Even if you haven’t read this or seen any of the many movie or tv adaptations, you would know something of the story. This is the one about Pip, an escaped convict, a beautiful but cruel girl called Estella, and the corpse-like Miss Havisham. It’s about a little boy called Pip who was raised by his much older sister, Mrs Joe, and her husband, Joe, the village blacksmith. Joe is a role model and father figure as well as Pip’s best friend, while Mrs Joe is sharp-tongued and aggressive – between her and Joe’s uncle, Mr Pumblechook, Pip is made to feel worthless and one step away from becoming the most ungrateful wretch on the face of the Earth.A chance encounter as a boy of about 8 with a convict who has escaped from a Hulk (an old un-seaworthy ship used as a prison while Britain dithered over where to send the convicts) sees Pip do an act of kindness – mostly out of fear – and keep his first secret from Joe.The reclusive Miss Havisham – who was jilted at the altar at a quarter to nine and lives in suspended time, still wearing her decaying wedding dress, with one shoe on, the clocks all stopped and her mansion falling down around her – sends for Pip to be a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella, Pip is made to feel ashamed of his rough hands and coarse boots, his ignorance and weakness, by Estella’s cruel remarks. Despite her blatant cruelty, Pip falls in love with her and torments himself with wanting her. When, after about four years as an apprentice blacksmith, Pip learns from a London lawyer, Mr Jaggers, that he has a patron who will pay his way into society but who insists on keeping their identity secret, Pip is sure it must be Miss Havisham and that she plans to raise him up so he can have Estella.
The truth about the matter is probably quite predictable – I guessed it, though I couldn’t figure out the logistics of it – but I don’t want to say anything just in case. What I can talk about instead is Dickens’ prose, language, diction, style, whatever you want to call it, and the reluctance of people like me to read him. (This is the first Dickens book I’ve read.) It is true that authors at the time were paid by the word, and it is quite true that Dickens is pretty wordy. Don’t let that put you off though. He’s no more wordy than a lot of other authors – George Eliot, for example, or Tolstoy or Thackeray. But every word is carefully chosen, and while a few times the diction was alien to me because the language is now disused, you can still get the meaning from the context. The story is in the details, though, so try to avoid the temptation of skimming long passages: a great deal is told and revealed in very few words and you need to read every sentence to fully understand and appreciate the story. Impressions are gained through clever structure, repetition and other stylistic devices – it’s a “show”, not “tell”, kind of book.
It’s interesting, while reading volume 1, to note that you have an older, wiser Pip narrating the story of a much younger, more naive Pip – at times our perception is coloured by the older Pip’s derisiveness; you get the sense that he’s shaking his head in bewilderment or rueful amusement. It’s quite clever, what he reveals and what he keeps mum about in order for the story to maintain a level of suspense and excitement. You know he’s stringing you along but he does such a good job of it, you can’t hold it against him. One of the things this book really succeeds at is the positing of a younger Pip and an older Pip, presented at the same time, the same character and yet different, and showing how Pip changes over the years and why, until the two finally merge. It takes talent to manipulate the dual Pips that way, and keep a handle on their emotional maturation.
Miss Havisham is one of those larger-than-life characters who becomes famous in their own right: the bizarre, gothic spinster, embittered by her personal tragedy, warping the mind of Estella to make her into a woman who will hurt men the way Miss H was hurt. The frozen-in-time, decaying mansion – the room with the rotting wedding cake on the table, everything covered in cobwebs and bugs, with mice crawling in the walls. It’s incredibly vivid and grotesque, and it’s these highly exaggerated scenes and characters that make Dickens such a memorable writer.
I suppose the moral of the story centres around Pip and how, when he comes into money and a better position in society, he becomes snobbish and unlikeable, looking down on Joe and his childhood friend, Biddy, and becoming class conscious in the worst way. He puts social position and class, etiquette and learning, gentility and leisure, above his friends – such misplaced value, and an inability to appreciate what’s really worth appreciating, are fairly common themes but are dealt with with surprising subtlety here – I think because Pip is narrating, and he doesn’t really come out and say “I was selfish and unthinking and thought myself better than the man who raised me, but I repent.” He doesn’t need to – it’s quite clear. And, naturally, he learns from his mistakes.