Monday was the 210th birth anniversary of Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 — June 9, 1870), who was inarguably the greatest novelist and social critic of the Victorian era (1837-1901) in Great Britain.
His great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Dickens-Hawksley, an author of over 20 books, celebrated the day at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she held an engrossing event called Miss Havisham’s Wedding —an ode to one of Dickens’ most popular novels, Great Expectations (1861).
Who is Miss Havisham?
Miss Havisham is portrayed as a vengeful and wealthy woman in Dickens’ 13th and penultimate completed novel. She lived in a dilapidated mansion and wore an old wedding dress daily.
A single tragic event changed her outlook towards life. She was jilted by Compeyson — the main antagonist in the novel — on what was supposed to be their wedding day. That life-altering incident steeled Miss Havisham never to move beyond her heartbreak.
Consider this: She stopped all the clocks in Satis House at 20 minutes to 9pm, the exact moment she learnt that Compeyson was gone.
She wore only one shoe because she heard the news that she had been abandoned before she had finished dressing up and had only fastened one shoe. So, she never put on the second one.
The obsessive cruel facet of her character came to fore after she adopted Estella, who was weaponised to achieve her own revenge against men. Her single-minded devotion is a running theme of Great Expectations, as she and those who came in contact with her suffered because of her insatiable quest for revenge. Blinded by rage, she was unable to comprehend that her actions are hurtful to Philip Pirrip, or Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and his love interest, Estella.
However, Miss Havisham came around in the end and she redeemed herself by seeking Pip’s forgiveness. She was no longer the “wicked witch” of the fairy tale.
Did Great Expectations age better than David Copperfield?
Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and that Great Expectations was a close second. Yet, popular perceptions suggest that Great Expectations has aged better.
Dickens-Hawksley shared a new take on her great-great-great grandfather during an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times at the annual literature festival’s new canal side venue this year — Hilton Dubai at Al Habtoor City.
“Personally, I preferred David Copperfield to Great Expectations , even though both are excellent novels. Perhaps, more people have read Great Expectations in school. However, in recent years, there has been a great interest in David Copperfield . Armando Iannucci made a superb adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019). This has introduced a whole new generation of people into Dickens’s works. So many people asked me that they didn’t know Dickens was so funny. To turn around a novel like into a film is an incredible feat. And the fact that Iannucci could do so with so much knowledge shows that he’s a great Dickens scholar,” she said.
Great Expectations: The literary genre
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a novel dealing with a person’s formative years or spiritual education.
The genre traces its origin to Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s second novel Wilhem Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhem Meisters Lehrjahre), which was written between 1795 and 1796.
The novel focused on the psychological growth and maturation of an identifiable protagonist. This literary genre became very popular and was translated into many languages.
Several English and French authors adopted the genre and produced the classics like Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte and David Copperfield (1850) by Dickens.
There was new interest in class mobility on the back of the genre’s growing popularity. The rise of industrialised capitalism engendered a discerning trend: An individual’s social status was no longer rigidly determined at birth.
In this light, a fictional character in Victorian England could make his/her way in the world and that would be adroitly used by a master storyteller like Dickens as a significant plot device.
In the 20th century, the expanded into a broader, “coming-of age” genre, as seen in classic works like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by American novelist Betty Smith and her compatriot JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Dickens's 'complicated relationship' with his mother
There has been a long-standing view that Dickens is believed to have had an erratic relationship with his own mother and that reflected in the relationship between Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and Miss Havisham.
However, Dickens-Hawksley wanted to set the record straight.
“Dickens did have a very erratic relationship with his mother. His relationship with his parents was very good when he was very small. However, when he was 12 years old, his father John was taken to prison because of mounting debts. Prisons were a crazy place in Britain those days. You could be arrested for your debts and put into prison, where you have to pay for your boarding and lodging. So, in the Dickens family, it was the 12-year-old Charles who had to foot the bill,” Dickens-Hawksley told Khaleej Times.
