Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Dickens, and BBC 1’s new version of Great Expectations starts at 9.00pm tonight, continuing at the same time tomorrow and Thursday. With an all-star cast including Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, it’s been receiving rave reviews from the journos who’ve already seen it, and would seem to be one more powerful argument for the licence fee.
Dickens, perhaps because of his sometimes excessive sentimentality and overt moralism, has this image of being comforting and comfortable (“heart-warming” is the term usually deployed). But Great Expectations is a mysterious and frightening tale involving the criminal underworld, all manner of psychological manipulation, violence, madness, unrequited love, and despair.
Claire Tomalin’s excellent Charles Dickens – A Life describes how the book came into being, and also explains something that has often bothered me – the banal, incongruous and anti-climatic happy ending:
When Dickens told Forster (John Forster, his closest friend – JD) he was going to write another story in the first person, he added an assurance that it would be nothing like David Copperfield, and of course it is not. David’s story is of a middle-class boy who overcomes cruel neglect by his own effort, becomes a successful writer, is allowed by fate to marry the girl he loves and then to lose her when she turns out to have been a mistake, and ends with a perfect wife and family. Not only is Pip quite a different sort of boy with a family background from the lowest, labouring level of society, his story is one of failure, failure to understand what is happening to him, failure to win the girl he loves, failure to save his benefactor, failure to make anything of himself. He just redeems himself morally, and that is enough, after all he has seen. It is enough for the reader too. His statement of what he feels for the indifferent Estella is the most powerful expression of obessive love for a woman in Dickens: ‘when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.’ Nothing needs to be added to this, but Bulwer ( Edward Bulwer Lytton, another friend and a writer considered at the time to be in the same league – JD), in a foolish moment, wanted Pip to be given a happy ending with Estella and suggested to Dickens that he should set aside his bleak final vision and write a cheerful one. Amazingly, Dickens accepted Bulwer’s advice and rewrote, adding a chapter with a conventional variant and publishing it. Forster was told too late to object, but he was not pleased and thought it marred the book. He wisely kept a copy of the original ending to be compared with the substitute, and published it in the third volume of his Life of Dickens. Few critics since have disagreed with Forster, although the happy ending appears in every standard edition of Great Expectations.
David Lean’s 1946 film version, starring John Mills as the older Pip (and narrator), Anthony Wagner as young Pip, Martitia Hunt as Miss Havisham and Jean Simmons as Estella, is a tough act to follow: