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A passionate defender of Dickens on the page

Howard Jacobson:

Not only on account of what he wrote, but on account of his bridging the chasm between the serious and the popular, I consider Dickens to be our finest writer after Shakespeare, an example and reproach to every too high-minded stylist and every too low-minded populariser who has come after him. David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend – beat that for an achievement. As for Great Expectations, it is up there for me with the world's greatest novels, not least as it vindicates plot as no other novel I can think of does, since what there is to find out is not coincidence or happenstance but the profoundest moral truth. Back, back we go in time and convolution, only to discover that the taint of crime and prison which Pip is desperate to escape is inescapable: not only is the idea of a "gentleman" built on sand, so is that idealisation of woman that was at the heart of Victorian romantic love.

. . .Sue Perkins. . .complained of "a woeful lack of real women in [Dickens] books". Real women! The great writers change what we know of reality, they do not subscribe to its plainest assumptions.

Great Expectations, in short, is a more damning account of the mess Dickens himself had made of love than any denunciation on behalf of the outraged wives club could ever be. Missing from the usual attack on Dickens's marital heartlessness is any comprehension of the tragedy of it for Mr as well as Mrs Dickens, the derangement he suffered contemplating his own weaknesses, and its significance for the murderous, self-punishing novels he began to write.

That Great Expectations achieves its seriousness of purpose by sometimes comic means, that the language bursts with life, that its gusto leaves you breathless and its shame makes the pages curl, that you are implicated in every act of physical and emotional cruelty to the point where you don't know who's the more guilty, you or Pip, you or Orlick, you or Magwitch, goes without saying if you are a reader of Dickens. . .

What the age demands, the age must be given. The "snob's progress" version of Great Expectations – a simplistic, retributive "class" reading about a boy who scorns his origins – is now the common one. It suits our would-be egalitarian times. But Great Expectations is more a novel about eroticism than snobbery. In an extraordinary scene, also excised from the TV version, Pip awaits the arrival of Estella with a disordered agitation, stamping the prison dust off his feet, shaking it from his dress, exhaling it from his lungs. "So contaminated did I feel …" And there's the novel's subject. The fastidious consciousness of blemish that disables a man from loving a woman as flesh and blood, that feeds an idealisation which ultimately damages those he loves, and desexualises him.

How Dickens was able to lower himself into these black depths of the soul and still make us laugh is one of literature's great wonders. . .


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