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11 Dickensian Facts About Great Expectations

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.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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