Great Expectations begins when a boy named Pip encounters an escaped convict in a graveyard. The gripping story that emerges from there includes money from a mysterious benefactor, a bewitching and cold-hearted girl, and the shut-in Miss Havisham, forever clothed in a tattered wedding gown. It’s no wonder that so many people consider Great Expectations to be one of Charles Dickens's best works.
1. Dickens planned to write a "grotesque tragicomic” novel.
While Great Expectations may be one of Dickens’s darkest books, he originally wanted it to be a comic novel. He wrote a friend, “You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities...I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man, in relations that seem to me very funny.” In another letter, he said, “I can see the whole of a serial revolving on it, in a most singular and comic manner.”
2. He wrote the novel during the most difficult period of his life.
Dickens started Great Expectations in October 1860, not long after separating from Catherine, his wife of 22 years and the mother of his ten children. He’d moved into his own place and was pursuing a young actress named Ellen Ternan. On top of that, his son was running up gambling debts, his daughter married a man Dickens didn’t like, and his elderly mother was showing signs of dementia. All this was on his mind as he started to write.
3. Estella may have been based his mistress.
Dickens became smitten with18-year-old Ellen Ternan when he hired her to perform in the play The Frozen Deep. While Ellen seems to have resisted Dickens's advances at first, she eventually became his mistress. Many biographers think that the beautiful and unloving character of Estella may have been Dickens’s view of his early relationship with Estella. Estella—Latin for “star”—could be a partial anagram of Ellen Ternan.
4. Miss Havisham was based on a real person.
In 1853, Dickens wrote an essay about growing up in London where he mentions a street person bearing a resemblance to Miss Havisham. “The White Woman is her name. She is dressed entirely in white, with a ghastly white plaiting round her head and face, inside her white bonnet...She is a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner, and evidently went simpering mad on personal grounds alone—no doubt because a wealthy Quaker wouldn’t marry her. This is her bridal dress.”
5. Like most of his novels, Great Expectations was published in serial form.
All Dickens novels were first published in serial form, meaning that the story was broken into installments and published over a period of time in a journal or newspaper. Great Expectations ran in Dickens’s journal All the Year Round from December 1860 to August 1861. It was published in book form in October—just in time for Christmas that year.
6. Bentley Drummle was based on a publisher Dickens disliked.
In the novel, Estella marries snobby, cruel Bentley Drummle instead of Pip. The name is suspiciously close to the publisher Richard Bentley, whom Dickens believed cheated him out of money. Dickens worked as the editor of Bentley's Miscellany, the publication that serialized Oliver Twist—a story which, of course, was enormously successful. Dickens and Bentley argued over money for some time. Finally, Dickens bought out his contract as well as the copyright to Oliver Twist from the publisher and got literary revenge in the form of the unflattering character.
7. Dickens carefully worked out the ages of his characters.
The working notes for Great Expectations show that Dickens created a timeline for the characters’ ages. Pip, Estella, and Herbert are all 23 at the climax of the novel. Magwitch is 60, Biddy is 24, Joe is 45, and Miss Havisham is a relatively youthful 56.
8. Great Expectations is one of two Dickens novels written in the first person.
Of Dickens’s novels, only Great Expectations and David Copperfield are written entirely in the first person, with the character telling the story to the reader. (Bleak House is narrated in the first and third person.) Dickens wanted Pip’s voice to be similar to David Copperfield. He wrote, "The book will be written in the first person throughout, and during these first three weekly numbers you will find the hero to be a boy-child, like David.”
9. He had Cooling Castle in mind for the graveyard scene.
The memorable first section most likely took place at (or was inspired by) St James' Church in Cooling, Kent. There you can still see “Pip’s Graves,” the gravestones of 13 babies, which Dickens describes as “little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row.” Here are pictures of the church.
10. Great Expectations had an alternate ending.
After finishing Great Expectations, Dickens went to visit the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. While there, he showed his friend the last chapters of Great Expectations, which hadn’t yet gone to print. Bulwer-Lytton said that the ending was depressing and urged Dickens to change it. Dickens agreed and rewrote the ending, which was published in the novel. In it, Estella and Pip become friends and, it’s implied, eventually get married. (If that’s not confusing enough, the last line of the novel was altered several times.)
The final paragraph is: “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
11. Here’s the original, somber ending of Great Expectations
As it was when Edward Bulwer-Lytton read it and found it too depressing:
One day, two years after his return from the east, I was in England again—in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip—when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.
“I am greatly changed, I know, but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)
I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.