As Dickens began writing Great Expectations, he undertook a series of hugely popular and remunerative reading tours. His domestic life had, however, disintegrated in the late 1850s and he had separated from his wife, Catherine Dickens, and was having a secret affair with the much younger Ellen Ternan. The introduction of the 1984 Penguin English Library edition suggests that the reluctance with which Ellen Ternan became his mistress is reflected in the icy teasing of Estella in Great Expectations.
In his Book of Memoranda, begun in 1855, Dickens wrote names for possible characters: Magwitch, Provis, Clarriker, Compey, Pumblechook, Orlick, Gargery, Wopsle, Skiffins, some of which became familiar in Great Expectations. There is also a reference to a “knowing man”, a possible sketch of Bentley Drummle. Another evokes a house full of “Toadies and Humbugs”, foreshadowing the visitors to Satis House in Chapter 11. Margaret Cardwell discovered the “premonition” of Great Expectations from a 25 September 1855 letter from Dickens to W. H. Wills, in which Dickens speaks of recycling an “odd idea” from the Christmas special “A House to Let” and “the pivot round which my next book shall revolve.” The “odd idea” concerns an individual who “retires to an old lonely house … resolved to shut out the world and hold no communion with it.” In an 8 August 1860 letter to Thomas Carlyle, Dickens reported his agitation whenever he prepared a new book. A month later, in a letter to John Forster, Dickens announced that he just had a new idea.
Publication in All the Year Round
Dickens was pleased with the idea, calling it “such a very fine, new and grotesque idea” in a letter to Forster. He planned to write “a little piece”, a “grotesque tragi-comic conception”, about a young hero who befriends an escaped convict, who then makes a fortune in Australia and anonymously bequeaths his property to the hero. In the end, the hero loses the money because it is forfeited to the Crown. In his biography of Dickens, Forster wrote that in the early idea “was the germ of Pip and Magwitch, which at first he intended to make the groundwork of a tale in the old twenty-number form.” Dickens presented the relationship between Pip and Magwitch pivotal to Great Expectations but without Miss Havisham, Estella, or other characters he later created.
As the idea and Dickens’s ambition grew, he began writing. However, in September, the weekly All the Year Roundsaw its sales fall, and its flagship publication, A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever, lost favour with the public. Dickens “called a council of war”, and believed that to save the situation, “the one thing to be done was for [him] to strike in.” The “very fine, new and grotesque idea” became the magazine’s new support: weeklies, five hundred pages, just over one year (1860–1861), thirty-six episodes, starting 1 December. The magazine continued to publish Lever’s novel until its completion on 23 March 1861, but it became secondary to Great Expectations. Immediately, sales resumed, and critics responded positively, as exemplified by The Times’s praise: “Great Expectations is not, indeed, [Dickens’s] best work, but it is to be ranked among his happiest.”
Dickens, whose health was not the best, felt “The planning from week to week was unimaginably difficult” but persevered. He thought he had found “a good name”, decided to use the first person “throughout”, and thought the beginning was “excessively droll”: “I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man, in relations that seem to me very funny.” Four weekly episodes were “ground off the wheel” in October 1860, and apart from one reference to the “bondage” of his heavy task, the months passed without the anguished cries that usually accompanied the writing of his novels. He did not even use the Number Plans or Mems; he only had a few notes on the characters’ ages, the tide ranges for chapter 54, and the draft of an ending. In late December, Dickens wrote to Mary Boyle that “Great Expectations [is] a very great success and universally liked.”
Dickens gave six readings from 14 March to 18 April 1861, and in May, Dickens took a few days’ holiday in Dover. On the eve of his departure, he took some friends and family members for a trip by boat from Blackwall to Southend-on-Sea. Ostensibly for pleasure, the mini-cruise was actually a working session for Dickens to examine banks of the river in preparation for the chapter devoted to Magwitch’s attempt to escape. Dickens then revised Herbert Pocket’s appearance, no doubt, asserts Margaret Cardwell, to look more like his son Charley. On 11 June 1861, Dickens wrote to Macready that Great Expectations had been completed and on 15 June, asked the editor to prepare the novel for publication.
Following comments by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that the ending was too sad, Dickens rewrote it prior to publication. The ending set aside by Dickens has Pip, who is still single, briefly see Estella in London; after becoming Bentley Drummle’s widow, she has remarried. It appealed to Dickens due to its originality: “[the] winding up will be away from all such things as they conventionally go.” Dickens revised the ending for publication so that Pip meets Estella in the ruins of Satis House, she is a widow and he is single. His changes at the conclusion of the novel did not quite end either with the final weekly part or the first bound edition, because Dickens further changed the last sentence in the amended 1868 version from “I could see the shadow of no parting from her.” to “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”. As Pip uses litotes, “no shadow of another parting”, it is ambiguous whether Pip and Estella marry or Pip remains single. Angus Calder, writing for an edition in the Penguin English Library, believed the less definite phrasing of the amended 1868 version perhaps hinted at a buried meaning: ‘... at this happy moment, I did not see the shadow of our subsequent parting looming over us.’
In a letter to Forster, Dickens explained his decision to alter the draft ending: “You will be surprised to hear that I have changed the end of Great Expectations from and after Pip’s return to Joe’s ... Bulwer, who has been, as I think you know, extraordinarily taken with the book, strongly urged it upon me, after reading the proofs, and supported his views with such good reasons that I have resolved to make the change. I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”
This discussion between Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton and Forster has provided the basis for much discussion on Dickens’s underlying views for this famous novel. Earle Davis, in his 1963 study of Dickens, wrote that “it would be an inadequate moral point to deny Pip any reward after he had shown a growth of character,” and that “Eleven years might change Estella too.” John Forster felt that the original ending was “more consistent” and “more natural” but noted the new ending’s popularity. George Gissing called that revision “a strange thing, indeed, to befall Dickens” and felt that Great Expectations would have been perfect had Dickens not altered the ending in deference to Bulwer-Lytton.
In contrast, John Hillis-Miller stated that Dickens’s personality was so assertive that Bulwer-Lytton had little influence, and welcomed the revision: “The mists of infatuation have cleared away, [Estella and Pip] can be joined.” Earl Davis notes that G.B. Shaw published the novel in 1937 for The Limited Editions Club with the first ending and that The Rhinehart Edition of 1979 presents both endings.
George Orwell wrote, “Psychologically the latter part of Great Expectations is about the best thing Dickens ever did,” but, like John Forster and several early 20th century writers, including George Bernard Shaw, felt that the original ending was more consistent with the draft, as well as the natural working out of the tale. Modern literary criticism is split over the matter.