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Patrick Mccarthy <[log in to unmask]>
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Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 17 Jul 2001 08:51:38 -0700
TEXT/PLAIN (227 lines)
Dear Friends,

        This is, once more, a full, formal review of a book important to
Dickensians.   All best,    Patrick, Editor
David Paroissien, _The Companion to Great Expectations_, East Sussex, U.K,
        Helm Information LTD; Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2000
        Series Title: The Dickens Companions, #7

        The first notice we had that David Paroissien had written a Companion
to _Great Expectations_ appeared in the bibliographical notes of Edgar
Rosenberg's 1999 Norton Critical Edition of the novel.  That Paroissien
should be quoted on the back cover, along with several others, praising
Rosenberg's work was what one would expect. But the Paroissien book, though
cited, had not yet been published.

        _Great Expectations_ does not permit its devotees to meet
deadlines.  Rosenberg's edition, for example, had been announced as much as
twenty years before it appeared.  And Paroissien's volume, now safely to hand
and dated 2000, tells us that it was seven years in the making, the length of
time Pip expected to be apprenticed to Joe.  Time, to such scholars, is best
occupied in service to the timeless.

        Paroissien chooses as his text Rosenberg's, and having it handy makes
it easy to find the passages being referred to.  For a reviewer, too,
Rosenberg's richly annotated work serves as an excellent source against
which to check and compare Paroissien's notations  (An appendix to this
review will deal with a few interesting differences.)

        David Paroissien is known to many of us as the editor of _Dickens
Quarterly_ and, among several other accomplishments, as the author of a well
praised earlier volume in the Dickens Companion series, that for _Oliver
Twist_. The series has reaffirmed once more both how little our generation
knows about early-and-mid-Victorian life and how deeply and specifically the
works of Dickens are embedded in those times.  As we do with Shakespeare, we
can read Dickens's works without annotations, but we require scholarly
assistance to experience the texts in their fullness.

        Paroissien proves himself once more an able and learned cicerone.  To
begin with, his _Companion to Great Expectations_ is a well produced and
printed book of some five hundred pages, four hundred of which are given to
notes on the novel.  The rest includes five appendices (of which more later)
and twenty-eight illustrations, the whole introduced by a succinct, well
written, and fresh introduction.

        We always want to know how a Dickens novel came to be written, and
_Great Expectations_ is a special case.  Because of its unexpected and rapid
appearance, Paroissien wittily refers to it as "the novel from nowhere." In
the summer of 1860 there were hints that Dickens was working on a "new book",
but what book on what subject is somewhat uncertain. He was evidently planning
another twenty-number novel.  All that year he had been writing essays
under the general title of _The Uncommercial Traveller_ for publication in
his weekly journal _All the Year Round_, and by the first week of October
sixteen segments had appeared.  At some point  in the writing of these essays
-- Forster (9,2) is not  specific as to date--Dickens  wrote a "little piece"
which he promised to send to his friend, but he was already canceling it in
his mind, "such a very fine, new, and grotesque idea"  it had "opened
upon" him.  He would "reserve the notion for a new book." And "this," says
Forster, was "the germ of Pip and Magwitch."

        From the journal's beginning Dickens had promised readers that its
first pages would always be devoted to "a continuous original work of
fiction," but it became clear that the current novel by Charles Lever was
meeting with flagging interest.  Dickens then decided to "strike in" with
a new novel for the journal.  Once he set to it, he wrote so quickly that
he finished five weekly segments of _Great Expectations_ by the end of
October, began publishing that December, and still found time in November to
write his annual Christmas number.  On June 11, he reported to a friend that
he had completed the novel.  Though still busy with other things, he had taken
just eight months to create "perhaps [his] most nearly perfect artistic
achievement" (P,2).

