Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context



<i>Great Expectations</i>


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A Note on the Maps:

The maps used to illustrate this issue are reproduced from Collins' Illustrated Atlas of London, published in 1854. Pip's London would have been that of the 1820s, and Dickens' London, at the time he was composing the novel, was that of 1860-1. Collins' maps thus represent a London that falls between the historical moment represented in the novel and the historical moment of the novel's composition.

Since the chapters in this issue (Chs. 30-33) take place in 1824-5 (Meckier 178), the maps used here show a city that has undergone about 30 years of change since Pip's time. Nevertheless, they are very useful in tracking Pip's progress through the city; the reader should merely keep in mind that some of the landmarks would not have existed in 1824-5. The most significant of these are the railway lines marked on the Key Map -- the railroad did not enter London until the late 1830s and early 1840s (Tallis's Illustrated London 186-7). The Key Map also shows a bridge that Pip would not have recognized -- the Hungerford Bridge between Waterloo and Westminster Bridges. And London Bridge was, in Pip's time, Old London Bridge -- a different structure, but built in essentially the same place. (New London Bridge would have begun construction a few yards from Old London Bridge when Pip was living in London, but would not have replaced the old bridge during his tenure [Meckier 162]. Given that both London Bridges would have been mapped in the same place, the difference between the bridges makes no difference to our reading of the map.) Any further discrepancies will be noted where appropriate.

History and features of Collins' Atlas (1854)

Collins' Atlas was created in response to the amplified tourist trade in London resulting from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Previous to the Atlas, maps tended to be very large and unwieldy, and though large city maps could be folded up and carried, Collins designed his maps with a specific view to portability (Dyos 10). The Atlas consists of one large map of the whole city of London (the Key Map), followed by 36 plates. The Key Map is drawn with numbered sections, and these sections are represented in detail by the plates (the numbers on the Key Map refer to the numbers of the plates). The chief drawback to the Atlas is that, although the Key Map keeps North at the top, the plates do not always observe this convention (Dyos 13). This disregard of the compass, however puzzling to someone attempting to navigate London in 1854, is in many respects an advantage for the modern reader: The detailed plates -- drawn to represent popular views of the city and/or popular routes through it -- give us a unique view of the sites of Pip's adventures in 19th century London. Any major discrepancies between the landmarks shown on the maps and those that Pip would have been acquainted with (given that the map was composed in 1854, about thirty years after Pip's tenure in London) will be indicated where appropriate.

A tour of chapters 30-33

When Pip, anxious to get away from his servant -- the "Avenger" -- sends this Avenger to "Hyde Park-corner to see what o'clock it was" (Ch. 30), he sends him on a trip of about 2 miles as the crow flies. The Key Map of Collins' Atlas (below) can be used to distinguish the length of this journey: Pip lives at Barnard's Inn, located in the lower left portion of the area designated by "10," between Fleet Street (to the south) and Holborn (to the north), just west of the street that becomes Blackfriar's bridge lower down. Hyde Park-corner is between Hyde and Green Parks, roughly at the intersection of Piccadilly and Grosvenor Place, in the area designated by "2." All of the maps reproduced here have been highlighted for convenience of reference and increased legibility.

Hyde Park-corner is visible in greater detail on Plate 2 of Collins' Atlas (below), at the upper right.

Barnard's Inn is visible on Plate 10 of the Atlas (below), at the upper left, next to the engraved image of Newgate Prison. Also visible on Plate 10 is Wood Street, Cheapside, where the coach office is located.

The coach office in Cheapside is both the place where Pip alighted in London for the first time (in Chapter 20), and the place at which he is to meet Estella's coach (in Chapter 32). He is to take her to Richmond, about ten miles west of London, and though Richmond is not included on Collins' Atlas, at the outset of their journey they "[turn] up Cheapside and rattl[e] into Newgate-Street" (Ch. 33), both of which thoroughfares appear at the lower left corner of Plate 10, to the right of St. Paul's.

