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Great Expectations was Charles Dickens’s thirteenth novel. Installments began appearing weekly in December of 1860 with the completed novel published the following summer. Reviews were mixed, opinions varied. One critic found it “feeble, fatigued, and colourless,” while another noted that the “book resembles its name in one respect – it begins well and then disappoints.” Others recognized it as a masterpiece. Here we see Dickens gazed at by his contemporaries—wildly popular and famous of course, but someone who might still earn a headline like “Dickens’s Comeback” with a palpable question mark thrumming at its end. (That reviewer’s cautious assessment: “Mr Dickens may be reasonably proud of these volumes.”)

He was 48 when he started writing the book, 49 when it was finished. Almost twenty-five years had passed since the publication of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist had turned him into a household name. It’s clear from these reviews that people missed that earlier Dickens—the funny Dickens, the meandering Dickens, the youthful effervescent Dickens. His more recent novels, like Little Dorrit, Hard Times, and even A Tale of Two Cities, are cited as disappointments. The word “decay” crops up a couple times. One reviewer notes that people may have only picked up Great Expectations out of a “curiosity, half painful, half careless, to see what further ravages time might have yet in store for the mental frame of a novelist already past his prime…”

One of the novel’s chief characters is an eccentric rich lady named Miss Havisham, who sits in her wedding dress, day after day, and year after year, in her dark, cobwebbed old mansion. She, too, divided the book’s early critics. One review names her “the prime and chief monstrosity of the story,” an embodiment of all that is absurd in it. She is “such a foolish, senseless, fantastical, impossible humbug,” it continues, as to be “an unworthy subject for such a pen.” (I picture this one as having been written by a human-sized pepper mill decked out in Victorian costume.) It goes on: “Supposing Miss Havisham possible and real, Miss Havisham would very soon have been removed from her deserted brewery to a madhouse, as Mr. Dickens has committed the indiscretion of providing her with male relatives who are not mad.”

Supposing her possible and real. This is floated as a ludicrous proposition, yet within weeks of the book’s publication, another reviewer would observe that “living types have already been pointed out that claim resemblance” to the character. Here seems like a fitting jumping-off point for exploring how Miss Havisham came to be in the world: as a fantastical, impossible creature…clearly based on real-life people.

 

MISS HAVISHAM UP TOWN

Early on, the book’s narrator Pip says of her, “I had heard of Miss Havisham up town—everybody for miles round, had heard of Miss Havisham up town…” And it’s true, everybody for miles round has heard of Miss Havisham. She presides over Great Expectations like a great, ill-willed fairy queen. She is, by turns, the novel’s resident corpse, its ghost, its fairy godmother, and “the Witch of the place”—a fury dressed up in a tattered, yellowed wedding dress. She stands, in the Dickens pantheon, alongside Scrooge, the Artful Dodger, and Uriah Heep as one of his most memorable characters.

The novel does not give her a first name. Not Margaret or Josephine or Martha or Fanny or Becky or Beatrice or Ginny or Nell. “Peggy Havisham”? No such creature. No, it’s always Miss Havisham. In the darkened mansion; in the old wedding dress, with one shoe on and one shoe off.

1860 illustration by John McLenan. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham and courtesy of the Victorian Web. 1860 illustration by John McLenan. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham and courtesy of the Victorian Web.

When Pip meets her, he’s only seven years old. An orphan from the village, he lives with his sister and her kindly blacksmith husband. Pip is poor, and Miss Havisham is rich. Very rich. The wedding dress she wears may be yellowed, but it’s made of “satins, and lace, and silks.” Jewels are spread on her dressing table. More jewels wink on her fingers and at her neck. She rarely allows visitors, but she has a fancy to see a child play. Hence Pip’s arrival at her house.

The room he’s brought to that fateful morning is lit by candles. No sunlight comes in. Miss Havisham’s watch and a clock on the wall are both stopped at twenty minutes to nine. An interesting side note: In Victorian times, if a household was in mourning, the clocks of the house might be stopped at the time the death occurred and, while the body remained in the house, all the curtains drawn. Seeing Miss Havisham for the first time, shrunken and “withered” in the wedding dress, Pip is too scared to even cry out: “Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked and moved at me.” (In case we miss the significance here, Dickens also uses “corpse-like,” “shroud,” “grave-clothes” and “decayed” over the next few pages. He was not a writer afraid to hit it once more for the cheap seats.) This terrifying figure directs Pip to come close and, motioning to where her heart is, asks him, “What do I touch?” Pip answers and Miss Havisham, with eager satisfaction, pronounces it, “Broken.”

