n The Mill on the Floss, as so often in Victorian fiction, the main focus is on the plight of the heroine. Apart from children's writers like Mrs Craik and Charlotte Yonge, whose moral purpose in encouraging children is transparent, the novelists who most consistently pay attention to the difficult early years of their male protagonists are Dickens and Thackeray. They both approach it more positively than is generally suggested, and the parallels that emerge are highly indicative of the general tendency of the age. In Great Expectations and The Adventures of Philip, these two novelists both try to embody mid-Victorian ideals in young heroes who catch more of the oxygen of the outside world than their predecessors. Apart from sharing their Christian names, these heroes of the early '60s very clearly share the ethos of the times. Dickens's young hero, especially, is strengthened by a distinctly Smilesian determination to do well in such a world.
"Oliver plucks up a spirit" to defend his mother's good name, even though Noah Claypole for insulting his mother (from the 3-vol. ed. published by Richard Bentley, 1839; 2nd ed., facing p. 98). [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
From the very beginning, even the feeblest of Dickens's child characters feel the pull of life, the call of the future — there is always a sense of moving forward. Oliver Twist, for instance, must live to establish his identity and claim his birthright. He puts up his fists to fight Noah Claypole for his mother's good name, turns his back on Mr Sowerberry's coffins and makes the long, cold, hungry trek to London alone, and then, unlike the suffering children of the religious tracts, rouses himself from his sleep at Mr Brownlow's to confront life afresh. After the words "he awoke" at this point in the manuscript, Dickens rejected the child's earlier association with death by cancelling the following long phrase: "with an effort so strong and painful that it seemed as if death would have been easier and sweeter than life...." (see Tillotson's Clarendon ed., 67). Instead, the focus on the moment of recovery is maintained with one brief emphatic and triumphant statement: "He belonged to the world again" (128). Oliver is still a dependent child at the end, as J. Hillis Miller complains (83), but Dickens tells us that in due course "his nature developed itself" (479). The claim that "[o]rphanhood signifies self-reliance for Dickens's characters" is not as exaggerated as it sounds (John Reed 251).
As early as Barry Lyndon, Thackeray produces a boy who is vital, hardy and courageous — the troublesome Lord Bullingdon. In some ways, the young viscount recalls Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. As a mere child, he leaps dramatically out of a speeding coach to try to foil an abduction, for instance, and, five years later at the ripe age of sixteen, he threatens to shoot his stepfather if he canes him again. Indeed, the two youths are given similar parts to play in their respective narratives: Dickens, having deleted Nicholas's promise to share Smike's fate from the end of Chapter 20 of Nicholas Nickleby (see the Penguin ed., Appendix A, 939), uses Nicholas to bring his rascally uncle to book; Thackeray, confounding the reports of Bullingdon's death in the American War, produces him again unexpectedly to give his stepfather a good beating in the concluding chapter. Such encounters show that the early Victorian reaction towards troubles in childhood could sometimes cast the resilient youth in the role of an avenging rather than a redeeming angel.
However, Bullingdon's story is told throughout from his angry stepfather's point of view; he has no more chance to develop himself than Nicholas. Soon, both Dickens and Thackeray are admitting the difficulty of producing adequate heroes. Dombey and Son turns out to be a misleading title for a novel which is more about "a Daughter after all" (298), and the almost exactly contemporaneous Vanity Fair bears the well-known subtitle, A Novel Without A Hero. Dickens's small hero dies — the last important child character in his work to do so, barring the social outcast Jo in Bleak House, and Sophy Marigold in his Christmas story for 1865, "Doctor Marigold." As for Thackeray's novel, when the two candidates for the role meet at school, the deficiencies of each quickly become apparent.
Thackeray's Philip Firmin seems rather an old-fashioned hero at first. His growth is charted on a track closely following earlier incarnations of youth in the English novel, starting with what might be called (since Thackeray was evidently fond of that young gentleman) his Tom Jones phase. Philip at school contrasts quite sharply with "Figs" Dobbin at the beginning of Vanity Fair. Far from being a dull, ungainly child, an object of playground ridicule, at the beginning of his "adventures" Philip is "a brave little handsome boy" with shining violet eyes and auburn hair, innocently ready to take on all-comers (1: 116). Later, though, learning of his father's secret immorality, he becomes an anguished, devil-may-care youth of the Byronic type, whose shenanigans invite considerably less sympathy, and would have had dire results in any Tractarian novel. Thus do "older masculine ideals inhabit spaces in new ones" (Rosen xiii); thus too does Thackeray begin to support his own claim that "faultless heroes have ever so long gone out of fashion" (1: 164). Later, though, being one of those "who fall to rise again" (1: 145), Philip settles down to becoming an industrious and thrifty young husband, admirable not because he is the son of a tradesman like Dobbin, but because he is actually seen in the Smilesian throes of struggling to earn his own penny. "How do men live? How is rent paid?" says Thackeray (2: 527), assaying an answer by showing Philip amid paper and paste in the sub-editor's room, preparing the notices columns, or staying up all night over his first legal brief.
"Leave this lad to me, Ma'am; leave this lad to me": John McLenan's
illustration for the 22 December 1860 instalment of the novel in
Harper's Weekly. Mr Pumblechook restrains Mrs Joe, who has already
pushed Pip's face against the wall for not wanting to describe his
experiences at Miss Havisham's. [Click on thumbnail for larger image
and more information.]
