Doctor Who is on downstairs, and since I am both (a) not a fan of Doctor Who, and (b) a coward, I am sitting in my room and writing a blog post about Great Expectations. There is something of a link, though, since people in Britain will be able to watch an adaptation of Great Expectations on 27th December – I’m looking forward to it, even with Dickens adaptations being, in general, not so great. What makes Dickens so brilliant, to my mind, is the way he writes the narrative, and the pacing of the dialogue – which is usually lost on television, for some reason. More on that later…
I actually started Great Expectations over a year ago – I held off reading it too quickly in the final days of December 2010 lest it unsettle my Top Books of 2010… and yet, the year whirled by, and I finished it after having compiled my Top Books of 2011. It might have been on there. Now we’ll never know…
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.
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.