This seems familiar…

Dear Charlie,

Do you ever get déjà vu? Coming off Great Expectations and into the second volume of your Miscellaneous Papers, I’ve had the sense for the past week that you and I have been here before.


Me + Great Expectations

Before we get into details, let me say first that I loved Great Expectations. It was brisk, lively, funny, and had complex and interesting characters. I love the inscrutable Jaggers and the relationship of mutual mystery and strict professionalism between him and Wiggins. I love Wiggins’ split personality and his little domestic castle and his adorable dad, and I love dear Herbert’s trusting good nature. I love Biddy and her refusal to pine for Pip. I love Magwitch’s life-changing adoration of Pip. I can absolutely see why people consider it your best work.

If I were going to recommend a Dickens gateway drug, this would be the one.

But remember how I told you I suspected that there would be unforeseen connections between characters? Turns out I was right, and it also turns out that this isn’t such a great thing.

Without the usual army of supporting characters, those ‘coincidental’ connections are more obvious than Darth Vader on the deck of the Enterprise. Really, Charlie, there’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s the wrestling of disbelief into a straight-jacket and throwing it into solitary confinement in Alcatraz that’s required to swallow Pip’s story. Trying to picture the Venn diagram of these relationships puts me at risk of a seizure… Pip’s and Miss Havisham’s spheres overlap in Estella, but Pip and Magwitch also sorta share Estella, as do Pip and Jaggers’ housekeeper, and as do Jaggers and Miss Havisham. In the meantime, Pip and Magwitch share Compeyson, but Pip and Compeyson share Miss Havisham. And Pip and Magwitch overlap in Jaggers. Oh my brain hurts.


This is a Venn Diagram


This is the Venn Diagram for Great Expectations

And we haven’t even started with the déjà vu. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in your head for 11 months now, my friend, but reading this book was a bit like conducting a Dickens retrospective. Pip reminds me strongly at times of David Copperfield, with bits of Martin Chuzzlewit, Jr. and Nicholas thrown in. Orlick is a combination of Uriah Heep and Barnaby Rudge’s Hugh, Compeyson smacks of Steerforth, and Estella is definitely channeling both Mrs. Dombey and Louisa Gradgrind.

But it wasn’t until I came across one of your more famous quotations that I realized how much this book distills and refines everything that’s come before. This is the line:

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

And I sat there and thought, “dammit, I’ve sure I’ve read that before!” So I did a little digging (thank you, Project Gutenberg), and sure enough, in the pages of Barnaby Rudge you wrote:

It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickle and changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecided whether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in its uncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other, and now to both at once–wooing summer in the sunshine, and lingering still with winter in the shade–it was, in short, on one of those mornings, when it is hot and cold, wet and dry, bright and lowering, sad and cheerful, withering and genial, in the compass of one short hour, that old John Willet, who was dropping asleep over the copper boiler, was roused by the sound of a horse’s feet, and glancing out at window, beheld a traveller of goodly promise, checking his bridle at the Maypole door.

Interesting, eh?

Had you been unconsciously playing around with that sentiment every March in the intervening years until you had it phrased perfectly?

plagiarismAnyway, Charlie, I feel like I’m being mean to you, and I didn’t intend to be, because I honestly think Great Expectations is awesome, and if you’re going to plagiarize someone, it might as well be a writer as fantastic as yourself.



Explorers and Expectations

Dear Charlie,

Sorry I haven’t written in a while. It was the Canada Day long weekend, so I spent it in a tent trailer in the woods, getting sunburned, eating fire-charred meat and donating huge quantities of blood to starving mosquitos. Oh, and getting through the first part of Pip’s adventures in Great Expectations.


Sir John Franklin

I did, however, finally finish volume one of your Miscellaneous Papers, which ended with a curious two part essay called “The Lost Voyagers,” which argued against the notion, put forward in an 1848 report by John Rae, that the victims of the unfortunate Franklin Expedition (which had disappeared in 1845) had resorted to cannibalism in their final hours. I admire your passion, Charlie – you’re clearly well-read on the subject of exploration and feel very strongly about your topic. But I find it interesting that you should feel the need to refute the findings at all. Maybe I’ve been completely desensitized, but cannibalism would seem to be a definite option when faced with starvation in the Canadian arctic, moral misgivings aside.


Hard to be moral when you’ve got some serious lead poisoning going on.
(Library and Archives Canada)

But you seem to put extraordinary emphasis on the moral and ethical ramifications of eating one’s comrades. By the end of the article you’ve basically argued that cannibalism isn’t a moral or upstanding thing to do, and because British Explorers, and Franklin’s men in particular, are the epitome of all British exploration-y virtues, and are therefore the most moral and upstanding people in the entire Universe, it’s totally obvious that Franklin’s men didn’t eat one another, and never even considered eating one another, and why are you taking the word of uncivilized “Esquimeaux” savages over this perfectly obvious line of reasoning, even if they are eye witnesses? Witnesses shmitnesses.

Of course, you do mention several documented instances of cannibalism (which you take a rather suspicious delight in recounting), but you’re quick to point out that in those cases the explorers were either a) not British or b) not British enough to prevent moral lapses in their non-British travelling companions. Britannia rules the waves, and England never, never, never shall be entrees. 😉

And with that great lesson in Victorian reasoning, I quite happily closed the book. All joking aside, Charlie, I wish you’d been around to see the remains of the Franklin Expedition unearthed – I’m sure you would have been as fascinated as I am to see the mummified bodies of the crew.

Finishing that article meant that I could bound into Pip’s life with joy and a certain amount of relief that there’s not an arctic explorer in sight. I’m now almost half way through Great Expectations, and even though it’s shorter than some of your other works, it doesn’t feel rushed or any less richly populated than your earlier novels. On the contrary, the pace is lively, and there’s so much that has happened already that I’m certain will have repercussions down the road – a couple of convicts who we keep being reminded of, the strange Orlick who loomed up out of nowhere, the creepy-ass Mrs. Havisham (mummified herself, in a manner of speaking) and her creepy minion Estella, Pip’s “mystery” benefactor, and the unreadable Jaggers.

This is all great stuff, Charlie, and I can’t wait to see how Pip handles his new circumstances and how all of these things are connected (because if I’ve learned anything from you, my friend, it’s that there’s only ever a degree or two of separation between seemingly unrelated characters).

And with that I shall bid you a fond farewell, and I shall try to get lost in Pip’s story, forget Franklin’s and ignore my many mosquito bites.

Affectionately yours,