Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

20 September 2012
Chapters 1-13
This feels like a good place to stop for a while, even though it must be half-way through one of the novel’s two-chapter weekly episodes. Chapter 13 ends: ‘I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe’s trade. I had liked it once, but once was not now.’ That’s what the prime mover of the novel’s second main plotline has achieved: Pip, who had been satisfied with his life, now isn’t. She, of course, is Miss Havisham. We can’t know for certain what her motive has been, but her repeated injunctions to Estella that she should ‘break his heart’ might be a clue. Her own heart, as she announces histrionically to Pip the first time he meets her, is ‘Broken!’ and we guess the cause: she was stood up by her husband-to-be on her wedding day many years ago. Her house, with her in it, is a museum, or mausoleum, to that event. But if it is an affair of the heart that has messed with Pip’s head, it’s shame about his own social status that has made him wretched. Estella has mocked him for being ‘common’ and, to put it simply, he’s never got over it.

The first plotline is just as extreme, and has an equally remarkable prime mover. The story of the escaped convict and the ways that Pip helps him takes up the first six chapters, and I found it hugely enjoyable to read. (Perhaps I’ll come back to why that is later.) By the end of Chapter 6 it appears to be over, but later on there is a tiny clue that it isn’t – followed almost immediately by confirmation of it. At the end of Chapter 9, following the episode of Pip’s first day at Miss Havisham’s, comes this meditation on a day he tells us is life-changing: ‘Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.’ The tiny clue is to do with the ‘chain of iron or gold’ and its ‘first link’. Pip had brought a file for the convict to use to escape from his manacles, and that day at Miss Havisham’s isn’t the first memorable day of Pip’s life. Nor is it the one that opens the novel.

It’s a clue you wouldn’t spot if you didn’t know the novel. (I re-read it only a few years ago.) But that’s ok, because along comes Chapter 10. We’ve just had the broad comedy of a typical lesson at the dame school Pip attends in the evenings, and Pip goes to the inn to see Joe. There’s a stranger there, highly interested in Pip, who gives him signs that he knows the convict. He rubs the bottom of his leg – a clue that means nothing at first, until he stirs his rum with the file Pip took from Joe’s forge. He talks speculatively about people who might be found on the marshes. ‘Do you find any gypsies, now, or tramps, or vagrants of any sort, out there?’ There was a convict once, they tell him, as he evidently knew they would. He talks about the lonely church with its graves, all the time staring pointedly at Pip: ‘cocking his eye, as if he were expressly taking aim at me with his invisible gun.’ Pip is always imagining the retribution coming his way for his misdemeanour; later he imagines being shot by Miss Havisham following a different one, the bizarre fight with the ‘young gentleman’ at her house. Finally the man gives Pip a ‘shiny new shilling’ – and when he and Joe get it home they discover it’s wrapped in two pound notes. Joe tries to return them, but Pip is ‘pretty sure that the man would not be there.’ He’s right. Ok.

So, two stories with, for me, the convict thread far more entertaining than the bitter old crone thread. It’s where all the genuine comedy is, for a start, with the convict’s threats to Pip in the first couple of chapters making me laugh out loud. Dickens fine-tunes a first-person technique he’d used in David Copperfield: underlying the perceptions of the young Pip as he makes his way through the almost incomprehensible adult world is a consciousness – that of Dickens? Of the adult Pip? Both? – of their human failings. We see throughout the early chapters how ‘snappish’ his sister is, how negative her view of everything and (almost) everyone. In Chapter 8 Pip, or Dickens, spells it out for us: ‘I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me.’ Yep. In Chapter 11 he meets Miss Havisham’s ghoul-like hangers-on for the first time. ‘Before I had been standing at the window five minutes, they somehow conveyed to me that they were all toadies and humbugs.’ Yep, again. This narrator is more knowing (and self-knowing) than David, is altogether a less sentimentalised creation.

What else? Like Pip, almost all the characters in this novel are flawed, to the extent that most of them seem to personify some imperfection. His sister, ‘Mrs Joe’, represents a kind of comedy shrewishness, increasingly less comic as the novel goes on – to the point when Pip spells it out for us. Miss Havisham is monomaniacally embittered, and only calls for Pip to visit because she’s bored herself to distraction. Pumblechook and Wopsle are phoneys of one kind or another, hypocritical and self-serving. Estella is composed of a kind of sneering snobbery in a externally attractive form; the other people Pip meets in the big house represent the same defect, plus a determination to outdo one another in terms of how grasping they are, without the external charms. So far I can only think of two characters who represent something better: Biddy, the girl who does the real teaching for the old woman (Wopsle’s great-aunt) who charges for the boys’ education; and Joe Gargery. I find Joe problematic: he’s one of Dickens’ divine idiots, capable of unconditional love but infuriatingly incapable of thought beyond the capacity of a five-year-old. I think Dickens wants his innocence to be charming.

