Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context



Great Expectations


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A Note on Dating Great Expectations:

In the process of compiling notes for this and subsequent issue(s), we have followed the dates outlined in Jerome Meckier's "Dating the Action in Great Expectations: A New Chronology." The first chapter of Great Expectations opens on December 24 (Christmas Eve), 1812, when Pip is about seven.


A Note on the Maps:

William Smith's 1815 Map and Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with Part of Scotland gives a detailed account of the geography and geology of most of Great Britain. It consists of several large maps, each about 16x24 inches, mounted on canvas. These maps can be folded into smaller squares, and some of the seams -- where the map folds and the canvas shows through -- are visible on the sections of the maps reproduced here. The whole work consists of 16 large maps (a "General Map" of England, Wales and Scotland, and 15 regional maps), together with a "Memoir" discussing the geological study they illustrate. Detail from Map 12, in a reduced size, is reproduced here.

Smith's 1815 Map and Delineation of the Strata of England [etc.] (above) gives us a timely sense (the novel opens in late December, 1812) of the region and landscape in which Pip grows up. Pip's village, located in the county of Kent, is near the town of Rochester (which appears in the novel as "our market town"), close to the marshes that border the Medway. The Medway (unmarked on Smith's map) is the inlet below the Mouth of the Thames, between Stoke Marshes and Rochester. The Hulks are docked in the Medway.

This drawing of England indicates the portion of the country illustrated by Smith's 1815 Strata map.

The Churchyard: The picture above shows the churchyard at Cooling -- the model, according to Robert Langton, for the churchyard in which Pip sits at the beginning of Great Expectations. The engraving was originally created for Langton's Charles Dickens and Rochester, an essay prepared for the Manchester Literary Club in 1880. When Pip is in the cemetery, contemplating the graves of his parents and siblings, he is in "Cooling Churchyard, near Rochester, beyond which lies a large tract of marsh country extending from the Medway to the estuary of the Thames" (Langton 15). Dickens indicates that Pip lives in a village "Not a mile from the marshes" (Ch. 5), and the prison ships (the Hulks) are docked in the Medway.


Like monumental Crusaders as to their legs: Joe and Pip, with their fingers crossed, are "like monumental Crusaders as to their legs" (Ch. 4) because the figures of knights on medieval tombs were thought to be Crusaders if their legs were crossed (Mitchell 487). For instance, Daniel Defoe, in his 18th century travel writings about Great Britain, refers to figures "Standing cross-legged, like our Effigies of Croisaders in Churches." (This passage from Defoe is used in the Oxford English Dictionary as an example of the development and usage of the term "crusader.")

A religious cross of the Ghost of Hamlet with Richard the Third: The Ghost of Hamlet is the ghost of Hamlet's father (the late King Hamlet, father of Prince Hamlet) in Shakespeare's famous play. The ghost appears at the beginning of the play to tell Hamlet that he was poisoned, and to demand that he be avenged. Richard the Third is the subject of another of Shakespeare's plays -- The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. This is one of the history plays, and a bit of a bloodbath. Richard, in his ambition for the throne, has numerous people killed, including his brother and his two young nephews, the princes. Crippled from birth, and insanely ambitious, Richard III is a disfigured, frightening -- and short-lived -- king. Given that Wopsle performs a particularly "snarling" speech from Richard III later in Great Expectations (Ch. 10), a religious cross between the Ghost of Hamlet and Richard the Third would probably be somewhat appalling -- a cross between a ghost demanding blood-vengeance and a murderous king.

Swine were the companions of the prodigal: Mr. Wopsle's pointed admonitions over the Christmas pork allude to the parable of the Prodigal Son:

And [Christ] said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring him hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, who hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:11-32)


Accoucheur Policeman: An accoucheur is a male midwife (from the French word accoucher, to give birth) (OED, "accoucheur"). An Accoucher Policeman is a personage of Dickens' own creation -- part midwife and part officer.

