Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

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Historical Context

Great Expectations

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<i><i>Great Expectations</i></i>: Two Historical Moments

Great Expectations, a Victorian novel, was written and published in 1860-1. The story, however, takes us back to the beginning of the 19th century. Many of the nostalgic references in the novel distinguish the period in which the story occurs from the period of the novel's composition.

1812-1840: A Brief Historical Overview

Pip's adventures in Great Expectations occur between Christmas Eve, 1812, and the winter of 1840. In 1812, King George III was still England's monarch, but his madness -- obvious to everyone since 1810 -- had hastened a transfer of power to the Prince Regent. The ŮRegency PeriodÓ lasted from 1810 until George III's death in 1820; afterwards, the Regent became George IV. George IV died in 1830, and was succeeded by King William, who was in turn succeeded by Queen Victoria in 1837. The action of Great Expectations thus occurs against the backdrop of rapid political change -- four monarchs in as many decades. At the same time, England was undergoing major social and cultural changes as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution, which took place chiefly in England and America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was a period of significant technological development. The invention and implementation of steam power -- especially in steamboats and railroads -- revolutionized transportation, and permanently changed the English landscape. Steamboats began running on the Thames River in 1815, and passenger railroads spread all over England in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Such technologies are mostly nascent in Great Expectations. We see Pip in London in the 1820s, and though steamboats figure among his adventures, he leaves England years before the railroads were to enter the city. Most of the action of Great Expectations occurs before 1830; thus, although significant modernizations occurred during the period in which the novel is set, they are not necessarily described in it. The novel ends with Pip's return to England in 1840, and though he makes no explicit reference to the way the country has changed in his absence -- dwelling instead upon personal, emotional changes -- it is important to realize how much it would have altered: The 1830s had been not only a period of growing industrialization, but a period of social and political agitation. The first Reform Bill (1832) extended suffrage, initiating progressive social measures; and Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837. Pip returns, in 1840, to a new England -- thoroughly industrialized, socially progressive, and Victorian.

1860-1861: A Brief Historical Overview

Dickens wrote and published Great Expectations in 1860-1861, and though the novel looks back to an earlier time (1812-1840), the period of composition itself is noteworthy. England in 1860-1 was thoroughly Victorian. The Queen had been on the throne since 1837, and would reign for another 40 years. England was a productive and formidable nation -- it had led the Industrial Revolution, and controlled a large colonial empire. If, however, 1860-1 was in many respects a period of stable prosperity, it was also a time of cultural flux. In America, the Civil War (1861-5) began; and Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, introduced a new topic of discussion and dissension -- evolution.

Great Expectations looks back upon a period of pre-Victorian development that had become, by 1860, thoroughly historical. However, as a Victorian novel, Great Expectations is itself the product of a dynamic moment in history.


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