The twenty-to-nine position of the clocks marks the time when Miss Havisham received a letter from her betrothed calling off the wedding that she was even then dressing for. We learn more about this betrayal later. For now, what we know is what Pip knows: if she’s a corpse, it’s love that has killed her.

Miss Havisham’s old mansion is called Satis House—that is, Enough House—a rueful signpost of a name. On the visit, Pip has met Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter—the proud and beautiful Estella—has played at cards with her at Miss Havisham’s feet and been “beggared.” He has learned from Estella that knaves are not to be called Jacks, that his hands and manners are coarse, and his boots too thick. His shame is so great he later cries, privately, behind a gate outside. When he leaves the house that day, we can see that he wants never to return, and that he also wants immediately to go back. We all know what that feeling is like. How painful it is, and potent.

In one morning Pip has learned to yearn and to want, to be restless and never content. This is the feeling that Miss Havisham ignites in him.

 

HOW OLD IS SHE, THAT WOMAN NAMED HAVISHAM?  

When approached to play the part of Miss Havisham in Mike Newell’s 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations, Helena Bonham Carter reports having been “taken aback. ‘I thought ‘Jesus, give us a chance’,” she added. ‘But then Mike told me, “don’t panic, if you read the book she’s actually in her 40s”—in other words exactly the same age as me.'”

Her 40s! The novel never specifies her age, but you can reach an estimate if you jog back and forth between the other characters’ ages at different points in the story. This is how Newell arrived at “in her 40s,” while Gillian Anderson, doing press for the BBC’s 2012 miniseries adaptation of the book, maintained that the character is 37 when Pip first meets her. This might surprise you if you’d fixed Miss Havisham’s age upward of that, and certainly she’s been played by actors decades older than Anderson and Bonham Carter and no one batted an eye. Pip sees her as ancient (again, being seven himself). There’s the white hair, of course, and I imagine not going outside for fifteen years or so while subsisting on a diet of nothing but stale air and vengeful thoughts does, eventually, make it hard for people to accurately guess your age.

2_hbc_asmisshavisham Helene Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, from the 2012 film adaptation.

What interests me about Miss Havisham’s age, really, is where it places her in relation to Dickens. If Miss Havisham is in her 40s, so, let’s remember, was Dickens in his 40s when he wrote her. So am I, for that matter—old enough now to play Miss Havisham on the screen (that I get to keep the dress would be my one contract stipulation). I can say this about reading and thinking about her: you really start to notice all the cobwebs in your house.

 

OF THE YOUNG HERO, HIS MONSTERS AND HIS DEMONS

For the first intimations of where she came from, we need to go to Dickens’s childhood. And this tale begins, as so many good stories and therapy sessions do, with parents.

Once upon a time there lived an improvident father named John Dickens—amiable, confounding, energetic in any arena as long as it was likely to have little profit attached. John’s own mother had been a servant. She married a man who was a butler and joined him in the service of the fashionable, wealthy Crewe family. This family maintained Crewe Hall, a magnificent mansion in the northwest of England, as well as a house in Mayfair, in west London. Mrs. Dickens eventually rose to housekeeper, holding the position until retirement. Her husband, who was much older than herself, died while she was pregnant with John, their second child.

In her biography of Dickens, Claire Tomalin alludes—lightly but persuasively—to what it might have been like for John to grow up in the Crewe home, without a father and perhaps wondering if any of the men he saw around the place—eloquent, rich, well mannered, genteelly promiscuous—were in fact his real father, rather than the elderly butler whom he had never known. (There’s a curious emotional resemblance here to the orphan Pip’s sense that he knows the identity of his mysterious benefactor even though he’s not allowed to speak the name.) Impossible to know from this vantage whether the supposition was true or even plausible: it’s mostly important as an emotional piece of the man.

What can be said with certainty is the John Dickens came away from his youth with a taste for books and theater, color and spectacle. He would refer to himself ever after as “a gentleman” with an insistent regularity. His other gentlemanly acquirements included: pleasing manners; a genial willingness to borrow money from friends and relations with little idea of when he might pay it back; and a pleasure in rolling big words around his mouth like so many marbles. The florid rotundity of his speech lives on in David Copperfield’s Mr. Micawber. Here’s an excerpt from one of John’s letters—one in which, quite appropriately, he’s asking for money: “Contemporaneous events of this nature place me in a difficulty from which, without some anticipatory pecuniary effort, I cannot extricate myself…”

From the Crewe household, John went on to secure a good position at the Navy Pay Office, most likely through the patronage of a Crewe family friend. In time he became engaged to Elizabeth Barrow, the sister of a fellow-clerk. They married in 1809. Their son Charles was born on Feb. 7, 1812. The couple had eight children; six lived to adulthood. Charles was the second eldest.

