Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project
 

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context

 

 

<i>Great Expectations</i>

NOTES ON THE NOVEL: ISSUE 9

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MAPS & ILLUSTRATIONS

The illustration below, by Marcus Stone, appeared in the 1862 edition of Great Expectations.



The original serial (1860-1) and the 1861 editions of the novel were not illustrated. A "rubber" is, "in various games of skill or chance, a set of (usually) three games, the last of which is played to decide between the parties when each has gained one; hence, two games out of three won by the same side" (OED, "rubber").

ALLUSIONS

Roscian renown ... our National Bard: Quintus Roscius Gallus was a famous Roman actor (OED, "Roscian"); England's National Bard was, of course, Shakespeare.

Blacking Ware'us: When Pip asks Joe whether he has seen the sights of London yet, Joe returns the assurance that he and Wopsle "went off straight" to the Blacking Warehouse (Ch. 27). This is a submerged allusion to a landmark in Dickens' own youth. Though for years Dickens told no one about his childhood experience of working at Warren's Blacking (which manufactured shoe-blacking at 30, Strand, in London), he makes passing reference to it here, in Great Expectations, and fictionalizes the experience in Chapter 11 of David Copperfield. When Dickens' father was committed for debt to Marshalsea Prison, Dickens was forced to go to work -- at 12 years old -- at the blacking factory. His job was to paper the pots of blacking. His place in the factory was offered by a relation, and lost (to his immense relief) when that relation quarreled with his father. The following account, which has come to be known as the "Autobiographical Fragment," was composed by Dickens for his friend and biographer, John Forster. The "Fragment" runs partly as follows, and can be found in full in the second chapter of Forster's Life of Charles Dickens:

Its [the blacking manufactory's] chief manager, James Lamert, the relative who had lived with us in Bayham-street, seeing how I was employed from day to day, and knowing what our domestic circumstances then were, proposed that I should go into the blacking warehouse, to be as useful as I could.... [T]he offer was accepted very willingly by my father and mother, and on a Monday morning I went down to the blacking warehouse to begin my business life.

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me -- a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally -- to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. Our friends, I take it, were tired out. No one made any sign. My father and mother were quite satisfied....

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship [that of the blacking factory]; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day to day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written. My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life....

I was so young and childish, and so little qualified -- how could I be otherwise? -- to undertake the whole charge of my existence, that, in going to Hungerford-stairs of a morning, I could not resist the stale pastry put out at half-price on trays at the confectioners' doors in Tottenham-court-road; and I often spent in that, the money I should have kept for my dinner. Then I went without my dinner, or bought a roll, or a slice of pudding. There were two pudding shops between which I was divided, according to my finances. One was in a court close to St. Martin's-church (at the back of the church) which is now removed altogether. The pudding at that shop was made with currants, and was rather a special pudding, heavy and flabby; with great raisins in it, stuck in whole, at great distances apart. It came up hot, at about noon every day; and many and many a day did I dine off it.

We had half-an-hour, I think, for tea. When I had money enough, I used to go to a coffee-shop, and have half-a-pint of coffee, and a slice of bread and butter. When I had no money, I took a turn in Covent-garden market, and stared at the pine-apples....

I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by any one, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through; by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount, and labeled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.... But I kept my own counsel, and I did my work. I knew from the first, that if I could not do my work as well as any of the rest, I could not hold myself above slight and contempt....

From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being. I have no idea how long it lasted; whether for a year, or much more, or less. From that hour, until this, my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them. I have never, until I now impart it to this paper, in any burst of confidence, with any one, my own wife not excepted, raised the curtain I then dropped, thank God....

Mentor of our young Telemachus: When Athena sought to act as an advisor to Odysseus' son, Telemachus, she appeared in the guise of an Ithacan noble called Mentor. The word "mentor" thus refers to one who counsels and advises (OED, "Mentor").

Quintin Matsys was the BLACKSMITH of Antwerp: The paper that is exhibited to Pip at the Blue Boar in Chapter 29 compares Pip to Quintin Matsys -- in a variant spelling, Quentin Massys -- a famous Flemish painter (1466-1530) who began (like Pip) as a blacksmith. Matsys' story was popularized by Pierce Egan the Younger (author of a version of Robin Hood, among other works) in the 19th century. The title of that work is Quentin Matsys, the Blacksmith of Antwerp: A Historical Romance.

VERB. SAP.: Short for verbum satis sapienti, Verb. Sap. is an abbreviated form of a Latin proverb, "a hint is enough to the wise" (Mitchell 498).

GLOSSARY OF HISTORICAL THINGS & CONDITIONS

Bread-poultice, baize, rope-yarn and hearthstone: The aroma of the convicts, including a flavor of bread-poultice, is composed partly of a medicinal compress made of bread and water "and spread upon muslin, linen, or other material, applied to the skin to supply moisture or warmth, as an emollient for a sore or inflamed part, or as a counter-irritant" (OED, "poultice"). Charlotte Mitchell suggests that this is a pejorative allusion to the quality of prison rations (498). Baize is a coarse wool, of which the convict's clothes are made; rope-yarn refers to the strands of material of which rope is composed (associated particularly with the ropes of old ships, which could be picked apart and recycled); and hearthstone is a mix of "powdered stone and pipeclay ... used to whiten hearths, door-steps, etc." (OED, "baize," "rope-yarn," "hearthstone"). Mitchell attributes the scents of rope-yarn and hearthstone to the labor required of convicts at docks or quarries.

Ha'porth: When the convict on the coach avers that Pip's convict, from whom he carried the two one-pound notes for Pip, knew him "not a ha'porth" (Ch. 28), he uses an expression meaning an insignificant quantity. Ha'porth or ha'p'orth are contractions of "halfpennyworth" -- a very small amount (OED, "ha'porth").

