A Continuity narrative by Michael Harrison
e-Book, 80 pp. (Tina Rhea #15a)
ISBN 978-1-55497-389-7 $10.00
It is no easy task to reduce to within the compass of 64 pages, a novel— and that a masterpiece in which the lightest sentence has its significance— which runs to nearly a quarter-of-a-million words. But when Dickens wrote Great Expectations nearly a century ago, neither he nor his publishers had to amend their rules, nor suit their habits, to the inescapable fact of a world-shortage of paper. It cost me six weeks of continuous searching before I was able to find the copy of the novel upon which I have based this condensed version, and this fact alone is excuse—if excuse be needed—for the production of the present shortened version of Dickens’s masterpiece. It is possible to produce the condensed version: all complete versions are—and will so remain for a long time—out of print.
I am not the first to reduce this, or any other novel of Dickens, to what (in our loose modern phrasing) is called ‘popular form’: but I feel that I may claim to be the first editor who has adopted the form of cutting used in preparing the present condensed version. It has been my care to use Dickens’s own words to tell the story; to omit not even the least important character. (Yes, I have not forgotten Trabb’s boy!) And what I have supplied has been merely that narrative continuity, that linking together of parts which, already, has established itself as an important part of the technique of modern film-making.
It is, of course, only my personal opinion that Great Expectations is to be accepted as Dickens’s finest novel: nor would I seek to thrust that opinion upon my readers. Yet, both in the circumstances of its writing and in integrity of its design and construction it is outstanding among the works of Charles Dickens. All novels are, to a greater or a lesser degree, autobiographical: that is to say, the novelist constantly exhibits a tendency to draw upon experiences that he himself has had, rather than upon those had by others. But Great Expectations is autobiographical in a different and more profound sense, for it is, in my opinion, an attempt to relate the successful Dickens of mature years to the eager, ambitious, uncertain youth from whom the Dickens that we know developed.
It is common among men who, by their own efforts, have made a success of their chosen career, to boast of the initial difficulties that they were forced to meet and overcome. In any case, no successful man may look back without wonder at his modest beginnings: and so it is that we find a tendency among men who have made a success of their life to be over-preoccupied with their youth. Dickens had this preoccupation, but he looked back with no pleasure. Indeed, he was morbidly sensitive in this respect, and only to his most intimate friends would he even mention certain aspects of his upbringing. Yet the odd thing is, that his youth was not spent in the scenes of squalid distress which (apparently) made recollection of childhood and adolescence so painful. The blacking-factory—whose picture he painted, with shuddering and weeping, to his friend Forster—was an interlude which lasted a few weeks only: and not the months that David Copperfield makes it out to be. His father, though improvident, was a civil servant of assured position; and comfort—even, at times, extravagant comfort—was not unknown in the Dickens household. The interlude in the blacking factory marked a temporary decline in the family fortunes: but no sooner was Dickens senior again in possession of funds than young Charles was sent to an expensive private school. His mother was related to a baronet; his father enjoyed the status of a senior civil servant, in one of the most exclusive branches of government, the Admiralty. Of sound middle-class stock, and provided (all but the University) with an education proper to his position, it is astonishing that Charles should have seen, in retrospect, a youth so miserably humiliating, so inexpressibly shameful, that years had to pass before he could be induced even to mention it.
His friend, Forster, who was more in Dickens’s confidence than any other, urged him to reveal the past, on the principle that ‘open confession is good for the soul’. Dickens decided to take his friend’s advice: and the result of that decision is supposed to be David Copperfield.
Yet David Copperfield, whatever one may think of it as a novel, has not that ingenuous spontaneity which may permit one to accept this book as the confession’ that some would have it to be. Dickens, when he wrote David Copperfield, could no more avoid dramatising the truth (and thus making it something quite different) than could Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
"With Great Expectations, on the other hand, there was no conscious attempt to depict the personal past in colours more bright or more sombre, as the artist decided. That it is a true picture of Dickens’s spiritual growth, we may not doubt, for all that Joe seems to be the very antithesis of Mr. Dickens (compare the portrait of Micawber, ‘the gentleman,’ in Copperfield) and Biddy bears no resemblance to Mrs. Dickens-Nickleby. And Great Expectations is truer than David Copperfield because the former was written by a man whom profound emotional disturbances, had caused to grow-up. It is the sympathetic understanding of an adult mind that ‘we are as God made us, and often a good deal worse,’ which stamps Great Expectations as the ‘work of a man telling the truth, not because he wishes to, but because it does not occur to him to do anything else.