Great Expectations: 30th Installment
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By the time Charles Dickens put pen to paper to begin his 13th and penultimate completed novel there was indeed ample reason for Great Expectations.
Although he hadn’t pioneered the serialized novel, Dickens certainly popularized the form and his expectant audience now ranged far beyond the shores of his native Great Britain. The plot line he later called “a very fine, new and grotesque idea” centers around the dingy marshes of Kent and London in the early to mid-1800s but the novel’s themes of wealth and poverty, love and rejection and the eternal battle between good and evil relate to readers everywhere and ensured the book’s enduring popularity.
Seen through the eyes of an orphan named Pip, the world often seems a very scary place, bleak with convicts, prison ships and bloody violence. It’s not like the dark deeds creep up as a great surprise - the story famously opens in a grim graveyard where our hero barely escapes with his young life.
Along the way we meet colorful characters such as the eccentric Miss Havisham, Estella, the icy beauty and escaped convict Abel Magwitch who have long cemented themselves into popular culture. Pip’s wide-eyed observations ensure that he - and the reader - are never down for long.
The first installment of Great Expectations was published on December 1 1860 in Dickens’ weekly magazine All The Year Round and was serialized until August of the following year. The short chapters and the mathematical structure reflect the way it was published in stages to keep readers satisfied with complete stories within a story while thirsting for more. There are three key stages - Pip’s childhood and his dreams of escaping poverty, his life in London having received an inheritance through a mystery benefactor and his disillusionment at discovering the grand life he had sought was not all it was cracked up to be - and these in turn are further divided up into 12 parts or roughly equal length, making the novel’s structure “compactly perfect,” according to George Bernard Shaw.
The novel is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story focusing on the moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, a genre that encompasses such classics as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and much more recently, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Dickens was persuaded to change his original ending to offer Pip a more hopeful future but literary critics and readers are split over the decision. In NoteStream’s new 21st Century serialization, Book Club members will get to choose which one they like best.
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In her furred travelling-dress, Estella seemed more delicately beautiful than she had ever seemed yet, even in my eyes. Her manner was more winning than she had cared to let it be to me before, and I thought I saw Miss Havisham's influence in the change.
We stood in the Inn Yard while she pointed out her luggage to me, and when it was all collected I remembered—having forgotten everything but herself in the meanwhile—that I knew nothing of her destination.
Illustration by H. M. Brock, 1903
"I am going to Richmond," she told me. "Our lesson is, that there are two Richmonds, one in Surrey and one in Yorkshire, and that mine is the Surrey Richmond. The distance is ten miles. I am to have a carriage, and you are to take me.
Illustration by F. A. Fraser. c. 1877
This is my purse, and you are to pay my charges out of it. O, you must take the purse! We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I."
As she looked at me in giving me the purse, I hoped there was an inner meaning in her words. She said them slightingly, but not with displeasure.
"A carriage will have to be sent for, Estella. Will you rest here a little?"
"Yes, I am to rest here a little, and I am to drink some tea, and you are to take care of me the while."
She drew her arm through mine, as if it must be done, and I requested a waiter who had been staring at the coach like a man who had never seen such a thing in his life, to show us a private sitting-room.
Upon that, he pulled out a napkin, as if it were a magic clew without which he couldn't find the way upstairs, and led us to the black hole of the establishment, fitted up with a diminishing mirror (quite a superfluous article, considering the hole's proportions), an anchovy sauce-cruet, and somebody's pattens.
On my objecting to this retreat, he took us into another room with a dinner-table for thirty, and in the grate a scorched leaf of a copy-book under a bushel of coal-dust. Having looked at this extinct conflagration and shaken his head, he took my order; which, proving to be merely, "Some tea for the lady," sent him out of the room in a very low state of mind.
I was, and I am, sensible that the air of this chamber, in its strong combination of stable with soup-stock, might have led one to infer that the coaching department was not doing well, and that the enterprising proprietor was boiling down the horses for the refreshment department.
Yet the room was all in all to me, Estella being in it. I thought that with her I could have been happy there for life. (I was not at all happy there at the time, observe, and I knew it well.)
"Where are you going to, at Richmond?" I asked Estella.
"I am going to live," said she, "at a great expense, with a lady there, who has the power—or says she has—of taking me about, and introducing me, and showing people to me and showing me to people."
"I suppose you will be glad of variety and admiration?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
She answered so carelessly, that I said, "You speak of yourself as if you were some one else."
