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London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
At the height of his career - during the time he was writing Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend - Dickens wrote a series of sketches, mostly set in London, which he collected as The Uncommercial Traveller. The persona of the 'Uncommercial' allowed Dickens to unify his series of occasional articles by linking them through a shared narrator.
Our Oxford World's Classics reading group, in its third season, has chosen Dickens's Great Expectations for discussion. In addition to analyzing that a work for its literary depth, it is just as important to consider an author's life and the context in which the work was written.
The characters in Great Expectations are a rather lively bunch; even Orlick, who is (arguably) one of the most foul characters in the book, has a deal of depth that makes us love to hate him. Throughout this season's reading group, have you ever wondered which of Dickens's characters you're most like?
We're just over a fortnight away from the end of our third season of the Oxford World's Classics Reading Group. It's still not too late to join us as we follow the story of young Pip and his great expectations. If you're already stuck in with #OWCReads, these discussion questions will help you get the most out of the text.
The international response to the photographs of the dead body of three year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, has prompted intense debate. That debate has been not only about the proper attitude of Britain and other countries to the refugee crisis, but also about the proper place of strong emotions in political life.
…Anyway, all this Dickens talk brought to mind something I read long ago in the introduction to Kate Douglas Wiggins’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It was an unforgettable account of young (very young) Kate’s encounter with Charles Dickens himself on a train during one of his reading tours of the United States. I no longer have the edition of Rebecca which contains the article (Alice, I think it was your copy?), but I Googled this morning with hope in my heart and aha! There it was, in full, at a delightful site called OldMagazineArticles.com.
There on the platform stood the Adored One. His hands were plunged deep in his pockets (a favorite posture), but presently one was removed to wave away laughingly a piece of the famous Berwick sponge-cake offered him by Mr. Osgood, of Boston, his traveling companion and friend.
I knew him at once: the smiling, genial, mobile face, rather highly colored, the brilliant eyes, the watch-chain, the red carnation in the buttonhole, and the expressive hands, much given to gesture. It was only a momentary view, for the train started, and Dickens vanished, to resume his place in the car next to ours, where he had been, had I known it, ever since we left Portland.
Shortly thereafter, the intrepid Kate slips into Dickens’s car, where she finds him alone and launches into a discussion of his “stories”:
“Well, upon my word!” he said. “You do not mean to say that you have read them!”
“Of course I have,” I replied. “Every one of them but the two that we are going to buy in Boston, and some of them six times.”
“Bless my soul!” he ejaculated again. “Those long, thick books, and you such a slip of a thing!”
“Of course,” I explained, conscientiously, “I do skip some of the very dull parts once in a while; not the short dull parts, but the long ones.”
He laughed heartily. “Now, that is something that I hear very little about,” he said. “I distinctly want to learn more about those very dull parts,” and, whether to amuse himself or to amuse me, I do not know, he took out a note-book and pencil from his pocket and proceeded to give me an exhausting and exhaustive examination on this subject—the books in which the dull parts predominated, and the characters and subjects which principally produced them. He chuckled so constantly during this operation that I could hardly help believing myself extraordinarily agreeable; so I continued dealing these infant blows under the delusion that I was flinging him bouquets.
We're going to see A Christmas Carol this weekend. The play this time ... a mercifully Jim-Carey-free zone.
I've just come across this article in the NY Times where you can peruse the actual Dickens manuscript.
There's something weirdly fascinating about seeing the handwriting and the amendations - like seeing a mind at work. And speaking of Dickens, this looks promising, and the first part includes that Micawberism well worth keeping in mind this time of year: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
He’s nine. I’m sure he’s not understanding half of it. Every now and then, when I read a bit that seems particularly difficult, I check with him to see if he’s got it; and usually he hasn’t, so I explain it to him.
And yet, he’s transfixed. He’s loving it. I’m reading half a chapter at a time - there are only five - and he’s with me all the way.
I think there are two reasons for this. Or, perhaps, three; but I’ll come to the third in a minute.
