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. 34-37) take place in the mid-1820s (Meckier 179), 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 the mid-'20s. 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 Note on the Illustrations

Like Collins' Atlas, the engraved illustrations of London reproduced in this and subsequent issue(s) were prepared as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Tallis's Illustrated London (published in 1851-2, in two volumes) was created specifically to commemorate the Exhibition, and furnishes, not only a great many engravings of London scenes, but also a long history of, and commentary on, the sights of London. Since Tallis's Illustrated London was published, like Collins' Atlas, about 30 years after Pip's tenure in the city, some of the views commemorated in Tallis's would not have been available to Pip. Thus, only those illustrations that show cityscapes and landmarks as they would have appeared to Pip in the 1820s have been included here.

A tour of chapters 34-37

The Key Map of Collins' Atlas, showing London as a whole, gives a useful overview of the locations mentioned in this issue. Most of the locations referred to in Chapter 34-37 are clustered around a portion of the Thames, in -- or in the vicinity of -- area 1 (shown in detail on Plate 1). All of the maps reproduced here have been highlighted for convenience of reference and increased legibility.

Covent Garden, where Pip and his club — the "Finches" — dine extravagantly, is visible on Plate 1 of Collins' Atlas (below), at the lower right side. As indicated previously, Hungerford Bridge, which appears on this Plate, would not have existed in Pip's time.

When Pip asks Wemmick's opinion about doing a monetary favor for a friend, Wemmick -- in his professional capacity -- lists "the names of the various bridges up as high as Chelsea Reach. Let's see; there's London, one; Southwark, two; Blackfriars, three; Waterloo, four; Westminster, five; Vauxhall, six" (Ch. 36). (He advises Pip to throw his money off the side of one of them.) These bridges are all visible on the Key Map (see Key Map again above). Hungerford Bridge, also represented on the map, was not built until 1845, and Battersea Bridge, though built in the late 18th century, is beyond the scope of Wemmick's reckoning.

Tallis's Illustrated London includes illustrations of Waterloo, Westminster, and Vauxhall bridges.


Wemmick's Aged Parent was employed in Wine-Coopering, first in Liverpool, and then in London. The respective locations of these two cities are shown below.


Taught the young idea how to shoot: When Pip relates that Mrs. Pocket "taught the young idea how to shoot, by shooting it into bed whenever it attracted her notice" (Ch. 34), he makes a jesting allusion to James Thomson's long poem Spring -- specifically to lines 1152-3: "Delightful task! To rear the tender thought, / To teach the young idea how to shoot." In Mrs. Pocket's case, of course, her rearing of the tender shoot is somewhat on the thoughtless side, as her child is gotten out of sight and mind with great rapidity. Spring is part of The Seasons, which appeared between 1726-1730. The Seasons was a very popular poem, and Thomson was influential for Romantic writers like Wordsworth (Oxford Companion 989-90). He is also famous for having composed the poem "Rule Britannia," which was later set to music by Arne (see Issue 10 for a note on a reference to "Rule Britannia" in Great Expectations).

Humanity ... brought nothing into the world and can take nothing out, ... it fleeth like a shadow and never continueth long in one stay: When Pip refers to these "noble passages," he alludes to the "Order for the Burial of the Dead," read at funerals. The first few lines in the "Order" are taken from specific passages in the bible (indicated in brackets): "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out [1 Timothy 6:7]. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away [Job 1:21]. Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth long in one stay" (Mitchell 500).


Funeral execution: Joe's desire to have a simple funeral for Mrs. Joe — "'I would in preference have carried her to the church myself, along with three or four friendly ones wot come to it with willing harts and arms, but it were considered wot the neighbors would look down on such and would be of opinions as it were wanting in respect'" (Ch. 35) — is, according to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9), perfectly respectful: "In walking funerals it is considered a mark of respect for friends to become pall-bearers" (450).

Girdle or cestus: Wemmick's arm, in relation to Miss Skiffin's waist, is compared to two kinds of belts. A girdle is a decorative belt (it was not, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, associated with the undergarment until the 20th century, and this meaning first came into use in America, not Britain). A cestus has slightly more conjugal overtones, being a "belt or girdle for the waist; particularly that worn by a bride in ancient times" (OED, "cestus").

Iron stand hooked on to the top-bar ... a jorum of tea: When Wemmick's Aged Parent makes "such a haystack of buttered toast that [Pip] could scarcely see him over it as it simmered on an iron stand hooked on to the top-bar" (Ch. 37), he is using an early kind of toaster. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9) illustrates this kind of toaster and gives the following definition:

TOASTER. -- A culinary utensil, as seen in the engraving, placed upon a stand of strong wire, that hooks on to the bars of a grate, and made either loose, or to slide backwards and forwards on the stand; this will dress bread, cheese, and small pieces of meat. (1005)

A jorum is "a large drinking-bowl or vessel" (OED, "jorum"), or the contents thereof.

Powder-mill: A powder-mill is a mill (a factory) for making gunpowder (OED, "powder-mill") and thus, like the Aged, prone to explosion.

Bibliographical information

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