Ague: The OED identifies the ague as a violent, especially malarial, fever. Because malaria is carried by mosquitoes, it is more common in wet, marshy areas. Hence the definition of and cures for the ague offered by Victorian manuals of domestic economy:

From the Dictionary of Daily Wants (published 1858-9):

AGUE mostly arises from a poisonous state of the atmosphere, and is especially prevalent on damp and marshy soils. The first step in the treatment of a person suffering from ague should be to remove him from the influence of the noxious air; and if this cannot be effected, he should be placed as far away from the soil as possible, in one of the top rooms of the house. Several remedies are made use of for this complaint, one of the most popular of which is the cobweb produced by the black spider, which inhabits cellars, barns, and stables. This is administered in doses of ten grains, twice or thrice before the expected time of each paroxysm, and continued for three or four days. Although this singular means of effecting a remedy may excite incredulity, a great many accredited cases are on record, and it is also supported by high medical authority. Another specific is arsenical solution, four drops of which, increased to six or eight twice or thrice a day, will prove of the greatest benefit. Persons who have once been afflicted with ague are exceeding liable to be again attacked by it; they should therefore avoid exposure to damp or night air as much as possible, and in spring and autumn should put themselves under a course of sulphate or quinine. (14)

Walsh's 1858 Manual of Domestic Economy: Suited to Families Spending 100 to 1000 a Year, Including Directions for the Management of the Nursery and Sick Room, and the Preparation and Administration of Domestic Remedies indicates that

THE CAUSE OF AGUE is always miasma, from decomposing vegetable matter.... QUININE is the only remedy within the reach of domestic medicine, in doses of 2 or 3 grains three times a-day, joined, if possible with change of air, to a high and dry one, without which this disease can with difficulty be relieved. In severe cases, other treatment is required, but they demand the skill of the experienced physician. (687)

Banns were read: Pip "conceive[s] the idea that the time when the banns were read and when the clergyman said, 'Ye are now to declare it' would be the time" (Ch. 4) for him to confess his theft of food for the convict. "Banns" are the "proclamation or public notice given in church of an intended marriage, in order that those who know of any impediment thereto may have the opportunity of lodging objections" (OED, "banns"). In Pip's day, these were read during Sunday services for three weeks before a wedding (Mitchell 487), but since it is "Christmas day and no Sunday" when Pip goes to church, he is spared "this extreme measure" of confession. The association, however, of Pip's obligation to confess with the obligation to object to marriage banns, emphasizes the gravity of his secret -- and the commitment he makes to keeping it.

Blacksmith's wife, perhaps if I warn't: Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, traces her self-proclaimed status as "a slave with her apron never off" (Ch. 4) to her husband's profession. Blacksmiths in the 19th century were working-class people, and though Joe is a highly skilled artisan, his wages would be modest. Between 1780 and 1840, blacksmiths made an average of just over 20 shillings a week (in 1780 the average was 17s, in 1820, 24s, and in 1840, 21s, according to Mulhall's Dictionary of Statistics). Given 20 shillings to the English pound, this means a little over a pound per week in wages, for an average yearly income of about 52-4. The highest of the average wages during this period (1780-1840) would have yielded about 62-63 a year. Thus, during the period of the novel (1812-1840), Joe Gargery would have made somewhere between 52 and 63 a year. (During the 19th century, an English pound was roughly equal to five American dollars [Philp 128]. Thus, translated into American currency, Joe would have made between about $260 and $315 a year). Industrious and temperate, Joe may have been slightly better circumstanced than many blacksmiths. However, the Gargerys could not be considered prosperous, though living comfortably according to their station.

Boot-Jack: A boot-jack, according to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9) is

A well-known contrivance for assisting in removing boots from the feet. Ordinarily they consist of a narrow strip of wood with a space hollowed out at the extremity of the shape of a heel, and having a small block of wood fastened underneath to elevate it a sufficient distance from the ground. These conveniences are also made to open and close with little brass hinges to render them more portable and more convenient for being packed in portmanteaus, traveling bags, &c. The best description of boot-jack of all, however, is one which admits of the whole foot being inserted, and is further supplied with an upright rest upon which to place the hands, so that the boot may be withdrawn with the greatest ease, and without a strain upon any particular part of the boot. Where a book-jack is not at hand, a person should remove his boots by gently easing the heel and the toe alternately. It is always better, however, to use a boot-jack, as kicking boots off injures them. (172)