"Where did you learn how I speak of others? Come, come," said Estella, smiling delightfully, "you must not expect me to go to school to you; I must talk in my own way. How do you thrive with Mr. Pocket?"
"I live quite pleasantly there; at least—" It appeared to me that I was losing a chance.
"At least?" repeated Estella.
"As pleasantly as I could anywhere, away from you."
"You silly boy," said Estella, quite composedly, "how can you talk such nonsense? Your friend Mr. Matthew, I believe, is superior to the rest of his family?"
"Very superior indeed. He is nobody's enemy—"
"Don't add but his own," interposed Estella, "for I hate that class of man. But he really is disinterested, and above small jealousy and spite, I have heard?"
"I am sure I have every reason to say so."
"You have not every reason to say so of the rest of his people," said Estella, nodding at me with an expression of face that was at once grave and rallying, "for they beset Miss Havisham with reports and insinuations to your disadvantage. They watch you, misrepresent you, write letters about you (anonymous sometimes), and you are the torment and the occupation of their lives. You can scarcely realize to yourself the hatred those people feel for you."
"They do me no harm, I hope?"
Instead of answering, Estella burst out laughing. This was very singular to me, and I looked at her in considerable perplexity. When she left off—and she had not laughed languidly, but with real enjoyment—I said, in my diffident way with her,—
"I hope I may suppose that you would not be amused if they did me any harm."
"No, no you may be sure of that," said Estella. "You may be certain that I laugh because they fail. O, those people with Miss Havisham, and the tortures they undergo!"
She laughed again, and even now when she had told me why, her laughter was very singular to me, for I could not doubt its being genuine, and yet it seemed too much for the occasion. I thought there must really be something more here than I knew; she saw the thought in my mind, and answered it.
"It is not easy for even you." said Estella, "to know what satisfaction it gives me to see those people thwarted, or what an enjoyable sense of the ridiculous I have when they are made ridiculous.
For you were not brought up in that strange house from a mere baby. I was.
You had not your little wits sharpened by their intriguing against you, suppressed and defenceless, under the mask of sympathy and pity and what not that is soft and soothing. I had.
You did not gradually open your round childish eyes wider and wider to the discovery of that impostor of a woman who calculates her stores of peace of mind for when she wakes up in the night. I did."
It was no laughing matter with Estella now, nor was she summoning these remembrances from any shallow place. I would not have been the cause of that look of hers for all my expectations in a heap.
"Two things I can tell you," said Estella. "First, notwithstanding the proverb that constant dropping will wear away a stone, you may set your mind at rest that these people never will—never would, in hundred years—impair your ground with Miss Havisham, in any particular, great or small.
Second, I am beholden to you as the cause of their being so busy and so mean in vain, and there is my hand upon it."
As she gave it to me playfully,—for her darker mood had been but Momentary,—I held it and put it to my lips. "You ridiculous boy," said Estella, "will you never take warning? Or do you kiss my hand in the same spirit in which I once let you kiss my cheek?"
Illustration by John McLenan, 1861
"What spirit was that?" said I.
"I must think a moment. A spirit of contempt for the fawners and plotters."
"If I say yes, may I kiss the cheek again?"
"You should have asked before you touched the hand. But, yes, if you like."
I leaned down, and her calm face was like a statue's. "Now," said Estella, gliding away the instant I touched her cheek, "you are to take care that I have some tea, and you are to take me to Richmond."
Her reverting to this tone as if our association were forced upon us, and we were mere puppets, gave me pain; but everything in our intercourse did give me pain.
Whatever her tone with me happened to be, I could put no trust in it, and build no hope on it; and yet I went on against trust and against hope. Why repeat it a thousand times? So it always was.
I rang for the tea, and the waiter, reappearing with his magic clew, brought in by degrees some fifty adjuncts to that refreshment, but of tea not a glimpse.
Watercolor illustration by C. E. Brock
A teaboard, cups and saucers, plates, knives and forks (including carvers), spoons (various), saltcellars, a meek little muffin confined with the utmost precaution under a strong iron cover, Moses in the bulrushes typified by a soft bit of butter in a quantity of parsley, a pale loaf with a powdered head, two proof impressions of the bars of the kitchen fireplace on triangular bits of bread, and ultimately a fat family urn; which the waiter staggered in with, expressing in his countenance burden and suffering.
After a prolonged absence at this stage of the entertainment, he at length came back with a casket of precious appearance containing twigs. These I steeped in hot water, and so from the whole of these appliances extracted one cup of I don't know what for Estella.
