I came late to Dickens, I think. My mother was always on at me to read A Tale of Two Cities – and I still haven’t, strangely – but I never seemed to click with the novels I tried. I just couldn’t get into his world.
It wasn’t until Year 12 that I had to read Great Expectations for a book report. As was my wont, I didn’t start reading the book until the night before the paper was due. But something strange happened: instead of just skimming, as I’d otherwise have done, I was engrossed. I ripped through the book, paying it closer attention than I’d expected to. I loved it.
It’s unsurprising Dickens thought the novel his best work. It’s masterful, though I must admit I don’t really have much of a sense of the rest of his writings to compare it to. It’s a coming-of-age novel, and is at its piercing best when it creates scenes whereby the blindness of youth comes along, a little later, with a cosh to open a character’s eyes to HOW IT IS.
Sure, it all takes place in that very Dickensian London – where everyone has a ridiculous surname and it’s all a little bit too picaresque to be anything other than a creation – but it does hit pretty hard. There’s some twists and turns that, even though I’d read the book before, still came as a surprise. There’s lessons learned, and though it’s probably constructed in a way which renders the ending a little too twee, it all feels just right. I’m glad Dickens was constrained with this one: its relative brevity works in its favour. There’s plenty of excellently barbed prose, and some remarkably memorable characters – the otherworldly Miss Havisham (based on a Camperdown figure, perhaps), the salt-of-the-earth Joe, the dual-natured Wemmick and the imperious Jaggers around whom Pip’s world seems to revolve – to keep the story chugging along. It’s nothing short of delightful.
This is one of those books it’s difficult to review properly purely because it is a classic. It’s taught as a classic, and it’s Dead White Guy canon through-and-through. While I read, I tried not to think about any of that, or the history that you’re supposed to love Dickens if you are at all interested in reading. And I fell in love with the story. It’s a simple one: a tale of transformation, and of learning. But it still plucks strings.