By hand, brought up: Infants, in the absence of the mother, were either sent out to be fed by a wet-nurse (another lactating woman), or were spoon- or bottle-fed. Mrs. Joe's claim to neighborhood fame -- that she raised Pip "by hand" -- refers to the latter method. However, not only is the term used ironically (given Mrs. Joe's tendency to physically mistreat Pip), but its literal meaning also suggests abuse. Susan Thurin, in a recent Victorian Newsletter article, summarizes the history and application of the term "by hand" as follows: She notes that artificial infant foods in the 19th century were un-nutritious, often being nothing better than pap (a thin mixture, for example flour and water) or gruel. Though cow's milk was often used as a substitute for breast-milk, "Cows were kept in filth, retailers skimmed and watered milk, and in the summer, bacteria spoiled it within twelve hours. The Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act, which legislated sanitary conditions for the sale of milk, was not passed until 1878" (Thurin 29) -- over 70 years after Pip was born. In the 18th century, sixty-six percent of infants brought up "by hand" died, and methods had not greatly improved by the 19th century (Thurin 29). Pip, in other words, is lucky to be alive. Indeed, he and his sister have five siblings in the graveyard (Ch.1); and though these children may or may not have been raised by hand, they are an indication that the infant mortality rate in 19th century England was generally very high. Though spoon-feeding was especially likely to kill a baby, about 25% of all children born did not survive beyond the age of five (Mulhall 178).

Chaise-cart: The fact that "Uncle Pumblechook ... drove his own chaise-cart" (Ch. 4) indicates a certain level of prosperity not achieved by Pip's family at the forge. Driving his own cart would indicate that he had means sufficient to keep, or regular access to, a horse. Though the kind of cart denoted by "chaise-cart" varied, it usually referred to a light carriage with two or four wheels (OED, "chaise").

Copper-stick: A copper-stick was a "stick used for stirring washing in the copper, or boiler, usually the largest cooking vessel in the house" (Mitchell 486).

Corn-chandler: Pumblechook, a corn-chandler and seedsman, is a retail dealer in corn and seed (OED, "corn-chandler" and "seedsman").

Dutch clock: According to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9), "Dutch or German clocks [were, in contradistinction to more expensive decorative clocks,] mostly employed for ordinary use; they [could] be obtained for a few shillings, and, with common care, [would] perform remarkably well" (292-3).

Flint and steel, versus friction: Pip relates that he could not rob the kitchen by night because "there was no getting a light by easy friction then; to have got one, I must have struck it out of flint and steal" (Ch. 2). Matches lit by "easy friction" were not developed until 1826 at the earliest (and Pip is robbing the kitchen in 1812). The first friction match was invented by an English apothecary named John Walker, and was lit by running the tip through sandpaper. Lucifer matches were developed by Samuel Jones, and sold in London beginning in 1829; phosphorus matches (instead of sulphur) were available beginning in 1839; and safety matches became available in 1855. The method of lighting a flame with "flint and steal" was a method prevalent since the 16th century, consisting of "a piece of cord, cloth, paper or wood ... dipped in sulphur [so that it could be] ignited with sparks from a tinder box" (Meckier 180).

Hulks: Housing convicts in old ships no longer fit for service came into practice in 1776, when transportation to the American colonies was no longer a possibility (America declaring its independence from England). Transportation to Australia was instituted about ten years later, in 1787, and there were always land-based prisons; the "Hulks" functioned as a sort of supplementary prison space, and were associated with hard labor. Pip's convict's Hulks were stationed in the Medway -- the inlet beyond the Cooling marshes in Kent -- beginning in 1810 (Mitchell 486). Since Pip's encounter with the convict occurs on Christmas Eve, 1812, when Pip is only about seven years old (Meckier 164), the fact that he doesn't know about the Hulks, and has to ask his exasperated sister for an explanation, is reasonable: The prison ships would only have been stationed in the Medway for two years, docked when Pip was five. He would probably not have a distinct memory -- if any memory -- of news about prison ships. Hulks were phased out of the prison system in England by 1857 (Mitchell 486).

Jack-towel: A jack-towel is "a long towel with the ends sewed together, suspended from a roller" (OED, "jack-towel").

