Saturday, May 21, 2011

What the dickens! Great expectations? Duh!

Did I pick up Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations with – ahem! – great expectations? You bet I did. The reason was my immense enjoyment of his Oliver Twist when I read it last year. My copy of Great Expectations is hardbound in green imitation leather (or, is it leatherette?) with gold embossed lettering and design on the front and the spine. Pity, the inside does not match the pomp and show (howsoever faux) of the outside. (Never judge a book by the cover, huh?) The paper it is printed on is rough and recycled and already turned near yellow. The front and back endpapers are brownish pink with a floral motif. The front one is decorated with an Ex Libris (“from the library of” in Latin) crest which is a book owner’s identification label. (A literary aside: The Ex Libris label often used to carry admonitions like “The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again”, or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”; Sir Walter Raleigh’s bookplate had this whimsical comment: “Please return this book; I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.”) The book somehow exudes decadence, decay, near-death, much like Pip’s passage in the story. The publication data is mum about when it was first published. Great Expectations was published as a serial in Dickens’ own weekly, All The Year Round in 1860-61. Around this time Dickens’ marriage was floundering and he was embroiled in an unhappy affair with a young actress. The original version of Great Expectations had an unhappy ending just like its unhappy beginning and unhappy middle. At the behest of Edward ("The pen is mightier than the sword") Bulwer-Lytton, his friend and a novelist, Dickens changed it to a conventional happy ending (“no shadow of another parting” from Estella). The narrative in the beginning and the middle is laced with a lot of what seemed to me wry humour. For instance, hilarious is what I felt was the repeated reference to Pip “being brought up by hand” by his sister. I understood it instinctively to mean she never speared the rod as far as her young brother was concerned. The other sense in which the phrase is interpreted refers to the rearing of an infant who is spoon- or bottle-fed – not breast-fed. “You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities. I have made the opening, I hope, in its general effect exceedingly droll. I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man [Joe Gargary, Pip’s brother-in-law], in relations that seem to me very funny,” Dickens confided to his friend, advisor and biographer, John Forster. (Please see the sidebar: Story Foretold. After the identity of Pip’s real benefactor is revealed, the story-telling turns a bit too over solemn for my liking. For some readers, Great Expectations is Dickens’ darkest work. To me, it was by and large quite enjoyable yet overfull of coincidences the most prominent among them being Estella’s parentage. STOP PRESS: Grave Expectations, the soon-to-be-published mash-up of Great Expectations by Sherri Browning Erwin, has Pip as a werewolf pitted against Estella as a vampire slayer. Help! Even Dickens has finally fallen prey to the monster mash-up mania. Will it push the teenagers to read his novel? I’m not too sure.