Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens ( managed to conjure up in his fiction a world which is so quintessentially British that practically all subsequent literary works from these islands fall under his shadow. His characters are so memorable that they remain gloriously fixed in our imagination, whilst versions of his narratives are permanently being screened in cinema, performed on stage, or aired on television to this day. A twenty part TV series ‘Dickensian’ (, is being broadcast in 2016, and boasts a whole cast list of Britain’s finest actors. To have to admit that one has read nothing of Dickens is, frankly, a confession of ignorance.

Dickens is routinely described as a master novelist without a masterpiece. Many, though, regard Great Expectations (1861) as his finest work, and also his most enjoyable. Wealthy spinster Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, has long plotted her revenge on all men and boys. With the assistance of her ward, the beautiful Estella, she conspires to entrap local boy Pip who lives at a blacksmiths on the marshes near Rochester. Her scheme is to make him fall hopelessly in love. Pip has previously done his best to help an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, whom he encounters in a graveyard near the marshes in Kent. After Miss Havisham’s ploy has succeeded in rendering Pip as miserable as she could possibly have hoped, he is contacted by lawyer Mr. Jaggers who informs him that an anonymous benefactor wishes to fund him towards becoming a Gentleman in London. He now has great expectations. Who, though, is his benefactor and how can he untangle all the threads that have been woven long before he was conscious of them? This is a ‘must read’ from the canon of English Literature.

The secondary literature on Dickens is predictably vast. As an entry point try Mee, Jon (2010) The Cambridge Introduction to Charles Dickens (

Still useful is Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1995) edited by Philip Collins (

With the appetite whetted move on to The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens (2001) edited by John O. Jordan (

Two monster sized biographies have been published in recent years. Firstly, at 1256 pages, Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion (1990) by Peter Ackroyd (

Secondly, Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) at 576 pages (

Delve further for a lifetime involvement with Dickens using the web portal page at

I find it hard to imagine a better film adaptation (and there have been many) than the 1946 David Lean version ( with John Mills as the grown up Pip, Jean Simmons as the young Estella, Alec Guinness as Pip’s London roommate Herbert Pocket, and Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch. The scenes in the graveyard with Pip and Magwitch and on the marshes must be some of the most atmospheric in all cinema, and all the characters are brought wonderfully, and warmly, to life on screen. Available on DVD at

Should you really prefer a modern colour film adaptation try the 2012 version ( directed by Mike Newell. Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers, David Walliams as Pumblechook, Ewen Bremner as Wemmick, Jason Flemyng as Joe Gargery and Holliday Grainger as Estella. Available on DVD, full details at

395 pages in Wordsworth paperback edition.

First published 1861

ISBN 978-1853260049

Charles Dickens

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