The Barrows sound like they would have been a good family for an orphan like John to marry into: sensible, kind, loyal, and—Elizabeth being one of ten children—multitudinous. Her father held a high position in the Navy Pay Office but had to flee England, shortly after John and Elizabeth were married, when it was discovered that he’d been embezzling funds. That, however, was the one Barrow scandal. Musical talent seems to have run in the family, along with a knowledgeable taste in books and journalism. (One of Elizabeth’s brothers started a newspaper; another worked as a parliamentary reporter.) She herself was a lively, buoyant woman. In contemporary descriptions of her hazel eyes, keen gaze, love of dancing, and “extraordinary sense of the ridiculous,” it’s possible to see the traits she would pass along to her son Charles, the boy like a more tightly coiled version of his mother. From her he learned to read and also learned some Latin. The qualities he’d deplore in her later in life—her vanity (especially in matters of dress); her resistance to aging—were ones he himself shared. It’s not clear how self-aware he was about this.

Imagine John and Elizabeth as young parents then. The family was living in Chatham, in Kent, one of a cluster of towns along the River Medway. The town was home to a naval dockyard, with all its attendant commotion and sailor foot-traffic. Marshes and green countryside beyond, with fog sometimes rolling in from the river of such thickness it’d turn the town’s buildings ghostly. Charles’s bedroom was at the top of the house, and his father had stored his library of books in a little room off it. The family’s nurse later remembered Dickens as “a terrible boy to read,” which sounds, delightfully, exactly like what a family nurse would say.

Dickens loved and was influenced by many of the books he read in that house (and paid tribute to them in David Copperfield), but for our Miss Havisham purposes we’ll dwell on one portion of his reading: fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” was a favorite, as well as the stories contained in Tales of the Genii and The Arabian Nights. (The latter volume was especially beloved and remained so. When Hans Christian Andersen came to visit, Dickens left a copy for him in the guest bedroom.) Dickens would later invoke these fairy tales and childhood stories not only in his novels, but also in essays and even his journalism. Fairy tales landscaped his brain, populating it with ogres and fairies, princesses and castle-guarding dragons, genii and giants. These stories became touchstones for him, for how he made sense of life and character. The imaginary landscapes of fairy tales would have touched and overlaid the physical world that existed outside the little Chatham house, the way books and stories can become fused with the places in which we first read them, spreading over our memories of a place like spider webs stretched across grass.

Here then are the possible first flickerings of Miss Havisham: In the room at the top of the stairs sits a boy reading fairy tales. Outside the house lie the marshes, the churchyard, and the lonely fields he’d return to many years later as the setting for Great Expectations. And onto these familiar scenes, he placed several figures that could have slipped from the pages of these books, including a witch-y type creature, dressed in faded white, who inhabits a dark mansion under a spell of enchantment so powerful it has stopped even its clocks. Because, as Dickens would have learned from these stories, what is a fairy queen without a vast, sunless realm over which to rule?

 

MISS MILDEW, I PRESUME

Berners Street lies in London’s West End. A Victorian-era history of the city notes that it “was built about the middle of the last century, and has always been celebrated as the ‘home and haunt’ of artists, painters, and sculptors.” Dickens’s maternal great-aunt— that is, a relative from his multitudinous Barrow side—kept a boarding house there. It seems likely that it was on his visits to see her that he spotted the woman he’d later describe in an essay about his childhood, called “Where We Stopped Growing”:

Another very different person… we associate with Berners Street, Oxford Street; whether she was constantly on parade in that street only, or was ever to be seen elsewhere, we are unable to say. The White Woman is her name. She is dressed entirely in white, with a ghastly white plating round her head and face, inside her white bonnet. … She is a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner, and evidently went simpering mad on personal grounds alone—no doubt because a wealthy Quaker wouldn’t marry her. This is her bridal dress. She is always walking up here, on her way to church to marry the false Quaker. We observe in her mincing step and fishy eye that she intends to lead him a sharp life.