Reason number one: Scrooge. Was there ever a more disagreeable, yet more sympathetic, old sinner anywhere in all of fiction? From the start, we begin to know him even as we disapprove. And we laugh, too; my son’s first response, when I asked if he was enjoying it, was: “He’s funny.” Yet we understand him, and when - actually very quickly - he begins to feel again, we can believe in his reawakened feelings, and feel for him.
Reason number two: The language. Words can be like music, and you don’t always need to “understand” music to appreciate it. I’m convinced one of the reasons my boy isn’t getting bored and wandering off is that, quite simply, the words make a nice sound. To be honest, there are sentences I don’t entirely understand myself, but they’re great to read aloud.
So there you have it; in less than 150 words, my thoughts on why Dickens can be appreciated by a nine-year-old.
But what about reason three? Ah. Well. That one, I think, has less to do with Dickens, and more to do with me and my son.
You see, I’ve been building up to this for a couple of weeks: telling my boy that I want to read this book with him this year, and that I think he’s old enough for it. For both of us, I think, this particular story has become one of those special father-and-son events, imbued with a magic that neither of us wants to risk breaking. It’s attained something of the significance of a rite of passage; and so, it’s made us want to work at it. It may be difficult at times, but it’s worth the effort - both for what the story reveals, and for what it says about our relationship.
And, of course, it’s Christmas; and for many of us - me included - Christmas is a magical time; and the magic of this Christmas has become part of the magic of this shared story about a magical Christmas.
Time will tell - it’ll be interesting to see if he wants this story again next year - but I hope that when he’s grown, my son will remember the first time his dad read him A Christmas Carol, and will remember it with affection, as one of those many wonderful times when a story was more than just words.
Have a very merry Christmas, Awfully Big Readers, and - in the words of Tiny Tim - God bless us, every one!
“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it.” So begins a staple of Christmas celebrations, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’s book, of course, relates the conversion of the crabbed miser Ebenezer Scrooge to a warm-hearted man who embraces Christmas after a night of visits from the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, and three time-traveling spirits, those of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. Dickens’s work became an instant classic. All 6,000 copies of the first printing were sold by Christmas, and the 2,000 copy second printing that quickly followed was also quickly sold out. Its lasting charm is evidenced by countless plays, radio dramatizations, television specials, and movie adaptations that have followed, a new one, seemingly, each generation.
While A Christmas Carol is probably Dickens’s most beloved work, it did little to alleviate the financial trouble in which he labored in 1843. At the time, Martin Chuzzlewhit was being serialized, but sales were slow. With his wife expecting the couple’s fifth child, Dickens penned the Christmas story in the hopes of a financial boost. Despite the brisk sales, his income did not rise as desired. The cost of producing the book—all resulting from Dickens’s own decisions, as he supervised the printing and hired the illustrator—was so high that the author saw few profits. Dickens lamented that “I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption”—ironic, given that A Christmas Carol demonstrates that redemption has nothing to do with one’s financial condition.
You gotta be careful in here, kid. You may be wearin’ your stripes, but you ain’t earned your stripes. Go it alone and you’ll make mistakes. You’ll hitch yourself to the wrong post, get saddled up and sold to the highest bidder. Stick by me and you might stand half a chance, but you’re gonna hafta listen.
Oh, that’d be on Tuesdays. Not a bad spread. Pickles. Onions. Standard. You’ll learn the menu. More important is this here yard. How you carry yourself. Who you trust. Take that fella at the bench press for example, the one with the dark beard and forearms thick as your chest. Name’s Bluto. Doin’ a dime for kidnappin’ a woman. That’s right, a sailor man’s wife. Threw her over his shoulder and took her down to the docks. Oh, he’ll rough you up right, but keep a can of spinach in your hip pocket and he’ll think twice. I don’t understand the science, but that there is the formula. Spinach.