And then there’s the convict. Isn’t he another of the tiny handful of characters without hypocrisy? After Pip has helped him he pretends to have stolen the food and drink from the pantry in order to protect the boy. If there’s any pretence about him, it’s that comic pretence of evil in Chapter 1 – his supposed habit of taking the hearts and livers of young boys – and the invention of the ‘young man’ compared to whom the convict is ‘a angel’. This man is by no means simply villainous; he is caught because he is chasing down a second convict – one who, it seems, has done him some real wrong. Hmm. Pip has lived with a lot of guilt following his escapade, never recognising his own simple kindness for what it is. But it seems that the convict does, as he demonstrates with the shilling and the pound notes he secretly conveys to him.

Pip is morally confused. He doesn’t blame his sister, but seems to understand that he has not been brought up properly. Maybe it’s this fact that makes him obsessed with the idea of bettering himself, urging Biddy to teach him all she knows and wishing – what? – that things had been different for him. It’s no wonder that the malign influence of Miss Havisham and Estella has such an effect on him. It isn’t only in connection with Miss Havisham that ‘Satis House’ is so ironically named. Pip feels he will never be satisfied again.

22 September
Chapters 14-19 – to the end of Part 1 – and 20-24
Part 1 ends with Pip’s journey to London, a week after hearing of his ‘great expectations’. I forgot to mention that by the end of Chapter 13 Pip becomes an indentured apprentice to Joe; he remains so for four years. All his hopes of some reward from Miss Havisham have come down to this: when he starts to become too tall for her taste, she tells him to come for one last visit, and to bring Joe with him. She is unequivocal in her declaration to Joe that the 25 guineas she will pay him for Pip’s indentures will be the last of it: ‘The boy has been a good boy here, and that is his reward. Of course, as an honest man, you will expect no other and no more.’ It’s after this that we get Pip’s description of his wretchedness at the end of Chapter 13 – and he expands on it in the next chapter. As I read it I began to wonder if Dickens had invented one of the great genres of a century later: the confusion of the working class boy – in my experience it’s always a boy – dissatisfied with his roots but not knowing what he wants instead. ‘I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence. Within a single year all this was changed. Now it was all coarse and common, and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account.’

And there’s the rub: Estella is always in the back of his mind as he contemplates his own dissatisfactions. Dickens speeds up the passage of time by demarcating the annual visits he makes to see Miss Havisham on his birthday, and even though Estella is ‘abroad’ getting her own education –Pip never sees her throughout the years of his apprenticeship – she is the most important person in the world for him. Estella is a wonderful creation because she’s the sarcastic voice of polite society, but she’s also utterly desirable to Pip. Dickens has made Pip’s dissatisfaction with his life inextricably bound up with his desire for her.

We know that Pip understands this because Dickens has him talking to Biddy about it. He sees a lot of her now because she looks after Mrs Joe, rendered disabled in a mysterious attack just when Biddy is freed from drudgery: ‘a circumstance happened conveniently to relieve us. Mr Wopsle’s great-aunt conquered a confirmed habit of living into which she had fallen, and Biddy became a part of our establishment.’ That’s handy. The conversation takes place just before Pip finds out about his ‘great expectations’, and the adult Pip is unflinching in the way he reports the blundering crassness of his younger self.

Biddy is a Dickens archetype, the utterly capable young woman overlooked by the hero as he obsesses about someone else. (In David Copperfield it was Agnes, and I really am beginning to wonder how many more things Dickens is going to recycle from that novel. I mention this because he does a slightly different thing once Pip gets to London: Mrs Pocket is a recycled Dora, wrong-headedly raised to be a lady but in this universe allowed to survive into motherhood and turn family life into comic domestic chaos. She’s just as tedious as Dora as well.)

Pip tells Biddy about Estella, and his adult self allows the reader to understand what torture he put Biddy through then. She gets it right about Estella: ‘Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over? … Because, if it is to spite her, I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she was not worth gaining over.’ Biddy is as full of tact as Pip is lacking in it but, obviously, he does not see this. And later, after he has found out about his ‘expectations’, he speaks to her again, about Joe this time, and entirely misunderstands her meaning. He says, several times, that ‘it was a bad side of human nature (in which sentiment, waiving its application, I have since seen reason to think I was right).’ That little parenthesis says it all: he understands things about himself now that he didn’t understand then.

All this is a reprise of another feature from David Copperfield, to do with the can of worms you open when you have an adult narrator revealing the experiences of his own Bildungsroman. How forgiving should you be? How much do you reveal? And in a novel like this one, written as a kind of thriller – just think of the clues and red herrings – how much do you hide? Whilst Pip is honest about his earlier failings, at other times Dickens allows him to report as fact things he considered true at the time but, as an adult, knows to have been false assumptions. In other words the author is wrong-footing us, wanting us to make the same mistakes as his narrator. (Charlotte Bronte had done the same thing in a novel published seven or eight years earlier, Villette. But don’t get me started on Villette and the gothic labyrinths of its first-person narrative.)

