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Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations
Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations

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2 Grotesque expectations

2.1 Writing style

If, as I have been suggesting, the opening chapter of Great Expectations demonstrates a novel that employs melodramatic and Gothic techniques while maintaining its actuality as a first person narrative, how does this relate to our expectations as modern readers of Dickens? The trouble is, Dickens is too familiar. Most readers will have heard of the author, if not the novel, and many will have come across some other version of it, as a film, a television serial, a tape recording, a school text, a children's book – or, as Virginia Woolf said, as one of those stories like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or Grimms' Fairy Tales, communicated by word of mouth ‘in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and not to its aesthetic experience’ (‘David Copperfield’, 1925, quoted in Wall, Charles Dickens, 1970, p.273). This may seem to reflect something many of us feel about Dickens, but it also reveals a certain condescending assumption that Dickens's novels are less than art because they belong to the realm of childhood experience, the realm of ‘memories and myths’. Yet, as Woolf went on to acknowledge, Dickens's extraordinary powers have

a strange effect. They make creators of us, and not merely readers and spectators … Subtlety and complexity are all there if we know where to look for them, if we can get over the surprise of finding them – as it seems to us, who have another convention in these matters – in the wrong places.

(Ibid., pp.275–6)

Woolf was reviewing Dickens when his reputation was suffering from a general reaction against Victorianism, as evidenced, for example, in her friend Lytton Strachey's wittily irreverent Eminent Victorians (1918). She was, moreover, expressing the views of someone engaged in redefining the novel by means of her own more internalised, subjective kind of writing. However, her point is crucial. To read Dickens with full understanding, we have to become ‘creators’. This means that if, as modern readers, we do not expect to find subtlety and complexity in Dickens, this is not because it is not there, but because it is not where we expect to find it. We must search it out – we who have other ‘conventions in these matters’. What are our conventions in these matters? It is difficult to say, partly because these are to a large extent made up of habits of acceptance that are unconscious. For instance, we accept the artificial dialogue of a novel as ‘real’ although it is a construct, quite different from a recording of actual speech. In addition, what we accept in practice is so varied. Among the texts of our own time, for example, this might range from an experimental novel by John Fowles to a social realist novel by Margaret Drabble, from an historical romance by Georgette Heyer to a thriller by Patricia D. Cornwell, each written according to a different set of rules.

All these publications fall within broadly realist parameters, parameters that stubbornly persist long after realist strategies have lost their status as a ‘high’ art form, although they continue to be important in popular culture. As we have seen, historically the conventions of realism were accompanied, if not on occasion overturned, by alternative forms of representation. These included romance and Gothic fiction, which appealed to sufficient readers (if not always critics) to sustain them, and which continue in popular forms of writing. What is especially interesting about Dickens's writings is the degree to which they anticipate the continuing hybridity of genre expectations, although to his early readers his work simply confirmed the growing importance of realist assumptions. When Dickens published his first book – a collection of periodical essays and stories called Sketches by Boz (1836) – it was welcomed for its

fidelity of description, combined with a humour which, though pushed occasionally to the verge of caricature, is, on the whole, full of promise. But their principal merit is their matter-of-factness, and the strict, literal way in which they adhere to nature.

(Collins, Dickens: The Critical Heritage, 1971, p.28)