Agreed, kid. Coupla sizzlin’ patties will beat a can o’ the green any yesterday or tomorrow, but that’s not what we’re talkin’. We’re talkin’ today and today is about the disco and the disco is about stayin’ alive. Have a look here. Skinny character sporting the lime suit? Question mark on his chest? That don’t mean he’s the information booth. No sir. Say a word to that crafty SOB and he’ll come at you like the Sphinx, all riddles ‘n giggles. Next thing you know you’ll be chummin’ around with a psycho circus clown and runnin’ from some pointy-eared, gravelly voiced vigilante. No. Thank. You. Best to steer clear of that riddler entirely.
Beats me! I wouldn’t know if his riddles are about ground beef or ground cinnamon for that matter, because I don’t talk to the man! Aren’t you listenin’? Better be. Your eyes ain’t gonna tell you what my twenty-seven years behind this barbed wire knows to be true. Another example. You probably look over at that strung-out orange beaky guy and think, “well that’s just some ol’ cuckoo junkie.” You’d be right about that. But that ol’ cuckoo junkie goes by the name of Sonny, and Sonny knows where to score the sweet stuff, if you catch my meaning. Sonny is just cuckoo for it, smuggles it past the guards in cereal boxes. You want a taste, that’s your bird.
I guess he could get you some, but why not wait till Tuesday? Like I said, they fire up that flame-broiler on Tuesdays. Sonny’s got no time to bother with no fast-food. Wisen up, boy, or you’ll end up runnin’ with them Hanna Barberas and let me tell you, that gang’s no Laff-a-Lympics. Sure, some of them hustlas may talk a soft game, soundin’ like Casey Casem or Paul Lynde, but they will be quick to shank a new fish if they even suspect you’re conspirin’ with the ascotted and far-sighted and snack-gobblin’ brand o’ meddlin’ teenagers. Dig? Of course you don’t. I’m not spellin’ it out in ketchup. These are the type of gangstas that dress as ghosts and swamp thangs and go hauntin’ just so they can shut down orphanages! That enough to scare you? Oh and don’t get me started on the Orphans! That’s another gang. A more Dickensian band of bandits you have not seen. If it ain’t your porridge they’re after, it’s your inheritance. You work the chimney sweep detail and you’ll be pits-deep in those mangy lads, singing show-tunes while they pick your pocket. You’re better off
On 1 December 1860, Charles Dickens published the first installment of Great Expectations in All the Year Round, the weekly literary periodical that he had founded in 1859. Perhaps Dickens’s best-loved work, it tells the story of young Pip, who lives with his sister and her husband the blacksmith. He has few prospects for advancement until a mysterious benefaction takes him from the Kent marshes to London. Pip is haunted by figures from his past — the escaped convict Magwitch, the time-withered Miss Havisham, and her proud and beautiful ward, Estella — and in time uncovers not just the origins of his great expectations but the mystery of his own heart.
A powerful and moving novel, Great Expectations is suffused with Dickens’s memories of the past and its grip on the present, and it raises disturbing questions about the extent to which individuals affect each other’s lives. Below is a sequence of podcasts with Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Great Expectations, recorded by George Miller of Podularity.
Title page of first edition of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861
- What was going on in Dickens’s private life at the time?
[See post to listen to audio]
- Both Dickens and Pip were haunted by the ghosts of the past.
[See post to listen to audio]
- Are gentlemen in Victorian England born or made?
[See post to listen to audio]
- Why was Dickens persuaded to change his original ending to the novel?
[See post to listen to audio]
- Why does Great Expectations continue to hold such appeal for readers?
[See post to listen to audio]
- If you loved this novel, try…
[See post to listen to audio]
Charles Dickens was one of the most important writers of the 19th century and 2012 is the 200th anniversary year of his birth. The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Great Expectations reprints the definitive Clarendon text. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s new introduction ranges widely across critical issues raised by the novel: its biographical genesis, ideas of origin and progress and what makes a “gentleman,” memory, melodrama, and the book’s critical reception.
For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.
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