What else in Part 1? That mysterious attack on Mrs Joe, with no suspects beyond the appalling Orlick, Joe’s general labourer, who seems to have an alibi. Mr Jaggers the terrifying lawyer – a man Pip remembers having seen at Miss Havisham’s – who lectures the drinkers at the inn about the dangers of making false assumptions before announcing to Pip that he is to be made rich by a secret benefactor. Does Pip listen to the warning? Of course not. (And nor does the reader, probably. How many would guess the truth if they didn’t already know it?) Pip gets his first experience of the way that most people toady around a gent, first with Pumblechook and then with the tailor who is to make his new suit. It’s broad stuff – not the suit, but Dickens’ presentation of their fawning attitudes. Things are far more ambivalent with Joe and Biddy, and far more troubling both for Pip and the reader. Good.

Part 2 is London and Dickens feels far more at home in the five chapters I’ve read of it so far. It almost feels like a new novel, and even Pip has difficulty believing the speed of the transition. He goes to the service at Westminster Abbey, and contemplates the previous Sunday: ‘That I could have been at our old church in my old church-going clothes, on the very last Sunday that ever was, seemed a combination of impossibilities, geographical and social, solar and lunar.’ This is less than three chapters in, and it’s a different world.

So there are introductions. Jaggers is just as terrifying in his own world – and respected by clients and potential clients – as in Pip’s old one. Although I wonder why Dickens has him keep death-masks of two of his clients…. The man who tells Pip about them is Wemmick, he of the ‘post-office of a mouth’. At first he seems almost inhuman to Pip, with his stiff mechanical smile – but we get moments that might suggest otherwise: he is surprised and delighted when Pip offers to shake his hand, and later says he must one day visit him at home. It turns out that the death-masks aren’t of Jaggers’ only unsuccessful cases: Wemmick is covered in little tokens of mourning bought for him by others…. How good is this Jaggers? Why are there so many portents of death around him?

Who else? Herbert Pocket, whose rooms Pip ends up sharing, turns out to be the ‘pale young gentleman’ Pip fought all those years ago. Herbert seems entirely to have forgotten that Pip thoroughly beat him and, like Joe, is one of those few characters without any deceit in him. Pip thinks he can tell even now that this young man, despite his eternal optimism, will never be successful at anything he does. He ‘looks about him’ for something to come along… as if. Herbert has been brought up as a gentleman, and explains the relationships in the Havisham family. One of the hangers-on, the walnut-featured Sarah Pocket, is obviously a relation, but Herbert’s father, having tried to warn Miss Havisham about her fiancé 25 years ago, has vowed never to visit Satis House again. (He’s the one Miss Havisham mentioned, who will only return there when she is dead.) This is Matthew Pocket, and it’s his wife who is the recycled, fully-grown Dora.

And that’s about it. There are a couple of characters who live in the Pockets’ house, snobbish young men receiving an education from Mr Pocket in the way that Pip is expecting to do according to Jaggers’ recommendation. The Pockets are shabby-genteel, and Dickens nibbles at the theme of inappropriate expectations from a different angle. A ‘toady neighbour’ of the Pockets, the oleaginous Mrs Coiler, explains to Pip: ‘Mrs Pocket, after her early disappointment (not that dear Mr Pocket was to blame in that), requires so much luxury and elegance… she is of so aristocratic a disposition…’ and so on. Some people in this novel are satisfied. Some aren’t. Ok.

3 October
Chapters 25-34
Dickens doesn’t have a lot of plates to keep spinning in this middle section. We’ve had other homes in and near London. There are the chambers Pip ends up sharing with Herbert Pocket, and the comedy chaos of their housekeeping arrangements. There’s Wemmick’s comedy castle, as in, although Dickens is too urbane to mention it, what an Englishman’s home is. (He also has a father, presented as a comic turn but nonetheless a real parent in this novel full of absent or unknown or substitute fathers.) And there are Jaggers’ chambers, as un-homely as Wemmick’s castle is cosy, and his habit of announcing in advance the finishing time of the evening’s carefully controlled pleasantries.

Jaggers is becoming more complex. He has his own way of drawing a line under the working day to separate himself from it from it; unlike Wemmick, who has spent 20 years creating a domestic world of his own, Jaggers simply washes his hands. Dickens doesn’t refer to it a compulsion, but he has Pip notice that Jaggers never fails to do it, or to notice that there is always the smell of soap around him. He controls and fine-tunes his own reputation, telling Pip and his friends that he keeps his house unlocked as a kind of challenge to the ‘seven hundred’ thieves in London who definitely know about it. He likes the look of the most boorish and cloddish of the young gents who lives at the Pockets’, Bentley Drummle. Jaggers calls him a ‘spider’, and he’s right. He lurks in corners, won’t engage with the others in the boats when they go rowing, or on the way home to Hammersmith at the end of the evening at Jaggers’ place. There’s a lot of deviousness and shadiness about these London scenes, and it somehow rubs off on Jaggers in spite of he efforts. He has a housekeeper with strong wrists he draws the friends’ attention to – and he has that curious admiration of Drummle. It’s hard to know the precise nature of the admiration.