“His older sister remained in school. She was a music student and was presumed to make the family fortune…when his father managed to come out of prison a few months later, his mother wanted Charles to stay on his job and did not want him to go back to school. Perhaps, one can understand her. She was aware that her husband was a terrible financial provider and Charles had worked diligently and held the family together. However, Charles never forgave her for that desire. His father, eventually, said he should come out of the factory and go back to school, which he did. But he always blamed his mother for making him work for what he considered to be a dead-end job. He described quite a lot of it in David Copperfield as a little labouring hind,” she says.
Dickens-Hawksley firmly believes that Miss Havisham is not the character that reflected the celebrated novelist’s mother, but it was the portrayal of Mrs. Nickleby in the novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839).
She feels that her great-great-great grandfather was “very unfair to his mother”.
However, she is quick to defend him in the same vein: “I can understand how heartbroken she must have been because she asked him to continue working…I hope you’d have forgiven his mother when he was married and had not to come to riches and found himself in the same position as that of his father.”
Dickens-Hawksley weighed in on how Great Expectations reflected a new interest in class mobility in Victorian-era England.
“That era was fascinating as far as class mobility was concerned. The aristocracy was extremely wealthy and the middle class was yet to emerge till the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840)...a tiny middle class in the 18th century suddenly grew by leaps and bounds in the 19th century. The idea of marrying in a socially mobile way was something that a lot of parents wanted for their children…Great Expectations addresses a lot of these issues and Dickens was wonderfully placed to write about the social churn.
“He was incredibly extraordinary in Victorian Britain because he was able to move between all the classes. He was born into a lower middle class, as his father was a clerk for the Royal British Navy. He, then, descended into the bottom of the working-class heap when his father was imprisoned for debt. He, essentially, became the criminal class. He was also a child labourer. Then, he moved into a slightly working class and into the middle class. Later, through his endeavors he became so famous that he was considered on a par with royalty. Indeed, he became friendly with King Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria. This made him so good at writing about Britain’s incredibly rigid class system — especially for women — because he lived in all of them. The class you were born into was where you were expected to stay. Women could become socially mobile only through marriage,” she said, putting the bygone era in perspective.
During the rule of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), class mobility and get-rich-quick ambitions resonated in Britain. What’s the current scenario under Boris Johnson’s reign and post-Brexit England? Does class conflict still hold good?
Dickens-Hawksley feels “we are back to the era of an enormous wealth gap, which has never been so vast since the 19th century…the rich are only getting richer and politics is clearly not helping those who don’t have very much. Perhaps, we’re heading back to what was in the19th century”.
“We’ve what we call the haves and the have-nots. We have more poverty in Britain now than I’ve ever known in my lifetime. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped our causes and worsened the situation of a lot of people. But the condition was pretty dire even before the pandemic struck us. To make matters worse, Brexit has caused huge divisions. — politically within the country and among families. On top of that, it has led to an escalating food crisis. People who have voted for Brexit must see the proof in supermarkets, where many can’t afford to buy their provisions. We’re heading back to the frightening Dickensian era,” she said.
The central theme of Great Expectations is “life is not fair but it is still good”.
But the novel wasn’t to have a happy ending if Dickens had his way, Dickens-Hawksley recounted. “It was Dickens’ friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton who read the manuscript and suggested to him that he couldn’t have Estella and Pip never seeing each other again. Dickens was very cross about it. He felt that both Estella and Pip were such damaged people that they wouldn’t be able to live together. He gave into Bulwer-Lytton’s suggestions. That was also the moot point of my programme Miss Havisham’s Wedding, where you can move beyond sadness and into light that Dickens agreed to put in at the end of . Because life is never perfect and nobody’s life turns out the way he/she wants it to be,” she adds.
On that cheery note, Dickens-Hawksley also announced that she has a new book coming out in April — Dickens and Travel, which traces the novelist’s wanderlust from North America, France, to Italy, where he had lived for a year.
“I hope the book gives a different perspective about Dickens. I wish he’d have visited Dubai and this part of the world. But then Dubai wasn’t what it has become,” she adds cheerily.
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