Sunday, July 03, 2016

Miss Havisham: A History

Miss Havisham: A History
Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’s thirteenth novel. Installments began appearing weekly in December of 1860 with the completed novel published the following summer. Reviews were mixed, opinions varied. One critic found it “feeble, fatigued, and colourless,” while another noted that the “book resembles its name in one respect – it begins well and then disappoints.” Others recognized it as a masterpiece. Here we see Dickens gazed at by his contemporaries—wildly popular and famous of course, but someone who might still earn a headline like “Dickens’s Comeback” with a palpable question mark thrumming at its end. (That reviewer’s cautious assessment: “Mr Dickens may be reasonably proud of these volumes.”)

He was 48 when he started writing the book, 49 when it was finished. Almost twenty-five years had passed since the publication of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist had turned him into a household name. It’s clear from these reviews that people missed that earlier Dickens—the funny Dickens, the meandering Dickens, the youthful effervescent Dickens. His more recent novels, like Little Dorrit, Hard Times, and even A Tale of Two Cities, are cited as disappointments. The word “decay” crops up a couple times. One reviewer notes that people may have only picked up Great Expectations out of a “curiosity, half painful, half careless, to see what further ravages time might have yet in store for the mental frame of a novelist already past his prime…”

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