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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.