Joe comes to London and Pip invites him to breakfast. At first Dickens goes for the social comedy of the nervous new gent’s embarrassment when faced with this unschooled man, but it soon becomes darker than that. (This is turning into an incredibly dark novel.) Joe is the man who brought him up and gave him support, and Pip describes how ashamed he soon becomes of his own shame.… Joe turns out to be on an errand: he has a message from Miss Havisham to come to visit, because Estella is back from Europe. We remember the warning signs from all those years ago – ‘break his heart!’ – and there’s no reason to believe Miss Havisham has suddenly become a benevolent figure. Pip believes she is somehow saving Estella for him. Naïve boy.

So we get an interlude, Pip’s first visit to the haunts of his childhood. Or some of them, refracted – or mangled and distorted – by the way he finds himself looking at things now. On the way, Dickens arranges a ‘coincidence’ – he has the temerity to use the word – when two convicts board the coach, being escorted to the hulks. One of them is – guess. No, not him…. It’s the man who gave him the pound notes all those years ago, and there are other nudging references to keep alive the memory of the escaped convict from all those years ago. In the town Pip reads a newspaper article, probably written at Pumblechook’s request – if not actually by him – showing exactly how the old fraud is dining out on the way he befriended the young Pip and groomed him for greatness.

At Satis House there’s another nudge: the manservant at Miss Havisham’s is Orlick – another memory being kept alive, no doubt: the identity of Mrs Joe’s attacker has never been established. Everything about the place is familiar, right down to Miss Havisham’s pose and all her props. But there’s an unknown and very beautiful woman in the room… and the reader guesses her identity before Pip does. He hasn’t seen her for years, and we haven’t seen her for a dozen or more chapters… but some things never change: the hopelessness of his infatuation with her, and her heartless toying with him. What’s a boy to do? (I call him ‘boy’ because Estella still does. And Dickens has always cast a kind of perpetual vagueness over his age. It seems as though, like Estella, he wants to keep some aspects of his narrator forever not-quite grown-up.)

What Pip does, of course, is remain completely in thrall to her. Do I need to say any more about that? Not much, except for the ominously fixated exhortations coming from Miss Havisham. ‘Love her, love her, love her!’ As if he needs any encouragement. Dickens seems to be cranking up the gothic elements to an ever greater pitch of intensity: ‘she rose up in the chair, in her shroud of a dress, and struck at the air as if she would as soon have struck herself against the wall and fallen dead.’ Her parading of Estella, and her listing of her attributes – ‘Is she beautiful, graceful, well-grown?’ – seem even more bizarre now than they did when they were children. And this is one of the women in whom Pip is placing all his faith. She and Estella, in their different ways, seem determined to arrest his emotional development.

Which is exactly what this novel seems to be about: the growth into troubled adulthood of a boy who is never given the right start in life – who, in fact, is given a series of wrong starts. But, as these central chapters unfold, it’s clear that the person Pip blames the most is himself. Shame haunts him for the way he treats Joe: he avoids him and the forge during his visit, despite having originally decided to stay there. And, in a comic coda to a visit that is full of dark hints of an unhappy future, Dickens has ‘Trabb’s boy’ pantomiming awe at Pip’s gentlemanly status, twice, before mincing down the street in a parody of upper-class snobbery. Pip finds it excruciating.

Back in London… not much. Dickens enlivens it with occasional comic episodes, like the visit to the theatre to see the performance in Hamlet of the appalling Wopsle, determined to make a name for himself – though not his real name – on the stage. And there’s a visit to Newgate with Wemmick to meet ‘the General’, the picture of a different kind of comic self-delusion. The most self-deluded of all, of course, is Pip. We see it in a tiresome comic description of his own and Herbert’s efforts to ‘face up’ to their debts – but we see it most when Estella arrives for a long stay in Richmond. Dickens keeps the comedy and the underlying darkness running alongside one another. I find the comedy of Pip’s inept attempts to behave like other gents rather tiresome, as when he employs a boy servant, ‘the Avenger’, and joins an absurd and ridiculous gentlemen’s club.

It’s the darkness I’m enjoying. Estella’s mild attempts to discourage Pip from hoping for anything from her have already revealed the terrible abyss inside her. At Miss Havisham’s she has told him ‘I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt, and of course if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no – sympathy – sentiment – nonsense.’ Her discouraging remarks have no more effect when he meets her from the coach in London when she comes to live in Richmond. She treats him in her usual way, not unkindly but with a coolly playful distance. When he makes an extravagant compliment and later kisses her hand, she is frank: ‘You ridiculous boy, will you never take warning?’ Well, no. He’s lost, and if a part of him knows it, it’s not letting on.

4 October
Chapters 35-39 – to the end of Part 2
It strikes me that in this middle section Dickens is treading water a lot of the time. Basically, he has to allow a number of years to elapse – who knows how many exactly? – in order for the narrative coup of Chapter 39 to be plausible. Pip’s benefactor needs to have had time not only to make a fortune – he was already well on the way towards doing that when Pip first learns of his ‘expectations’ – but to have consolidated so far as to make it feasible for him to create a gentleman, with all the expenses which, he knows, a gentlemanly lifestyle entails.

