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Rereading ‘Great Expectations’ After 50 Years

Dec 29, 2016

Charles Dickens photographed circa 1860.
Charles Dickens photographed circa 1860.PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN & CHARLES WATKINS / HULTON ARCHIVE / GETTY

FIfty years was long enough, I suppose, to put off reading Charles Dickens again. I had read him, and loved him, in college—“Hard Times” and “Bleak House” and “Our Mutual Friend” were the most admired texts in the nineteen-sixties; and then, on my own, soon after college, I read “David Copperfield” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” with its hilarious impressions of the newspaper-and-spittoon dominated America of the eighteen-forties. I knew a couple of the other novels because they had been read to me, after lunch, in seventh grade, at my New York private school. You could put your head down on the desk and go to sleep—no one would bother you. The rest of us listened. Our homeroom teacher, a woman with freckled skin and white hair named Ruth K. Landis, read first “Oliver Twist” and then “Great Expectations” in a steady dulcet voice. At the emotional climaxes, Miss Landis grew rather tearful, but no one mocked her. It was an enchanting way to launch the rest of the school day. I mention all this because my acquaintance with Dickens was more or less typical of what literary-minded, privileged boys and girls of a certain era enjoyed.

In any case, by my mid-twenties I had abandoned Dickens for Henry James, who was ever so much more worldly and intricate, and who had a finer, less melodramatic sense of evil (though there is always someone in James who is trying to gain control of your soul or your money or both). James left New York and Boston behind and set up in London and Rye; American civilization was insufficiently complicated for him, but Americans as individuals interested him a great deal. Dickens wrote nothing that meant as much to me and my friends as “The Portrait of a Lady,” with its high-minded, presumptuous, ambitious, and noble heroine, Isabel Archer.

In recent years, I put Dickens off again and again, which of course meant I was afraid I wouldn’t much like his books, afraid that the return might be akin to visiting, out of duty, a somewhat faded aunt or uncle and submitting to an embarrassing performance of patched-together jokes and moldy recollections, which might or might not be interesting—one’s interest in such meetings is often selfish—as a reflection of my own temperament at twenty. No doubt I feared finding that my own youth was a lot less clever than I wanted it to be.