The sight of this woman on her daily rounds was, apparently, a well-known one in the neighborhood. The London actor Charles Matthews, the senior, based a character on her for one of his annual At Home shows. Harry Stone (the scholar, not the Night Court judge) was the first to make these connections, which he detailed in his book, Dickens and the Invisible World. Stone describes how the actor portrayed the character, named Miss Mildew, as having been jilted by her lover forty years before. The show was met with criticism. Many found its portrayal of characters so obviously based on real-life people cruel, and, as a result, it played only a single night. It’s unknown if Dickens was in the audience for that one performance, though it’s highly possible. He was a great fan of Matthews—a comic actor, metamorphic in his ability to inhabit and mimic different characters (the attraction for Dickens is obvious)—and, as Stone points out, Dickens was going to the theater “almost nightly” during this period.

The Dickenses moved from Chatham to London when Charles was ten. So let’s postulate that he crossed paths with the Berners Street woman somewhere in the early 1820s. The Matthews performance featuring Miss Mildew occurred in 1831, when Dickens was a youngish man. As shown by the “Where We Stopped Growing” essay, published in 1853, the stalking figure of this proud woman was still circulating in his memory decades later.

Nineteenth-century London was, it turns out, large enough to harbor more than one woman dressed perpetually in white. In 1850, the magazine that Dickens was then editing ran an item about the inquest of a woman who lived in the neighborhood of Marylebone. Her name was Martha Joachim, and she had died, at 62, of bronchitis. The item reports that the inquest jury, visiting her home to view the body “had to beat a sudden retreat, until a bull-dog, belonging to deceased, and which savagely attacked them, was secured.” It goes on to enumerate the sadnesses of Joachim’s life. Her father, an officer in the Life Guards, had been robbed and murdered in Regent’s Park. His murderer was caught and hanged. Then this horrible thing:

In 1825, a suitor of the deceased, whom her mother rejected, shot himself while sitting on the sofa with her, and she was covered with his brains. From that instant she lost her reason. Since her mother’s death, eighteen years ago, she had led the life of a recluse, dressed in white, and never going out. A charwoman occasionally brought her what supplied her wants. Her only companions were the bull-dog, which she nursed like a child, and two cats. Her house was filled with images of soldiers in lead, which she called her “body-guards.” When the collectors called for their taxes, they had to cross the garden-wall to gain admission.

Between these two women, we see many of Miss Havisham’s future attributes. In the Berners Street woman (and her Miss Mildew analogue), an imperious manner and an obsessive circling of her terrain (albeit outside). In Martha Joachim’s story, we have a woman living in seclusion for nearly two decades in a guarded house enclosed by a garden wall. Both women are unmarried; both wear white; and both are strongly associated with lost love and mourning.

 

THE GREAT MOLDERING CAKE BAKE OFF

Pip becomes a regular visitor to Miss Havisham’s house. He grows familiar with the sight of its grand and foreboding brick exterior, with the iron bars gnawing at the windows (those windows that haven’t been boarded up); he learns his way in the lanes around the deserted brewery that sits alongside the house; and he has found the old garden behind it where nothing grows. He learns that once you pass through the gate to Satis House, the wind always has more howl and bite, and you will find snow there when snow is nowhere else. (Dickens used Restoration House, an Elizabethan mansion in Rochester, one town over from Chatham, as a model for the house.)

The brewery, we learn, had been the business of Miss Havisham’s father. Profitable enough to make him extremely wealthy, and genteel enough a profession—this is pointed out in the book with some dryness—to keep him a gentleman. He was widowed while Miss Havisham was still a baby. He later “privately married” his cook and had a son. This second marriage was kept hidden, and the son only revealed and brought into the house after the second wife’s death. The resulting family group is quickly sketched in: The father, “very rich and very proud”; the daughter, ditto; the son, weak and dissolute. The father’s death left Miss Havisham an heiress. Her half-brother, who had grown to be a disappointment, inherited a lesser but still goodly portion, and quickly burned through it.

Then: “‘There appeared upon the scene—say at the races, or the public balls, or anywhere else you like—a certain man, who made love to Miss Havisham.” This certain man was Compeyson. He managed to win Miss Havisham’s heart, part her from large sums of her money, convince her to buy out her half-brother’s share of the brewery, and then, on her wedding day, broke off the relationship in a cruel, mocking letter. We learn that he was working in league with her half-brother, and that, not only did he not love Miss Havisham, he was already married anyway. He was, in other words, thoroughly bad news.

After the wedding was called off, Miss Havisham grew very sick and, when she recovered, “laid the whole place waste,” meaning Satis House and its grounds, including the brewery. It’s an amazing phrase, tossed off in the narrative, but wonderfully suggestive of Miss Havisham flying through the house in a scorching anger, as if she’d fallen into her sick bed an ordinary woman and risen from it a transfigured and mythological one.