Plausibility is a slippery concept in any discussion of Dickens. As soon as you start asking what are the chances of almost any plot development you care to mention, it’s clear that part of the author/reader contract has to be the wholesale suspension of disbelief. Magwitch has to be given enough time to make his money in Australia, but as for any other elements of the plot, anything goes. The narrative coup I mentioned depends for its effect on the unconnected but exactly parallel behaviour of two damaged adults manipulating the lives of young people for their own purposes. And that’s only the beginning, because Dickens has to perform narrative acrobatics in order for Pip’s misunderstanding – and therefore the reader’s – to come about. Dickens has to get Pip embroiled in the Havisham thread, so that even though she does not intend to favour him in her will she parades him as a torment to her relatives as though she does. Dickens is relying on us to be so taken aback by Magwitch’s revelation – and it really is vertiginously disconcerting – that we won’t back-track to earlier events to question their likelihood. By this time, Miss Havisham has become a destructive force of nature rather than a mere character, so motivation seems more or less irrelevant.

And the plot is subservient to the moment when Pip realises that everything he thought he knew about himself, and about the reasons why he had been groomed to become that person, is wrong. After the room has begun to ‘surge and turn’, the whole sorry truth, of Magwitch’s motives, of Miss Havisham’s in turning him into a ‘sting’ against her relatives, and of his own atrocious behaviour to Joe and Biddy come rushing in on him. Next day the full existential horror of his plight begins to reach him: ‘I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it.’ It doesn’t come any more existential than that.

Before Magwitch’s revelation Dickens gives a little spin to a few of those plates I mentioned. Mrs Joe has finally died, peacefully and poignantly enough, so Pip needs to go home for the funeral. There are opportunities for some satire to be got out of the absurd arrangements made by the undertakers for the relative of the new gentleman, and Dickens doesn’t waste them. This time Pip does stay with Joe, and we get the contrast between the meaningless good form of the funeral and Joe’s simple and genuine sadness. Biddy is still there, although soon to leave, and Dickens can show how Pip’s new life has taught him precisely nothing. His conversation with Biddy is as bad as those he had at the end of Part 1 – Dickens is clearly signalling his complacency to us before the upheavals to come – and they part on bad terms.

In London, Wemmick is coming into his own as a useful character. There’s another scene at the castle, and we meet Miss Skiffins. She isn’t merely the absurd and comic love-interest, because she has a brother in the accountancy trade who can help with the one thing that shows Pip to be capable of thinking beyond his own needs: he is going to invest some of his money in Herbert’s future, and he needs Miss Skiffins’ brother to do the paperwork. Wemmick in ‘office’ mode is appalled by the idea, having seen so many such schemes come to grief and destroy friendships. But at home he is able to see it in a better light, and helps all he can.

And finally, inevitably, there’s the Miss Havisham/Estella thread. It has become Pip’s duty to escort Estella to Satis House whenever she goes, and we get a set-piece exchange between the two women there. Miss Havisham is nettled by the way that Estella seems to take for granted everything that she has done for her, and is not hiding her boredom during one of the visits. She accuses Estella of coldness, and Estella smoothly retorts: ‘What? do you reproach me for being cold? You?’ When Miss Havisham asks for a return of the love she has given her all these years, Estella is calmly reasonable: ‘All that you have given me, is at your command to have again. Beyond that, I have nothing.’ Miss Havisham indulges in some histrionics before the end of the conversation, but she can’t undo what she has done. Estella, realising for the first time something about herself and her upbringing, understands exactly who taught her to be incapable of love: ‘The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.’ She is Miss Havisham’s creature – and there are hints that the old woman is beginning to understand this. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, Pip wanders through the house. Miss Havisham is haunting the place, emitting a ‘ceaseless low cry.’ Ah.

Back in London, at the gentleman’s club, there is a toast to Estella’s name. It is proposed by, of all people, Bentley Drummle. Pip is suitably appalled, and makes a suitable fool of himself by quarrelling – but we wonder what Dickens is doing, bringing Drummle into the frame. Not that we wonder for long: the next chapter is all about Magwitch’s cataclysmic revelation, and Bentley Drummle will have to wait.

5 October
Chapters 40-53
This is more like it. I’m only a few chapters from the end, and since the revelatory Chapter 39 – and Magwitch’s revelation turns out to be only one of many – the novel has moved on to a different level. After the tiresome comic naivety and clunking self-righteousness of Part 2 it becomes clear what Dickens has been playing at: Part 3 is about putting things right. It isn’t only about Pip; other people begin to understand things about themselves, often as a direct result of conversations they have with him. Magwitch is ‘softening’, Jaggers is showing a side of himself we’ve never seen before – and, crucially, Miss Havisham has come to recognise what she has been guilty of. Estella is rarely fully in the frame – more about her later – but I can’t help wondering if there’s any chance at all of some kind of redemption for her before the end. The last time Pip sees her in the chapters I’ve read, quite early in Part 3, she is still attempting to explain to him why she couldn’t possibly have feelings for any man. So… her impending marriage to Bentley Drummle is emphatically not for love. Why, she wonders – I’m paraphrasing – is Pip making such a fuss?

