Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

IMG_0018

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. First Published 1860-61. Penguin Red Classic 2006.

I consider myself lucky I was able to come to this book unspoilt by the plot. Our Christmas telly is so saturated with Dickens that I know Oliver Twist and Bleak House (the 2005 BBC adaption is brilliant) inside out. I have done my best not to see the plot of Great Expectations especially when the film came out and so all I really knew of the book was of the iconic Miss Havisham still wearing the old finery of her wedding clothes and an orphan called Pip.

Pip, grudgingly brought up by his sister, is destined for the life of a blacksmith but dreams of being a gentleman. His fortunes suddenly change when he encounters a convict called Magwitch in a foggy graveyard and is sent for by the mysterious Miss Havisham.

Despite my efforts to not see the plot of Great Expectations; it was not the plot that wowed me in this classic but the writing. The plot itself was gothic and melodramatic but neither impressed me or left me cold. What really made this book stand out was Dickens’s ability to bring his enormous cast of characters to life and his talent as a dry comic. I wasn’t expecting how funny this book would be or how often I would be smiling through it.

“Oh!” she said. “Did you wish to see Miss Havisham?”

“If Miss Havisham wished to see me,” returned Mr. Pumblechook discomfited.

“Ah!” said the girl, “but you see she don’t.”

I also loved reading the colourful descriptions of characters, like the lawyer Mr Jaggers “he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it,” to the beautiful and “heartless” Estelle. It only occurred to me after I had finished the novel how much British writers owe to Dickens as I saw shades of his characterisation reflected in other later works.

Reading Great Expectations hasn’t tempted me to see any visual adaptations because the plot wasn’t strong enough for that. Rather I now want to go back and read the works that I already know; Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol because from what I’ve read here no adaptation could possibly do Dickens justice as a writer.

 

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

jamaica-innYou might ask why I have not devoured all of du Maurier’s books, seeing as Rebecca is one of my favourite novels of all time. Well, with authors I love (and especially dead authors) I am very wary of running out of their books and having none to look forward to. Which is why I tend to shy away from books I am pretty sure I will love.

This story opens in 1820 with Mary Yellan on her way to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn after her mother dies. Her aunt, who was a laughing, carefree woman when Mary was a child, is now cringing and meek and her uncle Joss Merlyn, the landlord, is a vicious bully. The Bodwin Moor seems a dark wasteland to her and there is something strange about the Inn. Why are there never any guests staying there? And why do mysterious carriages pull up in the dead of night?

Mary Yellen is a wonderful protagonist. The same theme I saw in Rebecca, the restlessness of being in a woman’s role, was shown here through Mary.

“I’ll not show fear before Joss Merlyn or any man,” she said, “and, to prove it, I will go down now, in the dark passage, and take a look at them in the bar, and if he kills me it will be my own fault.”

She pities and loves her aunt and yet feels exasperation at her devotion to a man who ruined her happiness. And all the while she is going down the same dark road with her uncle’s younger brother, Jem. His family has a long history of women sticking by the men who treat them worse than dirt and it’s never made clear that Jem won’t follow in this path too. He certainly doesn’t seem to see anything much out of the ordinary in it.

This novel  went a lot darker than I expected which thrilled me of course. It is not only beautifully written but extremely readable. The kind of book that keeps you up at night. There is nothing even remotely supernatural in this book rather du Maurier illustrates true darkness is in nature and the hearts of human beings. The landlord was a very brutish sort of fear to impress but du Maurier goes one step further and injects something even more horrifying in her book from an unexpected source.

I loved everything about this. It was much richer and thrilling than I thought it would be. Before I read this book, Cornwall just evoked twee images of clotted cream and pixies but du Maurier has shown me a place I didn’t know existed. Bogs, windswept moors, deadly marshes and a sign to Jamaica Inn, swinging like a gibbet, and a dead man hanging.”

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

unicornThis is a very strange book. From the beginning it fills you full of emotions; fear, apprehension, excitement, longing but without, at first, giving a reason for any of them. The scene is set with a fatalistically gothic opening of a remote windswept castle, a determined heroine, a mysterious beauty and a sinister presence…

Marian Taylor is employed as a teacher or “companion” to a beautiful woman, Hannah, in Gaze Castle. A soon as she arrives she sense something is not quite right, from her employer to the various inhabitants, the whole place is thick with some kind of awful tension.

Indeed there are so many undercurrents that it seems an entire ocean rolls underneath this book. Everything seems to have a hidden purpose or meaning. Murdoch does this with half glimpses and hints of huge terrifying things just out of reach, always unseen and had me gripping the pages and waiting for… what exactly?

“Scottow and Jamesie were still regarding each other. Scottow said, “Have you been telling fairy stories?” He laughed and brushed the boy’s cheek lightly with his whip.”

The novel started out sedately enough but as it got going I was satisfyingly weirded out and nervous for what would happen next. I couldn’t take any of the characters at face value and one in particular appeared so ordinary and then proceeded to dominate every person in the book, breaking them to their will and taking my breath away.

I was gripped at the climax of this books as nightmare after nightmare sucked the characters in like a whirlpool. It was so gothic it became ridiculous, with lashings of pathetic fallacy and every other Gothic trope you could think of. What spoiled it for me was Murdoch shying away from fully committing to the genre through using a massive egotist as one of the protagonists. Look how ridiculous this is she seems to say and although I found it very funny it broke the spell, maybe intentionally.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill

mistI do love reading wintry ghost stories in warm weather. The escapism is stronger and I am drawn further away.

Unfortunately this book and I did not get on. This is a shame because it seems like the kind of book I would love.
The story starts in a pastiche of a Victorian novel with a first account by a rather Labrador like young man hanging with his pals at his club. I was anticipating the inevitable awful things that would befall him until he started talking to a sombre lawyer seated in the corner who is the actual main character. He was suitably haunted and melancholy and gave a manuscript to the young man which opens the actual story.

Sir James Monmouth returns to England after a life of travel to research the life of his hero; the explorer Conrad Vale. Only every time he tries to research or interview someone they will turn to him and say something along the lines of TURN BACK, do not look any further, save yourself.. It happens three times in a row one after the other juxtaposed with a ghostly little boy haunting James wherever he turns. I just couldn’t take it seriously. Especially when the third warning comes from a strange woman on a train ~who sees dreadful things ~

“Go back,”

I spun round. She has spoken in a low but quite firm clean tone. “I beg your pardon?”

Her eyes were very blue and slightly widened, and they stared not so much as into me, and yet there was a strange, distant expression in them, as though she were seeing not me but something beyond.

The plot began to speed up over half of the way through and then ended rather anti-climatically and leaving me with too many unanswered questions. I still didn’t really know who Conrad Vale was or why so many people feared him or who the protagonists Guardian was. I had completely forgotten about the title of the book until a few spooky mirrors were shoe horned in.

I was waiting to be terrified as was promised on the front cover but the book left me frustrated and feeling I had wasted my time.