        Paroissien  scans all records we have of CD's thoughts on the
novel before and during composition, and an untypically spare record it is
for the later Dickens.  Whence then the rapidity of composition and the
apparent ease with which Dickens found subject, title, mood, and plot?
Paroissien points most interestingly to directions that also help justify his
own extensive factual annotating, particularly those of "travel,
topography, and time."  Briefly, _Great Expectations_ emerged from
Dickens's own worlds, those of Kent and London, and the voice with which he
has Pip speak has overtones of the voice Dickens had been developing during
the writing of _The Uncommercial Traveller_ essays.

        As for time, Paroissien looks more deeply than anyone else I know into
the dual chronology of the novel, the period of its action, from roughly 1803
to 1832, and  the time when Pip is writing his memoirs, 1860-1. Its
"telling time" has previously remained vague, but Paroissien has spied out
multiple references in the novel to occurrences of the 1860's congruent with
Pip's adult, speaking self.  Pip, Paroissien avers, speaks to us at just
about the time Dickens writes for us.  For Victorian readers who would know
such references the time problem did not exist.  Before he completed the novel
Dickens's own calculations checked for consistency his dates and the ages of
his principals.  Using these materials and splicing in all he can gleam from
the novel and its backgrounds, Paroissien sets out in Appendix One a
hypothetical chronology for the events of the novel beginning with the
birth of Magwitch (1760) and ending with the arrival of the last convict ship
in Western Australia, seven years after Pip finishes his memoirs.

        Place is similarly interesting.  Paroissien finds that too literal an
identification of an actual place with  the scene Dickens actually evokes may
lead to error. For one may seek for correspondences where none exists.  In
those cases, Dickens would have created composite places and "compromise[d]
the inventive requirements of the novelist and those of the journalist
committed to reportage."  Thus in Appendix Two, on "The Hoo Peninsula and
Rochester" Paroissien resists a simple identification of specific place
with a scene of action, particularly when dealing with Pip on the
"meshes."  In London, Paroissien finds Dickens locales more readily identified,
and the third appendix illuminates the choices and the uses thereof that
Dickens makes. Eleven pages of maps based on mid-nineteenth-century drawings
flesh out this section of the book still further.

        The question of the endings of the novel comes in for brief
examination as well.  Basing his argument on the chronology and "the
ensuing and unbroken elegiac voice," and three literary antecedents he cites,
Paroissien stands for the superiority of the original ending.  The argument
will never be quite settled, but I entirely agree with Paroissien that tonal
and thematic consistency should determine which ending we prefer.

        The bulk of _The Companion to Great Expectations_ is given over to
annotations of several hundred textual words and phrases, both to explain
their meanings and, where appropriate, to put them in full context.  Here, if
ever, Paroissien's passion for finding the illuminating detail and for getting
the detail right is evident.  What  to include and what exclude in such
compendia are always barbed questions.  We tend to think that what we already
know need not appear, forgetting that others may not be similarly apprised.
For Paroissien, getting the genuine feel of Victorian life as it emerged from
quotidian, concrete circumstances, current events, domestic manners is what he
aims at.  He does not blink at telling us too much, when his interests, and
surely some of his readers, demand full disclosure.

        The abandoned brewery at Miss Havisham's sets him off on what such
buildings were like, what casks and utensils were used, and how beer and ale
were brewed.  Joe's account of how his drunken father used to beat his mother
occasions an account of wife-beating among the working classes and further
citations of wife-beatings in Dickens and other Victorian writers. The
bedstead in the soldiers' hut in Chapter Five brings us the information that
soldiers in barracks generally slept four together in cribs and that the
mangle, to which Dickens compares their bed, was a clothes-pressing instrument
over six feet long and three feet wide.  The entry for the first mention of
Miss Havisham occupies full four pages on "a range of actual and fictional
prototypes." Each has such a core of possibility that one becomes disposed
to believe that Dickens drew from all the suggested sources!  And I did not
know--did you?--that shrouds "used for the rich were often fine
fabrics painted or soaked with wax or some other adhesive substance."  I
shiver at the thought that Miss Havisham's veil reminded Pip of a such a
garment .