Early on in Part 3, Pip still has a lot to learn. The only feeling he has for Magwitch – always referred to as Provis, the false name he has been travelling under – is one of revulsion. He still sees this man, who has spoken rather movingly of his paternal feelings for him, as the monstrous convict on the marshes that he remembers from his childhood. Magwitch’s crude possessiveness doesn’t help: the way he claims ownership of Pip and the status he has paid for – ‘I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot has done it!’ – puts him in the same camp as Miss Havisham. Both these adults start off with good intentions for the children they decide to raise from obscurity, but both end up trying to turn them into puppets. And they don’t understand why they are not rewarded with love.

But I was describing Pip. Once the initial shock has passed, he quite quickly begins to come to terms with his new position. For a start, he can’t carry on with the status quo. Perhaps it has something to do with the way Magwitch keeps referring to him as though he owns him and can therefore dictate terms: ‘I’ve come… to see my gentleman spend his money like a gentleman.’ ‘My gentleman must have horses, Pip!’ And maybe it’s this that makes him realise that he has been throwing his money around exactly like the puppet that Magwitch has made him. Dickens never makes it explicit, but the realisation makes him decide that it has to stop.

It isn’t going to be easy. He takes the pocket-book that Magwitch has given him and deposits it with Jaggers – to the consternation of Wemmick, who contemplatively mouths the words ‘portable property’ in plain view of Pip. This means that he will have to find another way to complete the process he began in getting Herbert started in a career. Both of these concerns, without too much nudging from Dickens, demonstrate a new moral backbone in him. But Pip has yet to tie up the biggest loose end of all: his recognition of his mistaken belief that Miss Havisham was grooming him for Estella, and keeping her in reserve for him. Time for a set-piece meeting, with Pip no longer tongue-tied and deferential. He’s faced some unwelcome truths recently, and he doesn’t shrink from talking to the women in Satis House about them.

On the way, in the Blue Boar Inn, there’s a different set-piece scene. Bentley Drummle is there, so Pip knows he’s still sniffing around Estella. There’s some comic jockeying for position around the fire, but things become more serious. In the boorish way that characterises everything he does, Drummle lets Pip know that he will be dining in Satis House that evening. But he doesn’t tell him the worst of it, that Estella is his fiancée. Pip finds that out for himself, after he’s confronted Miss Havisham with how badly she behaved when she knew he was mistaken in his belief about the identity of his benefactor. When he asks her blandly whether it was kind, she flashes into anger: ‘who am I, for God’s sake, that I should be kind?’ At this point she’s as misguided and unredeemed as she was when she expected love from Estella: she just doesn’t get it.

But Pip hasn’t finished with her yet. He begins to break down her defences – if that really is what he’s doing – by making a special plea for the one relation who doesn’t toady to her. Mr Pocket is different, he says, and so is his son. And it’s the son he says he wants her to help. Miss Havisham looks into the fire for a long time, until a coal falls. Then – ‘What else?’ Pip turns to Estella, and we can see how much he has already learnt. He doesn’t expect anything from her, but he tells her that he doesn’t blame Miss Havisham. She didn’t lead him on in order to be ‘horribly cruel…. I think that, in the endurance of her own trial, she forgot mine, Estella.’ This time the old woman puts her hand to her heart, and holds it there. Ok. What next? A long, impassioned exchange with Estella, in which she does her best to understand – ‘if she could have rendered me at all intelligible to her own mind’ – why he should care that she’s going to marry Drummle. She simply can’t do it, but tries to reassure him that the marriage will be no blessing to her new husband. Pip doesn’t know it yet, but while he clearly hasn’t got through to Estella, he’s got through to somebody. As his tears fall on to Estella’s hand – and here we have it at last – Miss Havisham’s figure seems ‘all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.’

Dickens takes up other threads when Pip returns to London, and I’ll come back to them. But he doesn’t leave the Havisham thread dangling: soon Pip hears from her, and he returns to Satis House. She writes a cheque for the amount that is needed to see Herbert’s prospects settled, and as they talk, Pip’s moral stature just keeps on growing. After she asks him to forgive her – in fact, to write the words under her name – he confesses his own weaknesses and tells her ‘I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you.’ And get this. She drops to her knees and cries out, over and over, ‘What have I done! What have I done!’ And, as he sees her weep for the first time in his life, she repeats it ‘twenty, fifty times over.’

After she’s recovered, Pip picks up one of those other threads, and it’s to do with Estella’s parentage. Miss H has been telling him that all she had originally wanted to do was to save another from the fate she had suffered, and he asks her – suspecting, rightly, that he knows the answer – how Estella came into her care. It was Jaggers who brought the infant, aged about three years… and Pip has his confirmation.

