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.”

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. Though, like we mentioned earlier, Charles Dickens wrote in a letter that, “I can see the whole of a serial revolving on it, in a most singular and comic manner.” 

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.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Sony

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Apple/Amazon

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. Here are 10 facts about the celebrated author.

1. Louisa May Alcott had many famous friends.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller.

Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. Louisa May Alcott's first nom de plume was Flora Fairfield.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. Louisa May Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experience as a Civil War nurse.

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to help her father.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. Louisa May Alcott was an early suffragette.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in an 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. Louisa May Alcott pretended to be her own servant to trick her fans.

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. Louisa May Alcott never had children, but she cared for her niece.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she had named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. Fans can visit Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women . Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.