to support the stereotype of orphans dying, overpowered by the force of their own virtue, Little Nell, etc. etc. This is the sort of thing which survives most in film and TV adaptations, with inevitable tinkly piano music, and it is an image which does Dickens a disservice. This strain is mostly kept at bay in Great Expectations, but does escape a bit in the final third. I tire of it myself, but if that aspect of Dickens' writing were not present, he'd probably be even meaner than Evelyn Waugh. No sadistic writer ever came up with the ogres and tyrants of Dickens - but because they are not realistic, they are not truly terrifying. They are menacing only encased in the pantomime and carnival of Dickens' extravagant language.
But it is deservedly Miss Havisham whose light outside Great Expectations has burned brightest. She is a true original. Spurned on her wedding day, she lives for years in that moment, in a festering wedding dress. And she has raised Estella to be cruel and incapable of love, hoping to punish men in revenge for her own broken heart. Pip is snared.
As I said earlier, too much happens in Great Expectations to attempt a summary or even an introduction to the plot. What I really wanted to address is, simply, that Dickens is not dull. If you've got that impression from television or hearsay, please go and pick up Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend. I also find Hard Times hilarious, but I recognise that even amongst Dickens-lovers that is rather rare. I think he is a brilliant comedian, and genuinely unique - although I have mentioned a few other authors in this post by way of comparison, there is really nobody even close to being like him. You might hate him. But if you do end up hating Dickens, please hate the real Dickens, and not television's chocolate-box version of him.Then Estella being gone and we two left alone, she turned to me and said in a whisper:
"Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown? Do you admire her?"
"Everybody must who sees her, Miss Havisham."
She drew an arm round my neck, and drew my head close down to hers, as she sat in the chair. "Love her, love her, love her! How does she use you?"
Before I could answer (if I could have answered so difficult a question at all), she repeated, "Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces - and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper - love her, love her, love her!"
Never had I seen such passionate eagerness as was joined to her utterance of these words. I could feel the muscles of the thin arm round my neck, swell with the vehemence that possessed her.
"Hear me, Pip! I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!"
She said the word often enough, and there could be o doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love - despair - revenge - dire death - it could not have sounded from her lips more than a curse.