It’s back to the classics again this week for My Reading Life and I’m casting the spotlight onto my favourite English literature novel: Great Expectations (1860-1861) by Charles Dickens.
I first came to Great Expectations in Year 12 at high school when I selected it as my classic text for my senior English unit on 19th century English literature. I hadn’t read Dickens before but he sounded infinitely preferable to Emily Bronte and her Wuthering Heights. Turns out I made a good call because reading Great Expectations was one of my most pleasurable reading experiences in all of high school. I loved it, lingered over it, wrote a stellar essay on it and then bought my own copy after so that I could read it again and again.
Considered as one of Dickens’ greatest critical and popular successes, Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an orphan raised by a harsh sister and her kind husband. In the opening scenes, Pip and his uncle Joe come across an escaped convict whom they assist. Years later, Pip’s life changes dramatically when an anonymous benefactor enables Pip to become a gentleman with ‘great expectations’ of a bright and fortunate future. When Pip realises later down the track who his benefactor is, his life is once again spun out of his control. In Great Expectations, Dickens is at the height of his literary skill. His writing is infused with atmosphere, his dialogue and introspection sharp with wit and softened with humour. His characters are so memorable: Miss Havisham, faded and embittered; the cold and haughty Estella, Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter; the convict Abel Magwitch; and of course, Pip himself, at first an impressionable boy at the mercy of the whims of Miss Havisham and Estella, and then later, an ambitious young man at the mercy of the whims of his benefactor and his own compromised conscience.
Why do I love Great Expectations so much? What’s not to love! A crumbling and creepy mansion housing an old bitter woman draped in a disintegrating wedding dress, adoptive mother to a beautiful, yet seemingly heartless young woman; a vulnerable boy caught in a game he neither understands nor can escape from, growing into manhood with false impressions of his future; a love story that was never going to end in anything other than disappointment; a coming of age journey that circles back to its beginning with poignancy . The atmosphere just leaps off the page, pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the very last sentence. It has a timeless quality that makes it fully accessible even today. I’m certain Great Expectations is responsible for my ongoing love of historical fiction that revolves around old crumbling houses full of mystery and intrigue, secret passageways and hidden letters.
It’s almost compulsory for the BBC to turn every English literature novel into a sumptuous mini-series – much to my delight. Great Expectations was no exception, hitting our screens in 1999 starring the very handsome and charismatic Ioan Grufford as Pip. I loved this adaptation and it remains my favourite to date, although I did enjoy the updated 2011 BBC mini-series starring Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and Douglas Booth as Pip (another handsome casting choice). Great Expectations is such an involved story that in my opinion, it’s always told better as mini-series rather than a feature film. There’s more time to let the story breathe; more time to peak and plummet. You’ve got to love the BBC and it’s dedication to bringing the classics to life. You might be hard pressed getting a copy of the 1999 version, my own is sadly a video cassette, useless with a DVD player. In any case, the 2011 version will suffice nicely. And yes, I did watch that 1998 feature film adaptation starring Ethan Hawke as Pip and Gwenyth Paltrow as Estella. Despite my deep and abiding love for Ethan Hawke, this version didn’t do my beloved Great Expectations justice. Not by a long shot.
I’m going to leave this here with the final words from Great Expectations itself, as they never fail to give me goosebumps, their beauty infinitely timeless:
“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.
“And will continue friends apart,” said Estella.
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw the shadow of no parting from her.