["The New Story" appeared on p. 771 of the December 8, 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. It was a review-cum-advertisement that accompanied the appearance of the third installment of Great Expectations. The anonymous critic, doubtless with an eye to improving the circulation of the New York literary magazine as it begins publication of Great Expectations, defends serial publication and serial reading as he recalls Dickens's previous best-seller, Little Dorrit, and praises Dickens's powers of description and invention in the opening chapters of the new novel. PVA]
HE new novel of Dickens's, “Great Expectations," which was begun in the Weekly two weeks ago, opens with all the familiar raciness and power. In a sharp characterization, not only of human beings but of landscape and scenery, Dickens is without a rival. The very houses and fields have a sympathy with the story in which they are depicted. In “Little Dorrit," for instance, how curiously interested you become in the old house with the mysterious noises in the wall, and in the spell which it casts and holds over poor Affery Flintwinch! There is a sickly fascination about the old place which the stern Mrs. Clennam and Flintwinch himself and the Mephistophelian foreigner can not surpass; and so strongly is this conveyed that, if you remember the picture of the last scene in the history of the house, in which Mephisto sits smoking in the front window, you can not escape the weird look of consciousness in the old pile--a dark, shadowy, inscrutable consciousness, as if it knew the part it was playing in the drama, and was aware of the significance and importance of its agency.
When “Little Dorrit" was completed, some critic in Blackwood, I think) assailed it as a hodge-podge, as written at random, without a plot or purpose and, in proof, cited the very incident of the falling house, a mere make-shift, as the critic declared, to dispose of the story, and a shift suggested the recent fall of a house in London.
Dickens thought fit to reply in the Household Words to this critic. It is happy for all his readers that he did so, because he entirely demolished the reviewer, and showed that his care in construction was as great as his power of conception and narrative. He reminded the reader that, in the very first part of the story, published nearly two years before the last, and of course the same time before the fall of the London house, he had described the singular, inexplicable noises in the house. He did not tell us what they were. They were magnified and made mysterious by the nervous apprehension of Mistress Affery, to whom they were supernatural sounds. And all through the book these sounds recurred like a ghostly refrain pointing directly, though the reader could not know it yet, to the catastrophe; themselves accomplishing the catastrophe, which, when it came, explained the mystery which had accompanied us from the first chapter. It was a most felicitous stroke of literary art, and it is no wonder that Dickens rushed to the rescue to avenge his own skill and common sense.
In the opening of “Great Expectations" the landscape is drawn into sympathy with the story and in the same way. The lonely marshes with the creaking chains upon the gibbet, the starving convicts escaping from the hulks, the grave-yard in which lie buried Pip's parents, the hard life of Pip and his brother-in-law, and the great sad sea closing around the whole with its endless moan--these all combine in feeling and impression; men and landscape merge and mingle, and you lie, as you read, in the grasp of genius.
How affluent, how sweet and genial that genius is! What a happy consciousness to the man, as he seats himself daily to tell his story, that thousands and thousands are eagerly waiting to follow where be leads! Let a Lounger exhort all who listen to him not to fail to begin this new story now. If you wait until it is completed you will hardly read it at all. A hundred other things will dispute your attention. When authors are taught by circumstances that it is wiser for them to write serially, readers may be very sure that it is wiser for them to read serially. (p. 771)
[Note: “The Lounger" is a gossip column that customarily appears on one or more of the opening pages of this weekly magazine.]
Last modified 23 November 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007