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The Secret Life of Books: Great Expectations

Updated Tuesday 12th August 2014

Ex-Eastenders screenwriter Tony Jordan swaps one miserable storyline for another when he delves into one of Dickens' greatest works, Great Expectations. 

Tony Jordan stands behind a large book displayed in a library Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC Tony Jordan

About the episode

Presented by Tony Jordan

Great Expectations is one of Charles Dickens' most autobiographical novels, and one of his greatest works.

But the book has often been criticised, not least because the author hurriedly re-wrote a second, happier ending after his first was deemed too miserable. Was he simply “selling out” in revising the ending to make it more audience-friendly?

Tony Jordan was chief screenwriter on EastEnders for 15 years, and was often reminded that if Dickens were alive today he would be doing the very same job. Using clues hidden in the manuscript, he wants to explore the novel from the perspective of a populist writer, and to understand what it tells us about Dickens as a writer and as a man. 

Critics of Dickens have often suggested that he changed the ending simply to please his audience. There is some truth in this, and Dickens always made it clear that he cared much more about the views of his readership than the literary establishment.

Exploring his periodicals, Tony uncovers Dickens' formidable skill as a serialised writer, and his deeply held relationship with his audience.  

But looking into Dickens' past, Tony realises that Dickens' innate populism is only half the story. The novelist always invested a huge amount into his characters - he hated letting them go - but he invested more of himself in Pip than in any other of his protagonists.

Dickens could never keep his own personal problems out of his novels, and his ongoing childhood issues, a recently failed marriage, and an ongoing unconsummated affair with a young actress are all reflected and explored in the text itself. So in giving his hero a happy - or happier - ending, was he in some way giving one to himself? 

This episode was first broadcast on Tuesday 2nd September 2014 on BBC Four.

 

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