Restoration House, the model for Miss Havisham's Satis House. Photo via Wikipedia. Restoration House, the model for Miss Havisham’s Satis House. Photo via Wikipedia.

Whatever waste she laid to the house, the bridal-cake survived it. This cake is one of the book’s best effects. It sits on a long table in one of the house’s larger chambers. After so many years, it’s become wrapped with veils of cobwebs and “speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies” run to and from it. The entire room it’s in seethes with crawling things. Blackbeetles scuttle at the hearth. Mice skitter behind the paneling. Pip and Miss Havisham walk in this room thrice weekly; the exercise is the reason for his continued attendance at the house. Miss Havisham leans on his shoulder as she walks (I sometimes find myself distracted here by thinking it’d be easier for her to walk if she’d put on her other shoe). When she grows tired, Pip pushes her in a wheeled chair. Over and over they pass along the same circuit: through her dressing room, then across the staircase landing to the chamber with the collapsed moldering cake for a rotation there. This lasts for hours each visit. Estella joins them, her moods fitful and, to Pip, piercing in effect.

It’s an uncanny scene to imagine. Pip refers to Miss Havisham, standing in the chamber with her crutch-headed stick, as “like the Witch of the place.” As Stone observes in his study of the novel, their circuits together resemble the witchly casting of an enchantment. Each trip round binds Pip tighter and tighter under Miss Havisham’s power as she weaves a magic circle around him that “blights and bewilders him, a circle in which he will continue to turn until its spell is broken.”

There’s another way to view these circuits, however—one not contradictory to Stone’s insight, merely complicating—which is to note the way these circular trips around the room mirror the pattern of obsessive thoughts. Specifically, the kind of thoughts we are prey to when in the grip of a painful, lopsided love. Miss Havisham circles the moldering wedding cake the same way her mind circles around the memory of Compeyson’s betrayal. Up and down and around. I would guess that many of us have had at least one moldering wedding cake (or two) that has set itself up on a long table in the chamber of our minds and around which we have put in our time circling. It’s the nature of moldering-cake thoughts that we sometimes want to be done with them, with all our being; while other times we may luxuriate in them in an excess of self-lacerating splendor. In fits of wishful thinking, we may delude ourselves into thinking the cake is not moldering after all and might still be joyfully eaten. Still other times we may think we are done with these thoughts, at last, and have wisely moved on and then—whoops!—there we are, circling that old cake again. “Why didn’t they love me?” “Maybe if I had…” On and on, over and over. Flit flit, skitter skitter, scurry scurry, round Miss Havisham’s dark room.

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THE CLOTHES THAT MAKE THE MAN

In his biography of Dickens, Peter Ackroyd makes note of the writer’s habit of narrating his letters in a “slightly disturbing third person.” Dickens himself would acknowledge that he was “accustomed to observe myself as another man.” Given his lifelong fascination with acting and theater (he became, in addition to everything else, an astounding reader of his own work), there comes a sense of a man who saw himself as always on stage, while a small but integral piece of him hung back, concealed and watchful in the dark.

So what could be observed about the adult Charles Dickens? Well, the boy from Chatham had grown into a slight, brisk, proud-looking man. His hazel eyes were very bright—almost everyone who met him seems to have commented on the keenness and vivacity of them. His conversation was peppered with “Oh lord”s, “Oh, law, no”s, and “God bless my soul”s—which took aback listeners who were expecting the great novelist to have less cockney fluff in his speech. Meanwhile, his letters bristle with words like “plunging,” “bolt,” “like a sledgehammer,” “stirs my blood like a trumpet,” “prodigious,” and “triumph.” His energy was an awesome, blasting force, and it could make him exhausting. His friend (and biographer) John Forster referred to Dickens’s “dreadful insatiability” on a trip they took together, and this dreadful insatiability extended across all arenas of his life. For example, he regularly walked distances of ten, twenty, even thirty miles daily, clipping along at a rate of four miles an hour (he recorded this pace in letters), sometimes with breathless friends in his wake. This on top of the novels and stories and essays and plays and journalism that are the reason we all know him. On top of editing a weekly magazine. On top of the speeches and dinners he was obligated to attend, and on top of the committee meetings and the many charitable good works he threw himself into. And on top of being a husband and a father of ten.