The bill paid, and the waiter remembered, and the ostler not forgotten, and the chambermaid taken into consideration,—in a word, the whole house bribed into a state of contempt and animosity, and Estella's purse much lightened,—we got into our post-coach and drove away.
Turning into Cheapside and rattling up Newgate Street, we were soon under the walls of which I was so ashamed.
"What place is that?" Estella asked me.
I made a foolish pretence of not at first recognizing it, and then told her. As she looked at it, and drew in her head again, murmuring, "Wretches!" I would not have confessed to my visit for any consideration.
"Mr. Jaggers," said I, by way of putting it neatly on somebody else, "has the reputation of being more in the secrets of that dismal place than any man in London."
"He is more in the secrets of every place, I think," said Estella, in a low voice.
"You have been accustomed to see him often, I suppose?"
"I have been accustomed to see him at uncertain intervals, ever since I can remember. But I know him no better now, than I did before I could speak plainly. What is your own experience of him? Do you advance with him?"
"Once habituated to his distrustful manner," said I, "I have done very well."
"Are you intimate?"
"I have dined with him at his private house."
"I fancy," said Estella, shrinking "that must be a curious place."
"It is a curious place."
I should have been chary of discussing my guardian too freely even with her; but I should have gone on with the subject so far as to describe the dinner in Gerrard Street, if we had not then come into a sudden glare of gas.
It seemed, while it lasted, to be all alight and alive with that inexplicable feeling I had had before; and when we were out of it, I was as much dazed for a few moments as if I had been in lightning.
So we fell into other talk, and it was principally about the way by which we were travelling, and about what parts of London lay on this side of it, and what on that.
The great city was almost new to her, she told me, for she had never left Miss Havisham's neighborhood until she had gone to France, and she had merely passed through London then in going and returning.
I asked her if my guardian had any charge of her while she remained here? To that she emphatically said "God forbid!" and no more.
It was impossible for me to avoid seeing that she cared to attract me; that she made herself winning, and would have won me even if the task had needed pains.
Yet this made me none the happier, for even if she had not taken that tone of our being disposed of by others, I should have felt that she held my heart in her hand because she wilfully chose to do it, and not because it would have wrung any tenderness in her to crush it and throw it away.
Engraving of the first Hammersmith Bridge, built in 1827
When we passed through Hammersmith, I showed her where Mr. Matthew Pocket lived, and said it was no great way from Richmond, and that I hoped I should see her sometimes.
"O yes, you are to see me; you are to come when you think proper; you are to be mentioned to the family; indeed you are already mentioned."
I inquired was it a large household she was going to be a member of?
"No; there are only two; mother and daughter. The mother is a lady of some station, though not averse to increasing her income."
"I wonder Miss Havisham could part with you again so soon."
"It is a part of Miss Havisham's plans for me, Pip," said Estella, with a sigh, as if she were tired; "I am to write to her constantly and see her regularly and report how I go on,—I and the jewels,—for they are nearly all mine now."
It was the first time she had ever called me by my name. Of course she did so purposely, and knew that I should treasure it up.
We came to Richmond all too soon, and our destination there was a house by the green,—a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats, rolled stockings, ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.
Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest.
A bell with an old voice—which I dare say in its time had often said to the house, Here is the green farthingale, Here is the diamond-hilted sword, Here are the shoes with red heels and the blue solitaire—sounded gravely in the moonlight, and two cherry-colored maids came fluttering out to receive Estella.
The doorway soon absorbed her boxes, and she gave me her hand and a smile, and said good night, and was absorbed likewise. And still I stood looking at the house, thinking how happy I should be if I lived there with her, and knowing that I never was happy with her, but always miserable.
I got into the carriage to be taken back to Hammersmith, and I got in with a bad heart-ache, and I got out with a worse heart-ache. At our own door, I found little Jane Pocket coming home from a little party escorted by her little lover; and I envied her little lover, in spite of his being subject to Flopson.
Mr. Pocket was out lecturing; for, he was a most delightful lecturer on domestic economy, and his treatises on the management of children and servants were considered the very best text-books on those themes. But Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby's having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet during the unaccountable absence (with a relative in the Foot Guards) of Millers.
And more needles were missing than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic.
Mr. Pocket being justly celebrated for giving most excellent practical advice, and for having a clear and sound perception of things and a highly judicious mind, I had some notion in my heart-ache of begging him to accept my confidence.
But happening to look up at Mrs. Pocket as she sat reading her book of dignities after prescribing Bed as a sovereign remedy for baby, I thought—Well—No, I wouldn't.