Philip Pirrip's beginnings are far less propitious than Philip Firmin's. As Great Expectations opens, this child seems far from a hero-in-the-making. No less a "little shrinking creature" than David at the beginning of his story in David Copperfield (131), he suffers many of the disadvantages of an early nineteenth-century childhood (see Gilmour 126ff), and is as pathetic as many of his author's other young heros. "[R]epulsed ... at every turn" by his sister, he is regularly "tickled" with a "wax-ended piece of cane" (15, 9), and drummed about the head with a thimble. As well as helping in the forge, he frightens birds, picks up stones and so forth, for neighbours; whatever he earns is taken away from him. In the evenings, he risks Mr Wopsle's great-aunt's birch-rod for the doubtful benefit of struggling with the rudiments of the 3 Rs in a makeshift schoolroom. Back at home, he has to stir the Christmas pudding for an hour at a time, and, like Squeers's boys in Nicholas Nickleby, is dosed with purgative, his head held under Mrs Joe's arm "as a boot would be held in a boot-jack" (12). Darkness descends on him as it does on Oliver Twist at the undertaker's, for he is not allowed a candle at bedtime, and Sundays are as miserable for him as they once were for poor Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit. Memory has softened all this for Philip Pirrip, allowing him to record most of it with wry humour. But at the time, of course, he labours under a natural sense of grievance from his "perpetual conflict with injustice" (63).
While natural, this resentment is troubling: hence those feelings of guilt which are explored at length by Julian Moynahan, who finds that "Pip has certainly one of the guiltiest consciences in literature" (60). However, Pip's boyhood is no less active on account of them. On the contrary, the "silent gliding on" of David Copperfield's adolescence at Dr Strong's school (322) is replaced here by a very bumpy ride indeed. Far better, for example, to have been beaten by the pale and pimply Herbert Pocket in their skirmish, as David is by the butcher's boy who taunts Dr Strong's pupils, than to suffer such terrors over his triumph as Pip does: his over-active conscience tells him that this victory is a crime, a "deed of violence" (94). Equally innocent of the far more deadly assault on his sister with a filed-off leg-iron, Pip nevertheless feels obscurely implicated; but "morally timid" (63) he is still unable to confess the "old ... secret" of his brush with the convicts as a small boy. The inwardness with which such "wavering between right and wrong" (122) is relayed to us through the eyes of the older Philip makes this narrative far more dramatic than Thackeray's. Of course, the boy's susceptibility to self-accusation goes hand in hand with susceptibility of another kind: "inwardly crying" for the contemptuous Estella (82), Pip makes a "restlessly aspiring discontented" apprentice at the forge (108), even trying to polish Joe up into a more socially acceptable companion in case he happens to be seen with him. It is no surprise, therefore, that an "immensity of posturing" (157) follows the mysterious change in Pip's prospects; nor that his confidence should be so superficial as to be completely shattered when Trabb's boy imitates this posturing in the High Street. In other words, it is all a perfect story of adolescent self-doubt, bluster and vulnerability.
Yet Pip is like Herbert in that first trial of strength, or Thackeray's Philip. When he falls it is only to rise again, and by his own efforts, too. When Magwitch reappears, the shock of disillusion at once awakens him to his folly; although the urgent need to help the convict again returns Pip to his better self, he is nevertheless not one of those grown-up children whom Dickens now finds so suspect. He rises to real acts of gallantry which the Harold Skimpoles of this world could never encompass, and which are far more convincing than anything in the earlier novels. The stock delivery of a beautiful maiden (like Nicholas Nickleby's resuing of Madeline) is replaced here by Pip's unavailing attempts to save those most disappointing of godparents, Miss Havisham (who has turned out to be indeed "the Witch of the place," 85), and Magwitch himself. The strengthening of Pip's character goes along naturally with the development of a new, more mature kindness to Magwitch. Pip does become as weak as a child after the trauma of Magwitch's death, but in gratefully accepting Joe's care again, he wipes out his old "black ingratitude" (106), makes the slate clean as it were, and can then begin to take up his adult duties.
It seems a shame that at the end of Philip, Thackeray should have felt bound to gild his struggling hero's future with the tired old expedient of a mislaid will, the kind of "sudden expedient for great riches" that Fanny Burney had deplored almost a century ago (81). The fantasy of aristocratic leisure intrudes incongruously here as it does in The Virginians, where George Esmond is elevated from his hand-to-mouth existence as a translator, magazine contributor and tutor by his unexpected accession to his uncle's estate. This author seems, finally, to lack faith either in his protagonist, or in the rewards of a steady, virtuous life. Something of both is indicated earlier in
Left to right: (a) "I saw the shadow of no parting from her": John McLenan's illustration for the 3 August 1861 instalment of Great Expectations in Harper's Weekly, with a top-hatted Pip looking rather majestically in charge of the happier ending. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and more information.] (b) Thackeray's very dashing Philip with his true love, Charlotte, at a party in France; some obstacles have to be overcome before their fairytale ending materialises (unattributed illustration in Harper's one volume ed. of 1863, p. 150). [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
Dickens resisted such expedients. It is well known that Edward Bulwer-Lytton persuaded him too to cast his hero's future in a happier light (see Appendix A, 508-9 of the Penguin Classics ed). But in neither of Dickens's conclusions to Great Expectations is Pip's capability in doubt. Pip is not seen at his desk like Philip Firmin, but the quiet triumph of his assumption of his "first undivided responsibility" and his gradual climb to be "a partner in the House" (480) clings tenaciously even to the rewritten ending of the novel, where it enhances the prospect of his union with Estella. "I work pretty hard for a sufficient living, and therefore — Yes, I do well" (484). There is more to Pip than the "Biedermeier" hero in his restricted world: his backbone has been strengthened, and his horizons enlarged, by a determination to make the most of his life.. He is by no means the "disappointed hero" of Philip Hobsbaum's description (242). He has good cause to be satisfied with what he has accomplished, and evidently has faith in his future too..
- The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations
Last modified 15 January 2011