Plate 10 includes certain elements of 1854 London that would not yet have existed when Pip attends Estella to Richmond in 1824 -- the Great Northern Railway Terminus (mentioned in the caption of the Plate) was not yet constructed, and the General Post Office (illustrated at the bottom center of the Plate), though commenced in 1818, was not completed until 1829 (Tallis's Illustrated London, vol. 1, 206). However, Pip would not only be familiar with Newgate Prison (illustrated at the top left of the Plate), but he tours it with Wemmick in Chapter 32.

The map below indicates the location of Richmond -- Estella's destination.


The blue box in the center of this map marks the area mapped by Collins' Illustrated Atlas of London (it corresponds to the area depicted by the Key Map of Collins' Atlas). Pip is tutored by Mr. Pocket at Hammersmith; Richmond, on the other side of the river, is where Estella stays.


When Herbert and Pip "[issue] forth in quest of Mr. Wopsle and Denmark" at the end of Chapter 31, they set off to see a version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with Wopsle in the lead role. Wopsle is ridiculous, and the audience is jolly at his expense. Several allusions to specific speeches in Hamlet are made in Dickens' comic description of Wopsle's performance. They are briefly reproduced here, after an identifying quotation from Pip's account of the play.

On the question whether 'twas nobler in the mind to suffer: From Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy in (III.i.59-90) --

To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep --
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to -- 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life,
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

When he asked what should such fellows as he do crawling between earth and heaven: Hamlet to Ophelia ("Get thee to a nunnery!") in (III.i.123-132) --

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but
yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better
my mother had not borne me. I am very proud,
revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck
than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to
give them shape, or time to act them in. What should
such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and
earth? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us.
Go thy ways to a nunnery.

When he appeared with his stocking disordered: Questioned by her father, Ophelia gives this account of a visit from Hamlet in (II.i.79-101) --

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me.
He took me by the wrist and held me hard,
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And with his other hand thus o'er his brow
He falls to such perusal of my face
As a would draw it. Long stayed he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
That it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out o' doors he went without their help,
And to the last bended their light on me.

On his taking the recorders: Hamlet calls for recorders upon the entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been sent to speak to him. He makes a lesson of the pipe in (III.ii.332-) --

Hamlet: O, the recorder. Let me see.
[To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] To withdraw with you,
why do you go about to recover the wind of me as if
you would drive me into a toil?
Guildenstern: O my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love
is too unmannerly.
: I do not well understand that. Will you play
upon this pipe?
: My lord, I cannot.
Hamlet: I pray you.
Guildenstern: Believe me, I cannot.
Hamlet: I do beseech you.
Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.
Hamlet: 'Tis as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with
your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most excellent music. Look
you, these are the stops.
Guildenstern: But these cannot I command to any
utterance of harmony. I have not the skill.
Hamlet: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you
make of me! You would play upon me, you would
seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart
of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest
note to the top of my compass; and there is much
music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot
you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier
to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument
you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play
upon me.

When he recommended the player not to saw the air thus: Hamlet offers advice to the troop of players in (III.ii.1-14) --

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced
it to you -- trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth
it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-
crier had spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too
much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in
the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say the
whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends
me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated
fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split
the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are
capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and
noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing
Termagant. It out-Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

Mr. Wopsle could not possibly have returned the skull, after moralizing over it, without dusting his fingers on a white napkin: Hamlet is given a skull by one of the gravediggers in (V.i.94-) --

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio -- a fellow of
infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me
on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred
my imagination is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung
those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where
be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your
flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table
on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning?
Quite chop-fallen?

The arrival of the body for interment: Hamlet views the arrival of Ophelia's coffin and funeral procession (V.i.212-18) --

Hamlet: Here comes the King,
The Queen, the courtiers -- who is that they follow,
And with such maimèd rites? This doth betoken
The corpse they follow did with desp'rate hand
Fordo its own life. 'Twas of some estate.
Couch we a while, and mark.
[Aside] What, the fair Ophelia!