A funny but telling aside comes in the recollection of one of his houseguests: “Poor Wilkie Collins who needs rest used to sneak off to the library and go to sleep with his cigar. Dickens pried him out…” That Dickens’s displays of high spirits were often genuine, there’s no doubt. Other times they seem evidence of a depressed, anxious self-made man’s driving need to keep things active and “bright” (another favorite word) no matter what. As poor Wilkie Collins would himself write, “A man who can do nothing by halves appears to me to be a fearful man.”

Dickens delighted in bright things: bright suits, bright waistcoats, bright gold watch chains, and bright diamond rings. His manner of dress was pronounced and theatric, communicative of flamboyance and confidence, as well as vanity. Biographies of him are filled with mentions of the beautiful clothes he wore once he became well off enough to buy them. Dress coats faced with silk and “aflame with gorgeous brass buttons.” A blue cloak worn with a corner tossed over his shoulder “à l’ Espagnol” and accompanied by “exuberant displays of jewelry on his vest and on his fingers.” Checked trousers. Velvet dinner jackets and velvet waistcoats, usually in vivid colors like crimson. “Gaily coloured” shirts, often embroidered. Boots polished till they were bright, bright, bright. Of his outfits and his bearing, some observers came right out and said what they thought: “vulgar.” Others said it in code. My favorite in this category is a description of his manner as “floridly Parisian.” Still others said it at a marvelous slant. After seeing them at a ball, William Thackeray commented, “How splendid Mrs Dickens was in pink satin and Mr Dickens in geranium and ringlets.” All of it meaning much the same thing: Not entirely a gentleman, is he, that Mr. Dickens?

Even as the Victorian period continued and men’s fashion styles turned more somber, Dickens’s dress remained loud and bright—the costume of a man who fit in nowhere and showed himself everywhere.

 

LADY FORTUNE MET IN A DARK RAT-FILLED HOUSE

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In the novel, Pip’s childhood visits to Miss Havisham come to an end when, one day, she halts in their rotation around the room and says “with some displeasure: ‘You are growing tall, Pip!'” The boy cannot deny it. Shortly after she pays his blacksmith uncle, Joe, the handsome sum of twenty-five guineas and Pip is indentured as his apprentice. Pip loves Joe and had always looked forward to the day when he’d join him at the forge. But that was before his time at Miss Havisham’s. Now, the forge no longer represents a life of useful, respectable happiness. It represents drudgery and the severing of any hope of ever being able to win Estella.

This period of Pip’s life has the emotional texture of a character in a fairy tale who’s been cast out of a fairyland and longs to return to its sparkle and enchantments. When you leave such a place, everything is dingier after. Nothing satisfies—not one’s old room, not one’s old meals, not one’s old occupations. The years of Pip’s apprenticeship with Joe are ones of “dull endurance.” He fears looking up from the forge one day and seeing Estella at the window, observing him “at his grimiest and commonest.” That he knows he’s being ungrateful only twists the shame deeper.

If you know even a little about Dickens’s biography, this time in Pip’s life is recognizable as a recasting of one of its better-known chapters, the period during which his father was put in debtors’ prison in London and Charles, then 12, was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking, a manufacturer of boot polish. Dickens had previously given something of this experience to David Copperfield (the most obviously autobiographical of his characters) who is sent to work for a wine merchant at age ten. In Great Expectations, it’s Pip who’s stuck at work he finds drudging. Even the names associated with the work—blacking and blacksmithing—are conjoined. It is as if, having told the story once, Dickens felt compelled to revisit it again, this time pulling up his buckets of memory and feeling from a deeper, less literal part of the well.

Warren’s Blacking occupied a building on the Thames. Dickens later described the place in an autobiographical fragment this way:

[It was] a crazy, tumbledown old house… literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.

Scuffle scuffle, squeak squeak.

Up until the time of his father’s imprisonment, the Dickens family had lived an overcrowded life together. Now young Charles was staying alone in lodgings, as his mother and younger siblings had joined his father to live in quarters at the Marshalsea Prison. The boy managed his own meals; he made his own way through the London streets to work. It must have been desperately lonely, and it’s obvious he experienced despair. Instead of being at school, he now sat on a stool for ten hours a day, tying paper around bottles with string and pasting labels on the front, while the warehouse rats squeaked and scuffled down below. It was uncertain how long his father would remain imprisoned or where money would ever be found to get him out. All of the family’s belongings had been sold or pawned, including John Dickens’s entire library of books, which Charles had sold off over several trips to a “little drunken bookseller in the Hampstead Road.” It was a period during which, as Ackroyd writes, “he must have begun to understand the nature of failure.”

