I had assumed I would suffer through Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations but instead, I loved this story. I was particularly dreading was the time this book would take to read, because Dickens can’t be read quickly, but on that score at least, I was right. I’m a fairly fast reader, but I seemed to be reading this story for weeks.
I read this on the train to and from work, at home in between doing housework, while I was cooking (Pear Jam included) and the last thing at night; at times I felt as if I would never finish the book. In an ideal world Great Expectations would be read aloud, but when I checked audible I found that the length of the version with Michael Page narrating goes for 18 and a half hours! Sadly I just don’t have that much time available. One day…
Great Expectations is a story told in three volumes. Volume One starts with Pip, the narrator, living in a small English village with his angry, abusive sister and her kind, generous husband Joe. Joe is a blacksmith and is, I meantersay, my favourite character in the whole book – more about him later. Pip is an orphan so Mrs Joe is credited with “bringing him up by hand,” which seems to be more of an euphemism for her belting Pip regularly. Pip is expected to become apprenticed to Joe in due course, and Joe often refers to the great larks they will have together then, presumably while out of Mrs Joe’s long reach.
The first big event of the story has Pip coming across an escaped convict hiding in the village churchyard. He frightens Pip into supplying him with food and drink, plus a metal file of Joe’s so he can escape his manacles. Soon after, though, the convict is recaptured and returned to the nearby prison ships.
Next, Pip is engaged to visit and amuse a local recluse, Miss Havisham, who was left many years ago at the altar by her bridegroom. Since then, Miss Havisham has worn her wedding dress while she sits in the room where her wedding feast was to be held surrounded by mouldy food, cobwebs and mice. There Pip meets and falls in love with Miss Havisham’s ward Estella, who Miss Havisham encourages to make Pip fall in love with her and so break his heart.
Volume One ends with a London lawyer, Mr Jaggers, visiting Pip to tell him he has the opportunity to go to London to become a gentleman, at the bequest of a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous. Pip is keen to do so because he believes that Estella will never want him as he is, a humble blacksmith’s apprentice.
Volume Two follows Pip, who is now an impressionable young man on his way to becoming a gentleman in London. Pip makes a true friend of Herbert Pocket, a delightful young man with no expectations of his own, and of Mr Wemmick, Mr Jagger’s henchman. Mr Wemmick looks like a post box and lives by the motto that ‘work is work and home is home,’ but Pip gets to know the ‘at home’ man and finds him to be as kind and generous as Joe, particularly to his elderly, deaf father, the ‘Aged P.’
While Pip is living in London, Mrs Joe dies following a mysterious accident which damaged her brain. Pip attends her funeral but by this time, he has become embarrassed by Joe’s simple manners and no longer appreciates his many qualities.
Pip continues to slink down to the village to visit Miss Havisham in the hope of seeing Estella, who still treats him indifferently, all the while avoiding Joe. Pip believes his expectations are from Miss Havisham and that eventually, marriage to Estella will form part of his bequest. By the end of Volume Two though, Pip learns who his mysterious benefactor is and has to adjust his thinking.
Volume Three weaves and winds, eventually tidying up all of the mysterious and questions raised in the first two volumes. During this part of the story Pip has to make difficult decisions, and learns some hard lessons about loyalty and character.
The characters and their names are delightfully descriptive. Mr Pumblechook is bossy and self-important, while Mr Wopsle is a church clerk who wants to be an actor. Dolge Orlick is a bully who argues constantly with Mrs Joe, while Flopson is a children’s nurse, falls over her mistress constantly. Estella is obviously a stunning young woman, and Miss Skiffins with her variety of coloured gloves, is Mr Wemmick’s ‘lady-friend.’ Drummle is a brutish young man who Pip meets in London and Abel Magwitch is the convict with a generous heart.
One of my favourite scenes in this story was Mr Wemmick’s wedding to Miss Skiffins. Mr Wemmick, who treats the whole event as a series of happy coincidences, engineers Pip’s attendance in the most delightful way imaginable. Out walking, “Halloa! Here’s a church!” and so on, until, “Halloa!” said Wemmick. “Here’s Miss Skiffins! Let’s have a wedding.” I nearly cried with joy while reading about this wedding myself.
I have to confess, I’m a little in love with the character of Joe, who reminds me enormously of my very own He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers. Both are good and kind, loyal and honourable and put up with a lot, although I like to think I’m in no way near as bad-tempered as Mrs Joe.
Sadly, Estella marries the brutish Drummle to avoid letting her heart to thaw towards Pip. I know she wanted to love Pip, but Miss Haversham trained her too well. I’m happy to say that Miss Haversham eventually saw the error of her ways.
I’m planning to watch a film version of Great Expectations sometime soon, then will wait a while before reading my next Charles Dickens’ story.
Great Expectations was book two for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.