Great Expectations

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Eeek. Can my writing skills really live up to this review. I think not but, a couple of months ago I had one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in well over a year, courtesy of the great man himself. So…I have to give it a go don’t I?

Great Expectations is the definitive coming of age tale, a legendary story by which so many other pieces of wonderful fiction and other art have been based. The tale of the young upstart ‘Pip’ and his rise to life as a gentleman is universal and one we are always going to place ‘great expectation’ in ourselves. Finally reading this novel is a huge step in my literary education, one that I should have rectified much sooner. Having experienced a whirlwind of emotion and intricacy of plot that far surpasses some of his other writing, I really can’t say what took me so long.

Growing up on the bleak Kent marshes with his cruel older sister and her kindly, humble husband Joe Gargey, Pip is a frustrated young man. Seemingly hampered from escaping what he sees as a life of dullness and drudgery in the blacksmith’s forge, he longs for adventure and opportunity. Following a brief yet terrifying encounter with an escaped convict he assists out on the salt marshes one Christmas, this opportunity eventually arrives in the form of an invitation to the mysterious Satis House, as Pip is thrust into the gloom of Miss Havisham’s bridal chamber as a plaything for the jilted bride and her adopted daughter Estella. This strange period of his childhood acts as the catalyst for Pip’s introduction into society as he is, some years later, bequeathed a large amount of money by a mysterious benefactor. Pip shuns his simple life (and the humble people who reside with it), moves to London and embarks on a career as a young gentleman. Dickens’ London is as dark and evocative as ever as his story explodes into a myriad of intense, often hilarious characters and metaphors and prose only worthy of the master himself. The end of Pip’s tale remains a mystery (if we didn’t all know the story already) until the final closing chapters yet the manner in which we arrive at his conclusion is sublime.

Pip as our hero reminded me rather of Mrs De Winter as heroine. Like the narrator of Pip-magwitchDaphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, I found Pip to be hugely irritating. Arrogant and narrow-minded, he treats the genuine people in his life terribly (although he does repent afterwards) and generally makes a hash of everything. Penned by any other writer, such a character could seriously hamper our ability to sympathise and thus our ability to enjoy the story. Under Dickens’ deft hand we are met by a realistic, flawed fellow whose experiences are lent all the more depth and significance by his very ordinariness.

The cast of Great Expectations and their legacy permeate English literary fiction right up to the present day; the misunderstood ne’er do well (Magwitch), the wronged woman (Miss Havisham), the good guys (Joe Gargery, Herbert Pocket), the mastermind (Jaggers). I relished them all. Particularly Wemmick who, apart from being a member of my own profession, held a special place in my heart for being so wonderfully complex and full of heart.

Being the avid social chronicler that he was, all of Dickens’ usual fare is here; poverty, crime, you name it. The specific moral slant Pip’s tale gives us; one that focuses on forgiveness and the essential insignificance of heaps of cash and social standing made this a book that sat very well with me indeed. It seems such a shame that many people shy away from Dickens as an author whose work is daunting and inaccessible. It simply isn’t true!  However much we may/may not read, these novels form some of the most vivid, entertaining fiction ever written. Originally serialised for Dickens’ literary magazine All the Year Roundwe are left with a cliffhanger on every other page. It’s like Eastenders really. Only with top hats.

Go and read this right now. It took me far too long to get around to it. If you already have then bravo and, what are your thoughts on Dickens? Surely he is the perfect author to read for Christmas?

Famous Fictional Characters…by Paul Townsend via Flickr

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