        Some more?  We recall the four mourning rings worn by Mr. Wemmick as
he shows Pip to his new quarters; Paroissien tells us what they were like and
what varieties there were.  The old Covent Garden, although it is visible in
some Hitchcock movies, is now no more, and so it gets twenty-two lines here.
We might know the meaning of "whitlow," but we did not know that Victorian
medical practitioners identified three kinds of the infection.  (Did the
Victorians have dirtier hands and feet than we do?)   Such references as the
one to "the sight of people passing beyond the bars of the court-yard
gate" at Satis House do not escape Paroissien's notice. "Passers-by in
Crow Lane," he says, "are easily visible from the courtyard as one looks
towards the street." (104)  Clearly,  Paroissien has visited Restoration House,
the original of Satis House ,just off Rochester High Street and checked
on this detail (as Dickens had?).

        Even with all this before us--since reviewers are expected to find
matters to complain of--we ask whether we need be told that candles were
an important source of artificial light in households for much of the
nineteenth century (47),  or what a pantry is, or read a citation from one
of Mrs. Ellis's conduct books to certify that Mrs. Pocket is not bringing
up her children properly?  It is clear, too, that Professor Paroissien does
not suffer from gout or otherwise he would not speak of it in the past tense,
and he would know that the diet prescribed by Victorian doctors, though overly
restrictive, is on the right track.  I confess that I read with interest
Paroissien's entry on "Beggar my neighbour" (Estella beggars Pip, you recall),
and even though I have no neighbor to ruin, was disappointed not to be given
the rules.

        But petty complaints aside, readers will find Paroissien's
companionship rich in research of breadth-taking fullness.  It is a grand
effort at "pulling together materials about each point in question."  He
began his work by asking himself a series of questions: "Do the novel's
various contexts shed light on its composition and on Dickens's working
methods?  By paying attention to details of travel, topography and time, can
we further our understanding of the voice of the narrator, of the
distinctiveness of his retrospective stance as he surveys his past and talks
about the great love of his life?  By assembling information [on a wide range
of subjects] can we gain insight into the continuing debate about the two
endings?  To put the question bluntly in the manner of Mr. Jaggers: what can
the annotator usefully contribute to any novel as secure in its status as
_Great Expectations_? (6,7)

        It is clear that this scholarly and relentless researcher has
found the answers to his questions to be a decided, "Yes!" to the first
and "A great deal!" to the last.

Patrick McCarthy
University of California
Santa Barbara

Appendix : Paroissien's and Rosenberg's notes; some differences

a) Would "sixpennorth of halfpence" be worth three pence, as Paroissien
says, or in fact sixpence, or twelve half-pennies?  Edgar Rosenberg avoids
the issue and glosses the expression as "a lot of small change." (Chapter

b) Rosenberg glosses the line "She is a Buster," with  "Her ram-paging
leaves Mrs. Joe gasping for air," whereas Paroissien believes that what
Dickens refers to is "A slang version of `burster,' one who bursts or
explodes like gunpowder." (Chapter VII)

c) "A flapping broad-brimmed traveller's hat, and under it a handkerchief
tied over his head in the manner of a cap" brings Rosenberg's
suggestion that convicts recently released might wear such a handkerchief
to conceal their shaved heads.  Paroissien makes no such connection, but
he instances the similarly clad figure who appears in chapter one of _Barnaby
Rudge_.  (Chapter X)

d) Leaving Estella at the house she was to stay in Richmond, Pip observes that
"Here are the shoes with red heels and the blue solitaire." Rosenberg
notes that "solitaire" is "consistently annotated to describe a loose silk
neckcoth worn by gents in the mid-1800s.  But in context it surely refers to
a jewel, usually a diamond, set singly in a ring or, as here, fastened to the
top of a shoe." Paroissien, relying on John and Peter Wildeblood, refuses
this suggestion and opts for the "loose necktie of silk or broad ribbon
worn by gentlemen in public."  (Chapter XXXIII)