Watching a movie or TV adaptation of one of my favourite books often sends me back to the source. This is true whether I think it’s a good or bad adaptation. Sometimes I need to get the bad taste out of my mouth eg the latest versions of Persuasion & Wuthering Heights. I couldn’t even get through the first episodes of those. Sometimes it’s because I enjoyed the adaptation but want to remind myself of the details changed or left out & the dialogue not used. This is true of the latest movie version of Jane Eyre & watching an old TV version of Wuthering Heights. It’s also true of the latest BBC version of Great Expectations. I watched all three episodes but it didn’t really satisfy me. I thought Ray Winstone was excellent as Magwitch but the young man who played Pip was so ghostly pale & didn’t convey any emotion whatsoever that I could see. The characterization of Joe didn’t match the book. David Suchet’s Jaggers was very good but nothing can surpass the wonderful performance of Francis L Sullivan in David Lean’s film version of the book. So, the only thing for me to do was read the book again.
This is my favourite Dickens novel. I think it’s his masterpiece. It’s almost the complete opposite to Martin Chuzzlewit, which I reviewed last week. Half the length & double the emotional impact. The story is well-known. Pip is a young boy living on the Kent marshes with his fearsome sister & her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Pip’s parents & other siblings are dead & the book opens with him sitting at their graveside on a cold, misty day. Pip’s encounter with a convict, escaped from the prison hulks, is a frightening but mesmerising opening to the book.
Soon after, Pip is summoned to Satis House, the home of the eccentric Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day & her life ended on that day. The clocks are stopped, she sits half-dressed in her wedding finery & her wedding breakfast moulders into dust. Pip is intrigued by Miss Havisham & smitten with her adopted daughter, Estella, a beautiful girl brought up to take her revenge on men. Pip’s life at home is miserable. His sister is a horrible woman who beats him & Joe is his only friend even though he’s powerless to protect him. Pip is destined to be apprenticed to Joe & become a blacksmith but already he is in love with Estella & beginning to be ashamed of his home & his ignorance.
Pip’s life changes when Mr Jaggers, a lawyer from London who he knows to be Miss Havisham’s lawyer, appears with the announcement that Pip has great expectations. An anonymous benefactor wants to make a gentleman of him. To further this end, Joe is asked to release Pip from his apprenticeship & Pip sets off for London. He’s sure that Miss Havisham is his benefactor & that she intends him to marry Estella. Pip works hard at his studies & lives with Herbert Pocket, a young relation of Miss Havisham’s who becomes his greatest friend. Pip’s pride grows as he settles into London life. He falls into debt & forgets his home altogether. The revelation of his benefactor will change his life & it’s the beginning of his journey from being a selfish, proud boy to becoming a poorer but wiser man.
There are so many things I love about this book. The characters are wonderful. Miss Havisham is grotesque but pitiable. Estella has been brought up so unnaturally & cannot understand Pip’s love for her because, as she keeps telling him, she doesn’t have a heart. Joe, modest, simple but so loving & kind. Wemmick, Mr Jaggers’s clerk, with his life strictly compartmentalized. There’s his office life & his life at home in Walworth with his Aged Parent & Miss Skiffins. Herbert Pocket is the friend we would all wish to have. The first person narration is so skilful in showing Pip at every stage of his expectations. Pip is looking back on his life & the whole book has a melancholy air, even when he’s describing his love for Estella,
The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me, than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.
The plot is so carefully & subtly worked out that even after reading the book several times, I’m still surprised at how cleverly it’s done. No loose ends, all the connections between events & characters make sense. Dickens always describes weather beautifully. Think of the foggy opening of Bleak House. He uses the misty desolate marshes to great effect in the opening chapters & later, stormy London weather foretells the change in Pip’s fortunes,
It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Dat after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind. So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death.
The ending of the book is very moving. The return of Magwitch, the convict, strikes Pip with horror & all he can think about is getting him out of his life. As Pip’s expectations fall apart, he comes to value & respect Magwitch & when the old man is near death, Pip describes his change of heart towards him,
For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.
The ending of the book is ambivalent. It was famously changed by Dickens after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, his friend & fellow novelist, objected to the sombre tone. Although Dickens changed the ending, it is still melancholy, which suits the whole tone of the book. There’s certainly less humour in Great Expectations than in any other Dickens novel (except maybe Hard Times) & maybe that’s why it’s now recognized as one of his greatest achievements. It will always be my favourite of his novels.