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The stories of Great Expectations

The story of Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip, Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch holds a firm place in our cultural consciousness, but after the first flurry of interest had died down it wasn’t a great success during Charles Dickens’ lifetime. ‘Great Expectations never went out of print, but for decades it was dragged along on the coattails of other, more popular novels,’ says Dr Mary Hammond, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton. ‘In many ways, it’s an unlikely candidate for immortality.’

Yet today, Dickens’ 13th novel has exceeded expectations to become one of his most-adapted works. It has inspired everything from films, plays, pop songs and musicals to a poem by Carol Ann Duffy and an episode of the television show South Park.

Mary has been researching the novel’s global reach, impact and relevance. Funded by a nine-month AHRC fellowship, she has located, examined and compared an extensive range of primary sources such as radio broadcasts, scripts, theatre posters, film stills, translations and even newly-discovered pirated versions that appeared in American penny newspapers.

Her findings will be published as an illustrated monograph, titled ‘A publishing and reception history of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations 1860-2012’ (Ashgate, 2014). Adding to the work done by previous generations of Dickens scholars including Professor Ada Nisbet during the 1960s, this aims to be the fullest account yet written of Great Expectations’ multiple lives and their global reception.

‘This book’s job is to trace through this one iconic text the development of our understanding of who Charles Dickens is, and the relationship we have to the past he inhabited,’ says Mary.

She has also interviewed the producers of recent screen adaptations, such as the two major new versions released during the 2011-2012 period to coincide with the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth. In the 20th century, she notes, adaptations have often chimed with periods of historical turmoil — in this case, the economic crisis.

For example, the BBC chose Great Expectations for its first serial reading of a classic novel at the start of the Great Depression in 1930. Two major versions bookended World War 2: Alec Guinness adapted Great Expectations for the stage in 1939, and the acclaimed film directed by David Lean was released in 1946. ‘It’s really interesting to see how different eras pick up on the concerns of different characters,’ Mary says.

Take jilted spinster Miss Havisham, who has been played by actresses including Martita Hunt, Anne Bancroft, Gilliam Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter — sometimes wailing and weeping in her wedding dress, and sometimes as a more subtle iteration. ‘She’s a feminist icon in many respects. She’s both powerful and sad, and is one of the few really good roles for an older actress.’

The research also examines changing usage of the phrase ‘Great Expectations’, drawing on findings from a variety of sources including the British Library Newspaper Archive and the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent. ‘The phrase previously referred to falsely or naively high hopes, having been used that way since the 18th century,’ Mary explains. ‘After Great Expectations came out, newspapers started using it to refer to selfish motives, greed and dishonesty. It’s the title of many political cartoons about people trying to pull the wool over our eyes.’

The Charles Dickens Museum, London, is one organisation that stands to benefit from this project. Curator Fiona Jenkins hopes Dr Hammond will be able to assist with dating copies of Great Expectations. The museum currently holds over 100books relating to the novel in some way, including around 80 versions of the primary text that are thought to date from 1861 to 1994.

Mary’s research should also provide a useful resource for the museum, which runs an extensive schools programme. ‘If we’re looking for a new approach, we’ll see what’s new and current in academic thinking about Great Expectations,’ says Fiona, who notes that the novel explores universal themes such as the pains and pleasures of growing up. ‘Everybody can relate to that in some way,’ she says. ‘The characters are very real and the central themes of love, redemption, courage and betrayal are still just as fresh today.’

The AHRC grant also funded a one-day workshop for teachers and PGCE students. Held in March 2013, this explored playful, creative approaches to the works of Dickens, which are frequently misrepresented as a test of our intellect. ‘Great Expectations is all too often taught as a duty read,’ says Mary. ‘My university students come to Dickens with certain expectations. They’re astonished by how funny he is and how much they care about his characters, as they think it’s just going to be gritty, grim realism.’

Part of the workshop was about making Dickens’ language accessible to children – and their teachers. ‘We need to stop thinking of him as the sooty, worthy guy with the social conscience. There’s a real deliciousness in the way he uses language.’

Newly-qualified teacher Summer Medway attended the workshop while studying for her secondary PGCE. She now teaches English language and literature. ‘My favourite part of the workshop was Mary Hammond’s lecture on Dickens,’ remembers Summer, who previously studied with Mary at the University of Southampton. ‘She showed fantastic images which really helped put him into context in a way that was interesting as well as quite satirical and humorous.’

‘The most useful ideas I gained were about how to make Dickens exciting for young people,’ she continues. ‘We created ideas for a Dickens Twitter feed and an app that links to the story of Great Expectations and reflects the Victorian era. Both ideas help to modernise Dickens while engaging with the context of his work. I have used them in my teaching and they have been really successful.’

Summer emphasises that Dickens can appeal to children of all ages. ‘If the books are pitched correctly at pupils, the characters become exciting and relatable for all different ages and abilities,’ she says. ‘His language can be difficult for some to understand, but I have always found that pupils feel really pleased with themselves when they decode language that might be unfamiliar to them.’

People of all ages enjoy the Victorian setting of Dickens’ novels, adds Dr Hammond. ‘We’re still very interested and attached to the 19th century. As long as we have those feelings about our relatively recent past, we’re going to have this relationship to his books. We haven’t finished picking through Great Expectations for things that matter.’

For further information about the Charles Dickens Museum, London, please visit their website.

Article by Anne Wollenberg

Image 1: "'Who is it?' said the lady at the table. 'Pip, Ma'am.'", John McLenan plate from Harper's Weekly 4 (22 December 1860).  Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham from Victorian Web.

Image 2: "And the communication I have got to make is, that he has Great Expectations", H. M. Brock, Scan by Philip V. Allingham for Victorian Web.

Image 3: Magwitch and Pip in Great Expectations directed by Robert Vignola - publicity still, 1917.

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