His struggle with Laertes on the brink of the orchestra and the grave: Laertes jumps into Ophelia's grave, to take his sister in his arms one last time, and Hamlet jumps in after him; they struggle in (V.i.123-) --

[Hamlet leaps in after Laertes]
Laertes: The devil take thy soul.
Hamlet: Thou pray'st not well.
I prithee take thy fingers from my throat,
For though I am not splenative and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear. Away thy hand.

Until he had tumbled the king off the kitchen-table: Realizing that the King has planned to poison him, Hamlet kills Claudius in (V.ii.272-) --

Laertes: The King, the King's to blame.
Hamlet: The point envenomed too? Then, venom, to thy work.
[He hurts King Claudius]
All the Courtiers: Treason, treason!
King Claudius: O yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
Hamlet: Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damnèd Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother. [King Claudius dies]
Laertes: He is justly served.
It is a poison tempered by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.

Died by inches from the ankles upward: Hamlet is in his death throes in (V.ii.303-). Not all editions of the play include the final line reproduced here (the four "O!"s), because they do not always appear in early versions of the play. However, given that Wopsle dies "from the ankles upward," this version seems apt.

O, I die, Horatio!
The potent poison quite o'ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy th' election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th' occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
O, O, O, O!

Rule Britannia: A popular nationalistic anthem, "Rule Britannia" was originally a poem by James Thomson, later set to music by Thomas Augustine Arne for the 1740 court masque (by Thomson and David Mallet) Alfred (Oxford Companion 619, 865). Sound clips of various versions of "Rule Britannia" are available at the Modern History Sourcebook website,

Prisons, seldom set fire to: Pip makes the following remarks about prison conditions in Chapter 32: "At that time, jails were much neglected, and the period of exaggerated reaction consequent on all public wrong-doing ... was still far off. So, felons were not lodged and fed better than soldiers (to say nothing of paupers), and seldom set fire to their prisons with the excusable object of improving the flavor of their soup." These remarks probably allude to the Chatham Riots of 1861, when prisoners actually did set fire to their prison because of a threatened "reduction in their diet" (Meckier 187). Incidentally, this reference to the Chatham Riots suggests that the narrator -- an older Pip, looking back over his life -- is writing at the same time that Dickens was in fact composing the novel. The Chatham Riots occurred in February, 1861, and Chapter 32 was published in the number of April 30, 1861. As Jerome Meckier points out, "Mr. Pirrip is evidently writing installments of Great Expectations about two months ahead of the printer, the exact advantage that ... Dickens also maintained" (187).

Moses in the bullrushes typified by a soft bit of butter in a quantity of parsley: The story of Moses, hidden by his Hebrew mother in the bullrushes, and discovered by the Pharaoh's daughter, is told in Exodus 2. Pharaoh's command that all male Hebrew children be cast into the river (because he is afraid that the people of Israel will outnumber his own people, and will overthrow them) is stymied by his daughter's compassion.


Fire Office, insured in some extraordinary: Pip describes Wopsle's costume (for Hamlet) as consisting of "a large Danish sun or star hanging round his neck by a blue ribbon, that had given him the appearance of being insured in some extraordinary Fire Office" (Ch. 31). The sun is "Danish" because Denmark is the setting of Hamlet; but the sun itself alludes to the insignia of a fire insurance company. Such companies, called Fire Offices, fought fires as well as insuring against them, and buildings that were insured were marked with the insuring company's insignia (Cunnington 261). Wopsle's star reminds Pip of one of these insurance company emblems, though the arrangement of Wopsle's ornament may also contribute to the association: Employees of a Fire Office wore the company's insignia, typically on a left sleeve (if they were firefighters) or on a cord around the neck (if they were porters, etc.) (Cunningham 264-5). Wopsle, wearing his "Danish sun" on a cord around his neck, may invoke the image of a Fire Office because of the resemblance between his clothing and that of a Fire Office employee. Indeed, there was a Sun Fire Office in operation at the time -- its insignia was a large round sun with a face and sixteen flares around its circumference -- and the standard uniform for its employees after 1820 was blue (Cunningham 268-9). Wopsle is performing in 1824 or 1825, and his ribbon, bearing a sun like the Sun Fire Office's insignia, is also -- aptly -- blue.

