I am pretty embarrassed that I got to thirty years old without ever reading this book. I’m also a little annoyed that it was so good. I thought, after university, that Dickens and I had parted ways forever – and I was pretty happy at that. I’d read David Copperfield and not got much out of it (I found David to be a bit of a sentimental sap; in my eighteen-year-old way, I was more interested in twentieth century grit and postcolonial fiction), and I’d struggled through Little Dorrit, which I still think is a ridiculous text to set as part of a university course. I read A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago, mainly because I couldn’t find my DVD of the Muppet version, but A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that you know so well, it’s impossible to judge objectively.
So, I thought I’d managed to excise a good ten books from the cannon, which was frankly a bit of a relief because that still left plenty that I hadn’t read. However, swayed by the views of Susan Hill and Nick Hornby, both of whom have written a favourite ‘book about books’ (Howard’s End is on the Landing and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree), I decided to give Dickens another go.
I started slowly. I had downloaded Great Expectations onto my Kindle, for times when I didn’t want to tote around the Penguin paperback, and it took me a good week to get to 9%. (This is unlike me.) Then, one Sunday morning, I took the paperback into the bath with me. I was very, very wrinkly by the time I could bring myself to get out. From that moment on, I was hooked.
A lot of people have said a lot of things about Dickens. I won’t talk about how well he creates characters (although he does), managing to find pathos even in caricatures, because it’s been said before. (Miss Havisham is awesome, by the way. Despite, or maybe because of, her flaws – all of which seem to come from a bottomless well of heartbreak.)
I won’t spend a lot of time on his portrait of obsessive, unselfish love, although from experience I think it’s pretty much spot on:
‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.’
And I won’t talk about that ending, because I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was gorgeously complex, even in the revised form which Dickens was pressured into writing.
I will talk a little bit about the thing that held me and surprised me the most, which was how funny the book is. I always found people who laughed at old novels a bit pretentious; with the possible exception of Jane Austen, I never found humour to translate that well across the centuries. But the ridiculousness of Pumblechook, the high jinks of Pip and his friends, and some of the scenes with the Aged P are comedy gold. And that’s before you even get to the inherent funniness of the child narrator. Dickens pitches young Pip perfectly, an earnest reporter of exactly what is said, and leaving the hypocrisy of those around him unsaid but obvious.
Don’t get me wrong. Pretty much everything I’ve ever read about Dickens points out and apologises for his flaws – sentimentality, verbosity, a tendency to caricature – and they’re all here, although I think they’re maybe less obvious than in some of the longer novels. But overall, I loved Great Expectations, and I really wasn’t expecting to.
Which is, as I said, kind of annoying, because it puts the rest of Dickens back on the table. But I’ll forgive Pip and friends for that. Just.