Visiting the Charles Dickens Museum and Revisiting “Great Expectations”

The Charles Dickens Museum

I traveled to London last month to visit the Dickens Museum.

Very, very foolish, I know. Even with a cut-rate deal on a flight, no American flies to London to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  

Still, I felt exhilarated as I walked briskly through the Holborn district to 48  Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839.   After buying a ticket, I euphorically explored the Georgian house, using the self-guided tour pamphlet.  The dim autumn light poured through the windows,  and it was easy to imagine Dickens returning from one of his 10-mile walks on a cool day and picking up his pen. The museumgoers all had the look of Victorian guests, albeit in modern slacks and jacket, eager to listen to Dickens read aloud in the drawing room from his manuscripts, which he reputedly did.

The Dickens Museum is both authentic and commercial: the perfect blend, honestly, for museumgoers with different tastes.  In the dining room, the table is set with  plates bearing the names of famous guests,  like Thackeray and John Forster.  The first time I visited, I thought the plates a little corny.  But lo!   This time, I wondered who would dominate the chat at the table.  Would Dickens be in competition with Thackeray? 

Dickens’s desk.

Upstairs,  I looked with awe at the desk where Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and began Barnaby Rudge.  (The desk followed him to other houses:  he wrote all his books on it.) I squinted at first editions and manuscripts in his library.   I admired the desk he designed for his public readings.   And I learned he didn’t cut his hair on his American tour because fans kept asking for locks of hair, and he was nervous about it.

And then I decided to read more Dickens.  I had recently finished Little Dorrit (which I wrote about here).  I considered The Pickwick Papers, but instead picked Great Expectations, a short book I had somehow never returned to.

I wondered, Can I read this in a week? (Yes, because it’s 400-some pages, as opposed to 800-some pages.)  And then I realized, Oh dear, I was doing Internet speak:  conflating the “anxiety” of finishing a  (self-)“challenge” with real anxiety over crucial issues like climate change and war.  The real issue we consider on the internet is, I think, how to get control.  And so the focus is tiny.

And, yes, I finished Great Expectations in a week (by the skin of my teeth!), by reading half of it yesterday.  It is “compactly perfect,” as Shaw said, but, in my view, not the equal of the dark but flamboyant Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.   Dickens needs  room, I think.

Still, Great Expectations is perfectly structured, following two parallel lines of narrative.  The narrator, Pip,  an orphan raised by an abusive older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her kind but slow-witted blacksmith husband, Joe, is astonished when Miss Havisham, a weird, wealthy old woman who  has never left her cobwebby house since she was jilted, invites him to come over to “play.”  Here, she wears her wedding gown and is raising an orphan girl, Estella, to hate men and hurt them. Of course Pip falls in love with beautiful Estella, who  cannot love Pip—or anyone.  

Illustration of Miss Havisham by Harry Furniss

But something traumatic and much darker, or darker on the surface, happened to Pip when he was very young, sitting in the graveyard contemplating his parents’ tombstones.  (He never met his parents.) An escaped convict named Magwitch accosted him and threatened him with death if he did not bring him food and a file to saw off his manacles. Magwitch, however, has a sense of justice:  when he is caught hours later, he calls out that he himself stole the food and the file, to save Pip from trouble.

Which of these two adults has committed the greater crime?  Miss Havisham or Magwitch? As the novel progresses, we learn more about their histories (which do intersect).   And when Pip is told he has an anonymous patron, who wants to raise him from blacksmith’s apprentice to gentleman, he ascends into hubris.  He does not visit Joe, because he is ashamed of him.  And he assumes that Miss Havisham is the patron and intends him for Estella.  

Pip is annoying and silly, but we all remember foolish things we did when we were young.  And we didn’t inherit a fortune.  

Great Expectations is exciting, suspenseful, and, of course, often comical.  You must read the scene where  Pip and Herbert see a very amateurish production of Hamlet in which an old neighbor of Pip’s plays Hamlet.

Here’s an excerpt:

Several curious little circumstances transpired as the action proceeded. The late king of the country not only appeared to have been troubled with a cough at the time of his decease, but to have taken it with him to the tomb, and to have brought it back. The royal phantom also carried a ghostly manuscript round its truncheon, to which it had the appearance of occasionally referring, and that, too, with an air of anxiety and a tendency to lose the place of reference which were suggestive of a state of mortality. It was this, I conceive, which led to the Shade’s being advised by the gallery to ‘turn over!’ –a recommendation which it took extremely ill.

Dickens is so much fun.