Green farthingale, ... diamond-hilted sword, ... shoes with red heels and the blue solitaire: Pip imagines, when he delivers Estella to Richmond in Chapter 33, that the house-bell, having "an old voice," calls after bygone fashions. A farthingale is the frame of a hoopskirt (which first appeared in English fashion in the 16th century [Fairholt 445], but which were fashionable in the 18th century as well). Shoes with red heels were fashionable in the 18th century, and men still sometimes carried swords: In Planché's History of British Costume (1847), the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14) is described as having abolished "every relic of [English] chivalric costume except the sword, which still completes the full dress of the court of St. James's." Planché also describes this period as presiding over a fashion for "square-toed short-quartered shoes, with high red heels and small buckles" (397). Red heels apparently survived until the late 18th century, as Fairholt, in A History of Dress (1860), records that a scale drawing of a red-heeled shoe belonging to the Duchess of York was published in 1791 (395). (The drawing was made because her foot was remarkably small -- 5.75 inches long and 1.75 inches across the instep [395]). A solitaire, originally black, was a "loose neck-tie ... first worn at the court of Louis XV. It was generally affixed to the bag of the wig" (Fairholt 584). (A bag-wig was an 18th century wig in which the back-hair was gathered into a decorative bag [OED, "bag wig"]).

Kettle-drum: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a kettle-drum (to which the actress playing the Queen of Denmark is compared in Chapter 31) is "A musical instrument of percussion consisting of a hollow hemisphere of brass or copper, over the edge of which parchment is stretched and tuned to a definite note."

Diminishing mirror, an anchovy sauce-cruet, and somebody's pattens: The contents of the room (otherwise called the "black hole of the establishment" [Ch. 33]) into which Pip and Estella are conducted include the following objects: A diminishing mirror is "a convex mirror in which the image [of whatever is reflected] is reduced in scale" (OED, "diminishing mirror"). A sauce-cruet is a small vial or bottle for condiments (OED, "cruet"); and pattens are the same article that Mrs. Joe took to town with her back in Issue 4 (Chapter 13) -- a sort of shoe-protector, described by the Dictionary of Daily Wants (vol. 3) as "Articles made for the feet, to protect them from wet and damp. From their clumsiness, and the danger attending the wearing of them, they are now [1859, about two years before this part of Great Expectations was published] seldom worn, and are almost entirely superseded by the clog and galosh" (761).

Recorder's report: The Recorder of London was "originally a person [usually a judge or magistrate] with legal knowledge appointed by the mayor and aldermen to 'record' or keep in mind the proceedings of their courts and the customs of the city, his oral statement of these being taken as the highest evidence of fact" (OED, "Recorder"). The Recorder reported to the Secretary of State about the sentencing of criminals, and could recommend clemency for those sentenced to execution (Mitchell 499).

Tumbler pigeon: When Wemmick secures the portable property of the Colonel -- a pair of "tumblers" -- he receives the promise for "pigeons which somersault backwards as they fly" (Mitchell 499).

Wash-leather: Wash-leather, according to the OED, is "A soft kind of leather, usually of split sheepskin, dressed to imitate chamois leather." Walsh's Manual of Domestic Economy (1858) notes that

CHAMOIS AND BUFF LEATHER are ... both prepared in this country [England], and are no longer made of the skins of the animals from which they have derived their names, but from the sheep and ox. These leathers are very slightly tanned indeed, and are then dressed with oil, which is afterwards fulled and scoured out so as to remove any sensation of grease which they might otherwise communicate to the hand. After this they are stoved and are fit for use. (169)

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