Jaggers’ housekeeper is the mother, a former vagrant ‘with gypsy blood in her’ whose child Jaggers had arranged to be cared for during her trial for murder. That’s one revelation – Pip’s questions in Satis House merely confirm it – but there are others. The man she had lived with as his common-law wife was… guess. Magwitch, of course. And the convict that Magwitch was so determined to return to the prison hulks, the one who had used the petty criminal in far bigger crimes and then hidden behind his own class status to shift the blame on to him was… guess. Can’t guess? It’s the man who never turned up to his wedding with Miss Havisham. So Magwitch is Estella’s father, and his great enemy – his name is Compeyson – is the man who ruined the life of her adopted mother. What are the chances of that? (Don’t ask, because it really doesn’t matter.)

These things emerge piecemeal during part 3, the plot of a melodrama running alongside and intertwining with the story of Pip’s growing maturity and moral development. Great Expectations strikes me as a slightly milder precursor to the sensation novels that became popular over the next 20 years: the criminal misdeeds, the uncertainty of parentage, the perpetual threat of awful violence. But other things, especially the ways that its narrator gives us insights into his own psychological development, make it far more than some kind of melodramatic potboiler. The Havisham and Estella threads, which I was finding rather tiresome in Parts 1 and 2, are now supplying the best moments. Speaking of which….

After the interview in which Miss Havisham confirms Pip’s suspicions about Estella’s mother, we have one of those moments when a psychologically charged scene leads to one that is charged in a completely different way. Pip, worried about Miss Havisham’s state of mind, goes back to her room after leaving. She’s ok – and then she isn’t: at the moment he turns from her there’s suddenly a great light, and ‘I saw her running at me, shrieking, with a whirl of fire blazing all about her, and soaring at least as many feet above her head as she was high.’ Pip saves her, just, by wrapping her in his two coats, but her injuries will probably end up being fatal and Pip himself has badly burnt arms. It’s a particularly Dickensian sleight of hand: a moment of almost gothic horror also serves up a kind of just outcome for what they have both got wrong, with the injuries being proportionate to their transgressions. The chapter ends with Miss Havisham obsessively repeating that she wants Pip to write ‘I forgive her’ under her name. (Doesn’t Dickens love fires? I remember Steerforth in David Copperfield staring into one and contemplating his own faults in a very similar way to Miss Havisham.)

But I was dealing with the rest of the plot. The main driver of events is Magwitch – ‘Provis’ – and the question of what is to be done with him. He is in danger: if discovered, he will be executed as an escaped convict who had been transported for life. At first it is merely convenient for Pip to hide him away where he can’t be an embarrassment, but soon it becomes clear that his presence in England is known to an enemy. There are mysterious hints of this that lead Pip – and Herbert, who has become the kind of friendly co-conspirator Dickens heroes often work alongside – to spirit him away to the house of Herbert’s fiancée’s father. It’s one of those picturesque structures Dickens enjoys and, more importantly, it has a view of the Thames. (There is another benefit: Dickens, having done what he needs to with the appearance of Magwitch, can keep him conveniently out of sight. Which he does, almost entirely, for most of Part 3.) A plan emerges – Wemmick is another co-conspirator in this – to get him booked on a ship out, accompanied by Pip. To escape prying eyes, Pip and Herbert will take him in a skiff that Pip has taken to rowing up and down with the express purpose of making himself familiar and unremarkable. Ok.

All this has happened before Pip’s cataclysmic meeting at Satis House, and all they are waiting for now is a signal from Wemmick that a booking has been made. Pip’s burns are a problem, but not insurmountable…. And then he has another sensational encounter. He receives a note, written by someone who knows about ‘Provis’, telling him to be at the sluice-house near his old home at a particular time. He needs to be alone and tell nobody. The only reason he lives to tell the tale is because he drops the note and it is found by Herbert, who follows – but not before pages of hideous threats and taunts from the mouth of – guess. It’s Orlick, who really was the one who attacked Mrs Joe all those years ago, and he slinks off after Herbert and others prevent the murder. (Orlick knows all about Provis, and that Compeyson knows about him. I can’t remember whether Dickens tells us how Orlick has found all this out. At this point in the novel – only a few chapters from the end – it doesn’t really matter.)

What else? Lots, probably. Like the ways that Jaggers and Wemmick deal with the world and each other – and about their surprise when they realise that Pip has pieced together more of the Estella story than they knew themselves. Jaggers had never known about the Magwitch connection; it’s Pip who realises it after Magwitch, in one of the rare conversations he has with Pip, gives him the story of how a deprived child fell into petty crime and was then exploited remorselessly. It’s Dickens doing that thing he does: the repulsive figure isn’t exactly transfigured, but his life is explained. After it, Pip takes great care that no more harm should come to him.

16 October
Chapters 54-59 – to the end
Happy ending? Or not? I realise now why I couldn’t remember, despite having re-read the book not many years ago: Dickens leaves it so ambiguous. I’ll come back to it – and to the fact that the ending isn’t the one that Dickens originally had in mind.

First there are some plot details to be tied up. The main one, to begin with, is Magwitch’s fate. Chapter 54 is extraordinary, taking place almost entirely on the river. It had seemed a good sign to Wemmick, he later explains, that Compeyson hadn’t been seen by the usual informants – which was almost certainly exactly what Compeyson had in mind. It leads to the confrontation out beyond Gravesend, when he leads a boat manned by law officers to the boat being rowed by Herbert and their other long-term friend from the Pockets’, Startop. ‘You have a returned Transport there,’ comes the voice from the other boat, and we’re into the endgame. Magwitch is able to come close to Compeyson in that way that happens in novels, and they end up capsizing the friends’ boat as they crash into the river together… and it’s the end of Compeyson.