Medium of the present day: Pip recalls that, gripping the leg of the table in consternation, he moved it "like a Medium of the present day" (Ch. 4). Spirit mediums -- people who claimed to be in communication with the dead -- were a source of popular interest in Victorian England (and, apparently, good at summoning spirits from beneath tables). If Pip's "present day" refers to the moment of composition and publication of this part of the novel (late 1860), we find in Punch, the Victorian humor weekly, several contemporary satires on mediums. In the very week in which the first number of Great Expectations was issued (Dec. 1, 1860), the following remarks appeared:

TURNING-POINTS. -- We read that an action for damages has been brought from some "turn-tables." It turned out that they had been supplied to a railway company, but at first we thought that these "turn-tables" had been ordered by our friends, the Spirit-rappers, and were some of the rotary instruments by which they help to turn the heads of the credulous fools who place their faith and bank-notes in them. By the bye, will any Spiritualist, whose sight is deeper than most of his far-seeing fraternity, have the kindness to inform us whether KING ARTHUR and his knights, as they sat round their circular table, were in the habit of turning it? It might be a handy practice for sending the bottle round. We should, also, like to be informed by the same obliging gentleman, whose sight, we are sure, is not deeper than his sagacity, whether we should be justified in calling, and whether he would take offence if we did call, this old trick of turning the tables a round game. The game of Spirit-rapping, the rapacious sums that are rapped out of fools, we should think went by the name of cribbage. (217)

QUESTION FOR THE SPIRIT-RAPPERS. -- Are spirits smuggled under the table, and can they be removed without a permit? (219)

Also note: As Jerome Meckier has pointed out, since Pip's reference to the "Medium of the present day" is singular, it is possible that Dickens had a particular medium in mind -- possibly Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), one of the most popular English mediums of the time. All the Year Round (in which Great Expectations was serialized) had published two negative articles about Home in the summer of 1860.

This illustration appeared in the August 25, 1860 issue of Punch.


Pennorth and halfpence: When Uncle Pumblechook asks, "[A]nd how's Sixpennorth of halfpence?' meaning [Pip]" (Ch. 4), he uses a monetary figure proverbial for its smallness. "Pennorth" and "penn'orth" are forms of "pennyworth," which is the amount of anything one could buy for a penny. The term was used proverbially through the 19th century to refer to "a very small, or the least, amount" (OED, "pennorth"). Halfpence is a similarly insignificant amount, being half a penny, and thus half as big as a pennorth. However, Pumblechook apparently adds the reference to halfpence as a way of emphasizing Pip's littleness, as six-pennyworth of half-pence should still be six-penny's-worth. Pip, were we to take Pumblechook literally, is worth about half a shilling in this estimation.

Photographs, long before the days of: The daguerreotype -- an early form of the photograph in which an image was fixed on chemically-treated metal or glass -- was invented by L.J.M. Daguerre in 1838, and the calotype (a photographic image printed on paper) was introduced in the same year by William Henry Fox Talbot (Meckier 180). Thus, that Pip's parents lived "long before the days of photographs" (Ch. 1) means that they lived and died before 1838.

Plaister: According to the OED, plaister is an obsolete form of "plaster," and refers to "[a]n external curative application, consisting of a solid or semi-solid substance spread upon a piece of muslin, skin, or some similar material, and of such nature as to be adhesive at the temperature of the body; used for the local application of a medicament, or for closing a wound, and sometimes to give mechanical support."

The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9) gives the following account:

PLASTERS. -- Compounds of adhesive tenacious substances. Plasters should not adhere to the hand when cold; they should be easily spread when heated, and should remain tenacious and pliant after they are spread, but should not be so soft as to run when heated by the skin. Plasters are very serviceable for delicately organized persons, or for those who are much exposed to the variations of temperature; when employed for the chest one should be placed on at the commencement of winter, and suffered to remain on until it peels off, when it should be clipped away by degrees, and when entirely removed, replaced by another. Plasters are usually composed of unctuous substances united to metallic oxides, or to powders, wax, or resin. They are usually formed whilst warm into half-pound rolls, about eight or nine inches long, and wrapped in paper. When required for use, a little is melted off the roll by means of a heated iron spatula, and spread upon leather, linen or silk. In using the spatula the flat surface is applied to the end of the roll, the melted substance being allowed to drop on the material on which it is to be spread. When a sufficient quantity has been melted, it is then to be spread evenly and thinly by means of the edge of the instrument. When spread plasters are warmed for application, the unspread side should always be held to the heat. When plasters are to be removed from the skin, they should always be warmed through with warm water. Plasters are preserved by enveloping the rolls with paper, to exclude the air as much as possible, and by keeping them in a cool situation. When kept for any length of time, they are apt to become hard and brittle, and to lose their colour. When this is the case, they should be re-melted by a gentle heat, and sufficient oil added to the mass to restore it to a proper consistence. (783)

This is a picture of a plaister spatula from the Dictionary of Daily Wants.


