Friday, October 23, 2020

"Great Expectations"

A scene in the inn near Pip's home
by Frederick William Pailthorpe (source)
Earlier this week, I reread Hard Times by Charles Dickens (blogged here: The Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist), and I have continued by reading another of his novels, Great Expectations. While the political and social commentary implicit in Hard Times depressed me, I didn't find so many painful parallels in Great Expectations, though there are many recognizable characters whose flaws are still apparent in people we can meet today. As this is a huge novel, and much has been said about it since it appeared serially in 1860-1861, I'll just summarize a few of the food scenes that I found quite amusing. I've found a few vintage images for the novel, which illustrate the quotations that I found most striking.

Great Expectations begins at Christmas. Pip, the narrator of the story, then aged around six, has by chance met a convict out in the marshes near their village. The convict convincingly threatened him, and in response Pip has sneaked some food from his tyrannical sister's pantry to the convict's hiding place, along with a file which can be used to remove convict's leg irons. This beginning contains a number of elements significant to the rest of the novel. 

Part of the food Pip took was to be served at the family's Christmas dinner, which takes place the day after he met the convict. Here is Pip's description of the food for Christmas day at the family table:

Pip's Christmas Dinner by Henry Furniss (source)
"We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning (which accounted for the mincemeat not being missed), and the pudding was already on the boil. These extensive arrangements occasioned us to be cut off unceremoniously in respect of breakfast; 'for I ain’t,' said Mrs. Joe,— 'I ain’t a going to have no formal cramming and busting and washing up now, with what I’ve got before me, I promise you!' So, we had our slices served out, as if we were two thousand troops on a forced march instead of a man and boy at home; and we took gulps of milk and water, with apologetic countenances, from a jug on the dresser. (p. 23)

Finally, the family and guests sit down to Christmas dinner and Pip reports "I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain." (p. 26)

Another memorable meal happened a number of years later, when Pip was a young man in London. Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer who has mysteriously become Pip's guardian and the supplier of unexpected funds, invites Pip to dinner. Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper serves the meal to Pip and two other guests named Drummle and Startop:

"She set the dish on, touched my guardian quietly on the arm with a finger to notify that dinner was ready, and vanished. We took our seats at the round table, and my guardian kept Drummle on one side of him, while Startop sat on the other. It was a noble dish of fish that the housekeeper had put on table, and we had a joint of equally choice mutton afterwards, and then an equally choice bird. Sauces, wines, all the accessories we wanted, and all of the best, were given out by our host from his dumb-waiter; and when they had made the circuit of the table, he always put them back again. Similarly, he dealt us clean plates and knives and forks, for each course, and dropped those just disused into two baskets on the ground by his chair. No other attendant than the housekeeper appeared. She set on every dish; and I always saw in her face, a face rising out of the caldron." (p. 216-217)

Pip meets a wide variety of characters, young and old, rich and poor, successful and unsuccessful. The way they eat and the way they serve food to Pip is very often indicative of who they are and what they stand for. Mr. Jagger, his guardian, for example, is very different at the office than at his home:

"My guardian then took me into his own room, and while he lunched, standing, from a sandwich-box and a pocket-flask of sherry (he seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it), informed me what arrangements he had made for me." (p. 172)

Mr. Jaggers' clerk Wemmick also reveals himself and his values when he invites Pip to his home for dinner. The invitation says much about Wemmick's attitude towards his work as a law clerk:

"Now, I’ll tell you what I have got for supper, Mr. Pip. I have got a stewed steak,— which is of home preparation,— and a cold roast fowl,— which is from the cook’s-shop. I think it’s tender, because the master of the shop was a Juryman in some cases of ours the other day, and we let him down easy. I reminded him of it when I bought the fowl, and I said, 'Pick us out a good one, old Briton, because if we had chosen to keep you in the box another day or two, we could easily have done it.' He said to that, 'Let me make you a present of the best fowl in the shop.' I let him, of course. As far as it goes, it’s property and portable. You don’t object to an aged parent, I hope?" (p. 208) 

The Aged Parent's Breakfast

The "aged parent" is another memorable character: that is, Wemmick's father, mentioned in the invitation. Wemmick is devoted to his father, and takes very good care of him. For example, at one point, Wemmick asks Pip -- who has taken refuge at the Wennick home -- to toast a sausage over the fire for a meal for his Aged Parent. Wemmick then serves his father breakfast in bed, as Pip describes: 

"He took the toasting-fork and sausage from me as he spoke, and set forth the Aged’s breakfast neatly on a little tray. Previous to placing it before him, he went into the Aged’s room with a clean white cloth, and tied the same under the old gentleman’s chin, and propped him up, and put his nightcap on one side, and gave him quite a rakish air. Then he placed his breakfast before him with great care." (p. 375)

Finally, if you have read this book, you will remember Miss Havisham, a very eccentric elderly woman who lives in the village where Pip grew up. She is surely the most unusual character in the entire novel which is full of unusual personalities. Miss Havisham invites Pip -- or maybe demands his presence at her home -- when he's quite young, and uses him for her own amusement, which turns out to be quite destructive in the short and in the long run. Her treatment of Pip is one of the factors in creating the "great expectations" that he experiences throughout the novel. 

Miss Havisham never ate in Pip's presence, though she lived in a house with the remains of her bridal luncheon that had been interrupted when her intended bridegroom jilted her at the altar many years earlier. The remains of the bridal table included a wedding cake that had turned to dust and cobwebs along with other nearly unrecognizable delicacies. This uneaten and uncleared feast is the key feature of her strange life.

Great Expectations, like much of Dickens' work, remains a very accessible and enjoyable read, as it clearly was when first published. I can't imagine the experience of the readers then, who purchased Dickens's novels as serial publications within a span of months or even years. What a pain it must have been to wait for each new "book" of this suspenseful novel while wondering what happened to the characters. I remember my professor of Victorian literature telling us an anecdote about Dickens. The author was preparing to write the next installment of one of his books, and was standing in line at a stationer's shop to buy a package of paper to write on. (It's funny to recall that he had to write it all out by hand as the typewriter hadn't yet been invented.) In front of him in line was an eager woman who was asking for the sequel that he was about to write. Evidently he found this demoralizing!

Blog post © 2020 mae sander, images as credited.


A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I have never read Great Expectations. Thanks for sharing these fun quotes and drawings.

My name is Erika. said...

I adore this book. It is one of my favorites. I think Dickens was at his peak when he wrote this. And I didn't know about that little story even though I did take a Dickens course in college. Fascinating. Are you going to read another Dickens book in the near future? A Tale of Two Cities is also a good read. I recently read Oliver Twist and I also loved it, which I wasn't expecting. Happy reading.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Another book I've not read, but I've seen great illustrations of the wedding feast table. How funny to be behind someone in a queue who is only there because of you.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the book, but whenever I read descriptions of food in the Victorian Era I'm glad I was born much later!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I am woefully uneducated in Dickens, but I certainly appreciated the wonderful way you led me through this amazing tale.

kwarkito said...

voilà un article très passionnant qui donne envie de relire ce roman. Il est à craindre en effet que bien des personnages décrits dans ce livre aient leur équivalent contemporain. Rien de nouveau sous le soleil...

Lisca said...

How interesting. I have never read Great Expectation. Perhaps I should.
Have a great weekend,

Divers and Sundry said...

Great literature always has characters you can identify with, that ring true. The books of his I've read have been enjoyable, and I always think what it would've been like to have to wait for the next installment. Like I was with the original Star Wars movies, I imagine lol

Jeanie said...

I really should revisit Dickens again. It has been far too long. I never paid attention to the food descriptions before!