I've been writing about mysteries here. Well, Charles Dickens wrote one (didn't finish it): The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is now enjoying another life as a popular play on Broadway (Link to TIMES review).
It was on this day in 1860 that the first two chapters of Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations were published in All the Year Round, his weekly magazine (books by this author).
Dickens had begun publishing All the Year Round in April of 1859. The first issue contained a mixture of journalism, essays, and fiction, including the first installment of Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities. It was an immediate success. After A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens serialized The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, also wildly popular.
But then, in the fall of 1860, he serialized a novel called A Day's Ride by Charles Lever, and it was a total flop. Readership of the magazine dropped more each week, and Dickens was frantic and on the verge of bankruptcy. So he called a staff meeting, and decided he needed to run a new novel of his own. He wrote to his friend, John Forster: "Last week, I got to work on a new story. I called a council of war at the office on Tuesday. It was perfectly clear that the one thing to be done was, for me to strike in. I have therefore decided to begin a story, the length of the Tale of Two Cities, on the 1st of December — begin publishing, that is. I must make the most I can out of the book. When I come down, I will bring you the first two or three weekly parts. The name is, Great Expectations. I think a good name?" And two months later, he had written enough of Great Expectations to begin printing it.
Dickens felt bad about Lever's book. He wrote to him: "I have waited week after week, for these three or four weeks, watching for any sign of encouragement. The least sign would have been enough. But all the tokens that appear are in the other direction." Rather than cut out Lever's novel altogether, he encouraged him to wrap it up as quickly as possible, but he continued to run it, side by side with Great Expectations.
Dickens' approach worked. By the middle of Great Expectations, All the Year Round was selling 100,000 copies each week.
Great Expectations begins: "My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip. I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones."
I first tried to read Dickens in the 1958–1959 school year. Ninth grade. Great Expectations. Required reading. But I could not do it … could not make myself do it, even though we were using an abridged version in our anthology, Adventures in Reading. I felt like Danny in The Golden Summer, brought up short on page 14 of The Last of the Mohicans.
From that first fruity paragraph—My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip—to that parting handshake with Estella (I knew too many girls like her!), I hated it. Hated every syllable of it. Flunked all the daily reading quizzes that my teacher, Mrs. Browning, both promised and delivered. I vowed I would never again read a word by Charles Dickens.
A half-dozen years later, first quarter of my junior year at Hiram College (1964–1965), I enrolled in Introduction to British Literature II. And there on the syllabus was Great Expectations, that same Pippy-sissy-novel that had narcotized me in ninth grade. Only this time it was unabridged. Fuck!
But in college I loved the book, loved the language, found myself weeping here and there—and not from frustration. Maybe this Dickens guy wasn’t so boring, after all?
I guess not. In the years ahead I would read all of his novels. Every last one.