'Prentice to him regularly bound: Pip is to become Joe's apprentice, and to learn the blacksmithing trade. An apprenticeship was a legal contract, under which a young person would serve a master tradesman for several years (usually seven, from about age 14 to 21 [Meckier 158]) in order to learn a trade. An apprenticeship was usually paid for (a sum was advanced to the tradesman to bind the contract) by the apprentice's relations. After the period of apprenticeship, the apprentice became eligible to work for wages as a "journeyman," with the ultimate object of becoming a master of the trade in which he or she had been trained.

Reformatory: Pip's new suit of clothes is described as similar to a "Reformatory" in that he is "on no account to ... have the full use of [his] limbs" (Ch. 4). According to the OED, a Reformatory is "[a]n institution to which juvenile incorrigibles or offenders against the law are sent with a view to their reformation." In England, Reformatories were established after the Reformatory Schools Act of 1854 (Mitchell 487); they accepted inmates who were under 16 years old.

Shilling: When Uncle Pumblechook (theorizing about Pip's lot in life had he been born a "Squeaker") says that Pip "would have been disposed of for so many shillings according to the market price of the article" (Ch. 4), he refers to a currency no longer in use. The shilling was worth 12d (12 pence), or 1/20 of an English pound, and was current from 1503-1971. After the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971, the word "shilling" was still used to indicate 5 pence, but was no longer an actual coin. An English pound, indicated by the symbol (before a number) or the symbol l. (after a number), originally referred to the measure of one pound weight of silver, and was equal to 20 shillings (20s) or 240 pence (240d). This was the monetary system in place during Pip's youth; since the (comparatively recent) advent of decimal coinage in 1971, an English pound has been equal to 100 new pence (OED, "shilling").

Spanish-liquorice water, that intoxicating fluid: The "intoxicating fluid" that Pip makes in his room is not an alcoholic beverage; rather, it is made of powdered liquorice mixed in water (Mitchell 487). The pungency of liquorice may suggest inebriating qualities, however, and the use of liquorice as a medicine as well as a candy may contribute to Pip's impression that liquorice is a potent substance. (In the 18th century, a different kind of liquorice-water was used as a remedy for an asthmatic cough: "Take Spanish liquorice two ounces, salt of tartar half an ounce: boil the liquorice in three pints of water to a quart. Add the salt to it when it is blood-warm. Drink two spoonfuls of this every two hours. It seldom fails.... I have known this cure an inveterate moist asthma" [Wesley's Primitive Physic 60].) Liquorice is sometimes called "Spanish liquorice" because it is native to parts of Spain (OED, "Spanish liquorice").

Tar water: The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1858-9) gives the following account of the use and properties of tar, and the preparation of tar-water:

TAR. -- An empyreumatic turpentine, obtained by cutting to pieces trees of the pine or fir tribe, and exposing them to heat in a furnace or in the open air. The ordinary purposes to which tar is applied are well known. For medical purposes it has long been used as a remedy in chest affections, chronic bronchitis, incipient consumption [tuberculosis], &c. Tar is usually administered in the shape of tar-water, which is best made by digesting -- stirring occasionally -- one ounce of tar in thirty-two ounces of water for seven or eight days, and then straining. The dose is half a pint twice daily, mixed with milk. Tar is now chiefly used as an external application in some cases of skin diseases, either in the form of water or in that of ointment, made by melting together equal parts of tar and suet, and squeezing them through linen. (980)

Warmint: When the convict refers to himself as "a wretched warmint" (Ch. 3), he is using a variant of "varmint" or "varment" which, according to the OED, is itself a variant of "vermin," defined as "[a]n animal of a noxious or objectionable kind."

Wittles: The convict says to Pip, "And you know what wittles is" (Ch. 1). We may be less familiar with the term today. "Wittles" is a corruption of "victuals," which means food, and is pronounced "vittels" or "vittles." According to the OED, "the variant O[ld] F[rench] and mod[ern] F[rench] form victuaille has been assimilated to the L[atin] original, and a similar change in spelling has been made in English, while the pronunciation still represents the forms vittel, vittle," and has been in use since the fourteenth century.

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