BR: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens

‘Great Expectations’ begins irresistibly with the narrator, the orphan Pip, encountering a mysterious convict on the Kent marshes. This terrifying experience is contrasted later with his more insidiously haunting visits to Miss Havisham, for whom time stopped on the day she was jilted. Both of these characters have a great influence on Pip as he is raised to ‘great expectations’, learning to be ashamed of his family and pining after the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella. An air of Gothic mystery pervades the novel but there is also action, humour, and witty social commentary.

This is one of the most engaging Victorian novels I have ever read. The dramatic tension rarely flagged and even the more minor characters were memorable and moving: take, for example, Mr Jaggers with his brutal manner and scented hands, or Wemmick with his ‘post-office‘ mouth (indeed, the diversions to Wemmick’s ‘Castle’ – a little cottage with a drawbridge and cannon – created some welcome humour in an occasionally dark narrative). Pip made a good hero; he was flawed but essentially good at heart, and Dickens did a wonderful job in making him gradually more complex and tormented as he grew older, perfectly capturing the difficult transition from boy to man.

In this sense, ‘Great Expectations’ is a tale that will never age. Some of Dickens’ social satire is just as relevant today as it was in the Victorian era: Pip’s admission that ‘there was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did’ reminds me of the social media generation and our artificial presentation of a perfect life. Similarly Pip’s advocacy of greater openness – ‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts’ – is surprisingly progressive, and reminiscent of the recent #TimeToTalk campaign.

Overall, I can certainly recommend ‘Great Expectations’ – it is funny, exciting, accessible, and populated with a vibrant cast of characters. Moreover, as a relatively short and action-packed book, it is a perfect starting-point for anyone thinking of dipping into Dickens’ work for the first time.

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Poem: The Last Unicorn

I am real; just reclusive.
I prefer to stay away from
Humans – it doesn’t do wonders
For your self esteem when
They keep confusing you with
Rhinos. Do I really look that fat
From behind? And when they
Started denying my existence
I just lost it –
And went to live in the forest.
Can you blame me? I have no
Regrets; I enjoy my solitary
Lifestyle; sparkling, rendering
Poisoned water potable
And whatnot. But sometimes
Even I must admit I get sick
Of being a symbol of chastity so
If you happen to know
Any good-looking male unicorns
(Or horses – I’m not fussy)
My number is 77123.
Do I seem forward? Sorry –
It’s just that sometimes
I get a little bit
Horny.

BR: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a classic ghost story, set in an English country house, in which a young, naive governess is alarmed by the appearance of malign spirits who attempt to possess her young charges. As the novella progresses, she becomes increasingly unhinged as she tries to save the children from their fate.

It sounds great in theory, but I was disappointed. Reviews I read labelled it as ‘chilling’, so much so that it terrified even the author, but I didn’t find it mildly frightening. It could be argued that 21st-century readers have more exposure to the grisly than the Victorians did, but in this sense I am practically Victorian anyway: I have only ever watched one horror film in my life and I don’t like going down the bottom of my garden in the dark.

The novella simply lacked atmosphere – little time was devoted to building up the creepiness of the setting, which in my opinion is a vital aspect of any horror story. None of the characters rang true for me; the author explained how wonderful the children were at least a thousand times but never really showed why this was the case. The descriptions of the governess’ emotions were rambling and over-complicated, the dialogue oblique and unrealistic; I found myself skimming over the paragraphs, waiting for something truly haunting to happen, but then I turned the last page and that was the end of it. I think James’ intricate, psychologically observant style of writing is much better suited to realistic stories such as ‘Washington Square’, in which the characters’ actions are believable and he is able to showcase his wit, something that was lacking in this book.

Not only was the story disappointing in itself, but the author displayed blatant sexism, not least in the phrase, ‘What surpassed everything was that here was a little boy who could have for the inferior age, sex and intelligence so fine a consideration.’  I suppose this statement is hardly surprising coming from a male Victorian novelist, but on top of everything else it tipped me over the edge. I will not be recommending this one to a friend.