What the Dickens?
Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate many moons ago, I imagined I would grow up to be a Victorianist. The Industrial Revolution, the People’s Charter, the Great Exhibition, the first Christmas card (!) were all manifestations of this imminent change that was taking place. Though now the Victorians are remembered as stiff, unforgiving, and terribly moralising, the Victorian Era itself was one of change and reform. Which is not to say that everything was peachy. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had the novels of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell.
Growing up I had festered an unhealthy obsession with the works of Charles Dickens: yes, Little Dorrit, Hard Times, and Bleak House. (I must confess, however, I still haven’t gotten my hands on Oliver Twist). Dickens wasn’t only a literary giant that we now remember for his coming-of-age stories, he was also a household name. It was Dickens who revived Christmas, Lauren Laverne states, as during the Victorian period the celebration was in decline. It was Dickens who popularised the phrase “Merry Christmas” among the Victorian public (Cochrane 1996). It was Dickens who brought carolling back (okay fine, maybe it was Queen Victorian’s husband Prince Albert who also had a hand in that). Moreover, gift-giving happened during New Year’s celebrations at the beginning of 19th century, but in the Dickens-sphere, gift-giving took place on Christmas Day, associating the gesture with the importance of charity and sharing. In a way, he is implicitly the reason why we say “sharing is caring”.
Contextualising Christmas and Dickens
A Christmas Carol is the book that immediately comes to most people’s mind when thinking of Christmas. In fact, I will most likely sit by the Christmas tree this year, cat purring on my lap, putting my best Scrooge voice on, shouting “bah humbug!” And yet, when I think of Dickens and Christmas, my most immediate thought is Great Expectations. I hadn’t even read A Christmas Carol until I was in university. Great Expectations tells the story of young Pip Pirrip, an orphan who came into fortune in his adulthood and became a gentleman. Though this doesn’t necessarily sound like Christmas, the opening chapters do take place on Christmas Eve, in preparation of Christmas Day.
But, first, here’s some context: Great Expectations is generally thought of as one of Dickens’ darkest books. Rumour has it (and I take this rumour from the Charles Dickens Museum in London) that Dickens had an affair with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and wrote that book during that period of familial turmoil. After Dickens’ death, Catherine Dickens gave her sister, Georgina, a Victorian gold, enamel and diamond serpent ring, which is now at the museum. If that is not the ultimate snarky move, I don’t know what is. However, Estella may have been based on an old fling, an actress, named Ellen Ternan. Great Expectations, furthermore, actually had a different ending, which displeased readers so greatly that Dickens changed it. A clue: in the original ending, boy doesn’t get girl.
The Legacy of the Christmas Dinner Scene
In a sense, Great Expectations is a novel of disillusionment; Gatsby’s less-glamorous predecessor. Wealth corrupts and often it is not used for the common good as Jay and Pip may have thought. Both Pip and Jay use money in an attempt to impress the women they love, to bring them into their lives. Something, however, is lost along the way. This disillusionment seeps into every aspect of Great Expectations and, indeed, it even impacts the way Christmas is represented. Isabella Colletta writes, for instance, how Great Expectations might have been a response to A Christmas Carol with Dickens once noting to a friend: “I feel as if I had murdered Christmas.”
In Great Expectations, Christmas seems more like an ordeal and a fuss. On Christmas Eve, we read about young Pip who “had to stir the pudding for the next day, with a copper-stick from seven to eight by the Dutch clock.” To realise the nature of the ordeal: a copper-stick was normally used for stirring clothes in the large metal tub or ‘copper’ on washing day. It doesn’t sound pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. Then, the next day, the depiction of the Christmas dinner isn’t one that is warm, but, rather, a disagreeable and miserable time, where one spends time with people they don’t like or care for. Pip is lectured on how ungrateful young men are and is bullied by the people present. However, there might be another reason for that, if we take into consideration what an astute social critic Dickens was. Notice W. Methias (2011) in an analysis of the Christmas dinner scene (albeit from a linguistic perspective), correlates the poor mannerisms (or impoliteness or underpoliteness) with the working-class background of the characters. According to Dr. Methias “it compromises communicative acts that are not motivated by malice, spite or hatred and that are socially acceptable according to expected norms of behaviour”. While Joan Wickersham argues that it is this ambiguity of Great Expectations, even in relation to Christmas, that makes it a great piece of art. Indeed, Christmas in Great Expectations is not as moralising as it is in A Christmas Carol, though there are certainly undertones of charity. Pip, after all, does give a convict some bread, cheese, mincemeat, and some brandy, while also maintaining polite conversation, despite the fact that he is probably scared out of his Victorian breeches.
I don’t know why Great Expectations thrilled me so much as a child. Reading it in adulthood, I feel it is a bit dry, a bit overcooked. You bite into the pages, and it’s really quite chewy and hard to digest – you poke Estella and the character feels like a Jell-O; certainly not a living, breathing woman (and you know, you could say that is on trauma, not so much that Dickens didn’t know how to write women). Most likely, if I were to choose between Fitzgerald and Dickens, I’d choose Fitzgerald any day. Still, it is important to take this time to appreciate Dickens’ influence and impact which continues to exercise its power over our 21st -century minds.
Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES PhD Candidate