he novel presents the motifs of responsible versus irresponsible parenting, of a loving versus a tyrannical parent, and of the right sort of role-modelling a child requires from a parent in order to develop into a mentally well-balanced adult. These concerns are present in Dickens's earlier fiction, particularly in the persons of the tyrannical Mr. Murdstone, the lovable but impractical Wilkins Micawber, and Aunt Besty Trotwood in David Copperfield, but their sharpness here suggests that events in Dickens's life were thrusting them into his consciousness.
St Mary's, Higham. Photograph © Glyn Baker. [Click on the image for more information.]
On 17 July, 1860, Katie Dickens married Wilkie Collins's brother, Charles, at St. Mary's Church in Higham, near Gad's Hill, Kent. With his wealth and influence, Dickens was able to arrange to have a special train bring the wedding guests down from London. Still angry at his estranged wife, Catherine (or perhaps overcompensating for any private guilt he felt about the separation that he initiated), Dickens had refused to invite his wife, whom he had married twenty-four years earlier — only Georgina Hogarth, virtually the Dickens family housekeeper, was present from Catherine's side of the family. Charley, CD's eldest son, was absent abroad on business; Plorn was shortly to emigrate to Australia to become a sheep-farmer. Just ten days after the wedding, CD's thirty-eight-year-old brother Alfred died. Elizabeth Dickens, CD's aged mother, had descended into senility, so that her successful son was now the child responsible for her care.
In writing Great Expectations in the fall, the novelist suffered from a number of complaints that only served as reminders of advancing age: piles, facial neuralgia, asthma, pain in his side (an after-effect of childhood renal cholic), and sleeplessness. And always there was his separation from Catherine which he tried to hide from the public. Now fifty and looking at least sixty, Dickens was having an affair with a pretty, blonde twenty-year-old actress, Ellen Ternan, while the Victorian reading public imagined him the model pater familias. As a single parent, he worried about all his children and the life choices they were making. Paradoxically, he encouraged his sons to leave home, but attempted to dominate his daughters' lives. Mamie never married; Katie's marriage to Charles Collins deteriorated as the young groom's health declined.
Meantime, there was the running of All the Year Round, where he had a bed fixed up for those nights when he stayed in town to work on the journal. Needing a new novel to serialise, he tried both Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, neither of them as yet at their full creative powers, both of them reluctant to undertake a serial at short notice. Casting about, he asked Charles Lever, a novelist whose popularity had long since declined, to begin on July 1st. In September, the sales of All the Year Round fell off because Lever's A Day's Ride was not to the readers' tastes. Hastily, Dickens resolved in October that he would strike in himself to compensate for Lever's weakness.
Although Great Expectations' two endings are both supportable, the original is not the traditional 'happy' ending of romance, but a closure more melancholy, and more real. On the other hand, it is not entirely pessimistic, for the protagonist has gained self-perspective and freed himself from the mental chains of snobbery and pretentiousness. At 23 Pip had left London almost penniless; now he returns to his native country a modest success, but feels out of place in the forge with Joe and Biddy. His experiences have made him an individual, but they have also served to alienate him from his class and his origins. Whatever this ending's virtues, Dickens must have sensed that this anti-romantic ending would not sit well with his readership — otherwise, why would he have solicited the advice of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Although the original ending was consistent with Dickens's state of mind in 1861, he had instinct enough to recognize that it was not consistent with the temper of his readership. The public who had faithfully supported him for three decades did not want a haunted man, a morose bachelor condemned to single life, but the conventional, 'middle class' happy ending.
Related Materials for Positioning Great Expectations
- The Genres of Great Expectations (1861)
- The Overlapping Intertextualities of Great Expectations (1861)
Last modified 9 March 2001