It’s not known how long the time at Warren’s lasted. Six months, perhaps a year. (Dickens himself later couldn’t remember, which speaks to the shocked numbness of the time.) Mrs. Dickens, John’s mother, died and the money left in her will allowed John’s brother to fish him out of the Marshalsea. The family’s finances remained precarious, however, and Charles stayed on at the blacking factory. That was until, one day, John, out with a friend, happened by the Warren’s establishment and saw his son sitting alongside another warehouse boy at the front window, busily pasting on their labels. Soon after, Dickens was enrolled back at school.

In Great Expectations, Pip’s time as a blacksmith’s apprentice ends even more abruptly. Within a week of learning he’s “come into a handsome fortune,” he’s in a coach en route to a gentleman’s life in London, wearing a fine new suit of clothes. While it’s a condition of the fortune that Pip never publicly speculate on his benefactor’s identity, privately he believes he knows who it is: Miss Havisham. For her part, Miss Havisham goads him along in this, enjoying the jealousy it stirs up in her relatives. During one visit, she plays up his new suit: “‘This is a gay figure, Pip,’ said she, making her crutch stick play round me, as if she, the fairy godmother who had changed me, were bestowing the finishing gift.” But Miss Havisham is not the mysterious benefactor—a former convict named Magwitch is. She’s a false fairy godmother. A sham one. It’s in her name: Have-a-sham.

Pip discovers his mistake when Magwitch journeys from Australia wishing to see for himself the gentleman his fortune has made. The scene where he reveals himself as Pip’s true patron is one of horror on the young man’s part, and naïve delight on Magwitch’s:

‘Look ‘ee here!’ [Magwitch] went on, taking my watch out of my pocket, and turning towards him a ring on my finger, while I recoiled from his touch as if he had been a snake, ‘a gold ‘un and a beauty: that’s a gentleman’s, I hope! A diamond all set round with rubies: that’s a gentleman’s, I hope! Look at your linen; fine and beautiful! Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got! And your books too,’ turning his eyes round the room, ‘mounting up on their shelves, by hundreds! And you read ’em; don’t you? I see you’d been a reading of ’em when I come in. Ha, ha, ha!’

It’s impossible to read this scene without Dickens’s own bright waistcoats and “excessive displays of jewelry” swimming into mind. You might also think of the magnificent library he kept at his house, Gad’s Hill Place, with its hundreds of volumes mounting up their shelves; this great library a sort of sumptuous Arabian Nights-style replacement of the small but beloved one he’d once had to sell off to the little drunken bookseller in Hampstead Road. It’s as if the adult Dickens were here plucking at his own sleeve and crying out, with painful hilarity, now that’s a gentleman’s, I hope! Ha, ha, ha!

 

THE CLOTHES THAT MAKE THE OTHER MAN

Compeyson. Compeyson. Compeyson. It’s interesting how little we learn about what he looks like. He shows up in several scenes over the course of the book, but all we’re told of his appearance is that when Magwitch first met him, long ago at Epsom races, he was “good-looking” and was wearing “a watch and a chain and a ring and a breast-pin and a handsome suit of clothes.” No hair color or height or descriptions of, say, a ruined haunted face are given. No vivid Dickensian tics of manner or speech, which often even the most minor of characters in the novels are gifted with. Nothing. He’s not even given a first name. (If the wedding had gone off, it would have been, “Compeyson, do you take Miss Havisham to be your bride…”) He’s a good-looking blank. This is meant, it’s obvious, to underscore an ongoing motif in the book about the foolhardiness of judging a “gentleman” by his appearance, as Compeyson looks the part and is anything but. (In this, the character Joe—honorable but terrible at wearing suits—is the pointed inverse.)

I realized, however, as I was reading through the book’s end scenes and craving a sight of Compeyson during the final deadly race on the river—wanting just a glimpse of the man who broke Miss Havisham’s heart—that his essential blankness works on another level as well. Miss Havisham has thought of him so ferociously and for so long… and yet who is he, really? Here then is another feature of moldering cake thoughts: that somewhere in our circuits around the table, the person who sparked the feelings can become almost beside the point. We may have brooded so long that “a watch and a chain and a ring and a breast-pin” is all we remember. In come cases, it may be all we really knew to begin with.