It’s the end of Magwitch as well. He eventually surfaces, badly injured by his encounter with the approaching passenger steamer, and is clapped in irons. He is to be put on trial which, as Jaggers gloomily intones, can only end in a sentence of death. But the spark of life is already going out of Magwitch and, during one of Pip’s long daily visits to the prison hospital, he dies peacefully. So it goes: in Dickens novels deaths are often as gloomily picturesque as this one.

Which leaves the rather more challenging loose end of Pip and his uncertain future. All Magwitch’s money will be forfeit to the Crown, but Dickens makes Pip more concerned to keep the knowledge from his benefactor than for his own plight. Pip will inherit nothing, and he has debts, but it’s a sign of how far he’s come that only thinks of making sure that Magwitch’s last days are as comfortable as he can make them. It might be Dickens who allows Magwitch a relatively problem-free death, but the implication he’s seeking is that it’s through Pip’s care.

The crisis for Pip comes almost immediately. He begins to feel so ill that when sheriff’s men arrive for the money he owes, he can do nothing and they have to leave. There are marvellous descriptions of his descent into fever, and of the slow realisation that he is being nursed. The carer isn’t Herbert, who has left to take up a position in his company’s Eastern office – more of that later – it’s Joe. For the long period of the illness and Pip’s recovery, as Joe nurses him like a sick child, they revert to their old relationship. But it doesn’t last, and the day on which Pip is able to walk a little distance is the day Joe begins to call him ‘sir’. The little word makes it clear that, however far Pip might have come since that desperately embarrassing breakfast the last time Joe came to London, he will never be able to regain the trust and friendship he had before his ‘expectations’. He believes he can, and it’s one of the last of his mistakes that needs to be corrected. But not quite yet.

There’s been something in the back of his mind. Herbert knows all about his change in circumstances, and when he is about to leave to take up his post before Pip’s illness, he makes him a job offer. Pip needs to sort out his finances, so he won’t take it up just yet, but…. ‘Secondly,–Yes! Secondly, there was a vague something lingering in my thoughts that will come out very near the end of this slight narrative.’ Is Dickens deliberately wrong-footing us? What could the ‘Secondly’ be but the loose thread that is Estella? Answer: well…. After his illness, Pip is screwing up his courage to tell Joe about what the Secondly is. (Dickens plays with the word in exactly this way, giving it all kinds of possible meanings.) And it turns out to be the fantasy of a happy ending, picking up his old life at the forge, with – as he tells us in an imagined conversation with her over nearly half a page – Biddy as his wife.

It doesn’t happen. Joe leaves before Pip can tell him of the plan, and this turns out to be a good thing – because when he arrives at the forge some days later we get one of those Dickensian twists of fate: it’s the day of Joe and Biddy’s wedding. Joe – near the beginning I called him one of Dickens’ divine idiots – gets his reward. (I didn’t mention that in addition to nursing Pip for weeks, Joe paid off his main creditor too.) Pip, on the other hand, gets nothing. The end. Or, rather, that was apparently Dickens’ original plan. My edition of the book contains an extract from his notes, and it’s clear that this is to be the hard lesson that Pip has to learn: mistaken behaviour has consequences, and the ‘one good thing he did in his prosperity’ – his financing of Herbert’s partnership in the company – is ‘the only thing that endures and bears good fruit.’ Get that, ‘the only thing’. Pip gets a job, and works his way up through the company over a dozen or so years. The end, again.

Nope. Dickens was persuaded to write another chapter, in which Pip returns from abroad after ten or more years, visits Joe, Biddy and their children… and goes to see the land where Satis House once stood. We get another of those Dickensian twists of fate – far more outrageous than the last – when he notices the figure of a woman, who also has never visited the place in all these years. Her unhappy marriage to Drummle, now dead, has left Estella a sadder and wiser woman. Her conversation shows her to be a human being at last, although her formative experiences, unlike Pip’s, are entirely glossed over. But Dickens is using this tacked-on ending to reinforce the novel’s theme that only hard lessons can put us right if we’ve gone wrong in life. As the novel approaches its close it seems they will part as friends… and then we get the novel’s final sentence: ‘the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’

Of course, we are not told that the parting will never come… but Dickens has done what he said he would, and we can believe in a shared life at last. Or not. It’s a more understated version of what Charlotte Bronte did in Villette, a novel I’ve mentioned before. I don’t want to give anything away, but having made it clear that a leading character must have died in a tragic event, the narrator asks us to ‘pause: pause at once. There is enough said. Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror.’ She appears to be insisting that if a tragedy is unpalatable, we don’t have to believe it – although the context is such that there is no plausible get-out. Dickens, more mildly, offers us enough ambiguity to suggest that if we find a happy ending too glib, we aren’t forced to believe it.


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