Pump: Pip describes Joe's handshake as follows: "[H]e caught both my hands and worked them straight up and down, as if I had been the last-patented Pump" (Ch. 27). The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9) illustrates the sort of mechanism invoked, and gives the following description of the technology of 19th century pumps:

PUMP. -- An implement for forcing water, indispensable in domestic and rural economy. For the latter, the most suitable kind of pump is that shown in the engraving, which according to the bore, or diameter, may be had at various prices...; the total price depending on the length of the tube required to reach the bottom of the well. The operation of the common forcing pump consists in a suction pipe descending into a well, tank, &c., containing water, and having in it a valve opening upwards. The piston, or working barrel, contains a solid piston without any valve, moved up and down by the rod. Siebe's rotary is found very convenient, either for raising water from a tank or well, or by forcing it up to any height. This pump operates by the rotation of a roller on its axis, having paddles or pistons, by which, when the roller is turned, a vacuum is produced within the barrel. In consequence of this vacuum the water flows up a rising break into the barrel; and as the paddles go round they force it into an opening, which conducts it wherever it may be wanted, and by that means produces a continuous stream. By having an ascending tube, the water may be forced to any height; and by having a horizontal tube with a cock, it may be let out at pleasure as in a common pump. By having several pipes branching from the ascending tube, as many cisterns or reservoirs may be supplied. (812)

Sweep: When Pip describes Barnard's Inn as "shedding sooty tears outside the window, like some weak giant of a Sweep" (Ch. 27), he invokes the image of a chimney-sweeper -- one who cleans soot out of chimneys. Chimney-sweepers, however, were probably never "giant." Children were frequently employed as sweeps, because they could -- more readily than full-grown people -- fit into the small spaces associated with their vocation. Their advertising cry was "chimney-sweep!" (OED, "chimney sweep"), but the rhyme of this cry with "weep," together with the hardships of this kind of labor, has suggested the weeping chimney sweep to more than one literary imagination: In William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), for instance, the cry is thematic: "When my mother died I was very young, / And my father sold me while yet my tongue, / Could scarcely cry weep weep weep weep, / So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep" (from "The Chimney Sweeper" in Songs of Innocence). The corresponding song in Songs of Experience runs in part, "A little black thing among the snow: / Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe! / ... / Because I was happy upon the heath. / And smil'd among the winters snow: / They clothed me in the clothes of death. / And taught me to sing the notes of woe" ("The Chimney Sweeper").

Wicket-keeping: Joe's attention to his hat, which is continually falling off the mantelpiece (Ch. 27), is compared to wicket-keeping. A wicket is a feature of a cricket match, and the wicket-keeper stands behind it, to catch the ball if it passes the wicket, and to put the cricket-batter "out" if possible. A wicket is composed of a "set of three sticks called stumps, fixed upright in the ground, and surmounted by two small pieces of wood called bails... , forming the structure (27 x 8 in.) at which the bowler aims the ball, and at which (in front and a little to one side of it) the batsman stands to defend it with the bat. (The wicket formerly consisted of two stumps and one long bail, forming a structure one foot high by two feet wide)" (OED, "wicket"). The wicket-keeper aims to put the batsman out "by dislodging a bail (or knocking down a stump) with the ball held in the hand, at a moment when he is out of his ground" (OED, "wicket-keeper"). Given that Joe is trying to keep his hat from tumbling, the hat probably figures, in this little Dickensian allegory, as the ball -- not the bail.

Whist: Whist (which Miss Havisham, Jaggers, Estella, and Pip play in Chapter 29, and during which Jaggers, according to Pip, "took our trumps into custody, and came out with mean little cards at the ends of hands, before which the glory of our Kings and Queens was utterly debased") is a card game for four people. Pigott's New Hoyle; or, The General Repository of Games: Containing Rules and Instructions for Playing Whist, Piquet, [etc.] (1794) gives the following description of the game, its rules, and its peculiar terminology.

THE GAME OF WHIST.

The game of whist is played by four persons, with fifty-two cards; the partners are settled by cutting the cards, and the two highest play against the two lowest. The person cutting the lowest (which is an ace in cutting) is entitled to deal.

Each person has a right to shuffle the cards before the deal, and the elder hand ought to shuffle them last, excepting the dealer.

The deal is made by having the pack cut by the right-hand adversary, and the dealer is to distribute the cards, one at a time, to each of the players, beginning with the left-hand adversary, till he comes to the last card, which he turns up, being the trump, and leaves it on the table till the first trick is played.

No one, before his partner plays, may inform him that he has, or has not, won the trick; even the attempt to take up a trick, though won before the last partner has played, is deemed very improper. No intimations of any kind, during the play of the cards, between partners, are to be admitted. The mistake of one party is the game of the adversary: however, there is one exception to this rule, which is in the case of a revoke; if a person happens not to follow suit, or trump a suit, the partner is indulged to make inquiry of him, whether he is sure he has none of that suit in his hand: this indulgence must have arisen from the severe penalties annexed to revoking, which affect the partners equally, and it is not universally admitted.

The person on the dealer's left-hand is called the elder hand, and plays first; and whoever wins the trick becomes elder hand, and plays again; and so on, till all the cards are played out. The tricks belonging to each party should be turned and collected by the respective partner of whoever wins the first trick in every hand. The ace, king, queen, and knave of trumps, are called honours; and when either of the parties has in his own hand, or between himself and his partner, three honours, they count two points towards the game; and in case they should have the four honours, they count four points.... [Points are] gained by honours and tricks -- and ten constitute the game. (1-3)

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