 

THE WOMAN IN WHITE WHO WENT FIRST

At the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations, he had separated from his wife Catherine and was three years into his relationship with Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior. Their affair lasted until Dickens’s death at age 58. That’s thirteen years in all, and still very little is known about it. Letters were burned, codes used, false names employed. (Dickens went by Charles Tringham on his visits to her.) Given how well-known and recognizable a figure he was at this point—even children knew his face and would point him out— it’s truly impressive how little of a trail the two left. In her biography The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin advances Ternan as a possible model for Estella, making Pip’s torments of love a stand-in for Dickens’s experience of the affair during its first years. Possible—and like so many things about the relationship, ultimately unknowable too.

The novel was published in Dickens’s weekly periodical, All the Year Round. The serialization of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, had finished its run only a few months before. Collins’s novel had been a huge success for the weekly, with lines of people waiting outside the All the Year Round‘s offices on Thursday mornings to pick up the latest installment. The follow-up, Charles Lever’s A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance, met a far cooler reception. (After Collins’s sensation story of deception and murder, any tale that sallied forth on the first page with “My ancestors had been apothecaries for one hundred and forty odd years” on the first page was likely to fall flat with the reading public.) With circulation falling, Dickens, the magazine’s impresario and big-name draw, hastily altered his original plan for Great Expectations to make it fit the periodical’s weekly format. He started writing in October 1860 and finished the book the following June.

Collins’s Woman In White character would seem, from name alone, to have influenced the creation of Miss Havisham. Critics have naturally linked the two characters, appearing as they did one right after another in the same magazine. Others have gone further, suggesting that Dickens’s lifted Miss Havisham from his younger friend. Here the narrative becomes one of the older writer “past his prime” borrowing from his now-ascendant bestselling protégé. But, as the 1853 “When We Stopped Growing” essay shows, a woman in white was already in residence in Dickens’s creative thoughts, one who in her imperious manner and jilted backstory is far more like Miss Havisham than Collins’s innocent, imperiled Woman in White.

 

MISS HAVISHAM, THERE YOU WERE ALL ALONG

Who is Miss Havisham? A rich powerful personage in her 40s, with the word “decay” attached to her. An object of fascination for her neighbors. Her house is sometimes filled with grasping relatives whom she gleefully expects will “come to feast upon me” after her death. Her manner is hard, highhanded, self-absorbed, and sometimes cruel. Still, she craves sympathy. She is isolated. She grows tired of children when they reach a certain age. She is resistant to time—and hence aging—and won’t allow her birthday be spoken of. As one begins to think about it, she starts to sound like no one so much as…Charles Dickens in his 40s.

1877ish illustration by F.A. Fraser. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham and courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum and the Victorian Web. 1877ish illustration by F.A. Fraser. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham and courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum and the Victorian Web.

Not the full man, but certain strong aspects of situation and character. For example, take this phrasing from a letter Dickens once wrote about his father’s repeated requests for money: “He, and all of them, look upon me as a something to be plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage.” (“Come to feast upon me…”) Likewise, a thread in the remembrances of Dickens’s children was the withdrawal of his playful displays of affection as they grew out of childhood (“You are growing tall, Pip!”). So on, so forth. I am not hazarding that this was conscious—only that it’s striking, and something about the similarities calls to mind the actor Charles Matthews walking across the London stage dressed up in his Miss Mildew costume.

“My Pip,” Miss Havisham calls him. From the very beginning they are brought into close relation. The boy is frightened of her, but never repelled. He is her victim, but also her sorcerer apprentice and understudy and, a little bit, her fairy godson. When he goes into the dark candlelit room that first day and she is sitting there at her dressing table, her fingers playing over her jewels, what does he see reflected in the mirror there, if not his own child’s face beside hers?


Sources:

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Everyman Library 1992. First published: 1861)

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2011)

Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (New York: Penguin Books, 1990)

Edward Walford, “Oxford Street & its Northern Tributaries” from Old & New London: Volume 4 (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, via British History Online)

Harry Stone, Dickens and the Invisible World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979)

Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002)

Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales And Their Tellers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994)

Mary Hammond, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: A Cultural Life, 1860-2012 (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing House, 2015)

Michael Osborn, “Great Expectations: Miss Havisham given ‘youthful’ air” (BBC News, December 24, 2011)

Mike Pentelow, “Charles Dickens’ many addresses in Fitrovia” (Fitrovia News, April 29, 2019)

Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990)

Peter Ackroyd, Wilkie Collins (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012

Roya Nikkhah, “Helena Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham” (The Daily Telegraph, October 21, 2012)

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Carrie Frye is a writer and editor living in Asheville, NC. She's working on a novel about the Arctic and writes the Black Cardigan newsletter on the side.

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