In 1857, Dickens was 45, the rich, popular and celebrated author of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Yet despite all this worldly success, his marriage to the plump, amiable, lazy and ineffectual Catherine Hogarth had fallen apart, causing their ten children much anguish and confusion. To complicate the separation, Dickens remained living in a close but non-sexual relationship with Catherine’s sister Georgina, who supervised the children and ran the household with all the efficiency which Catherine had crucially lacked.
One cause of the marriage’s failure was Dickens’ passion for a young actress called Ellen Ternan, whom he had met in the course of directing a play for charity. Little is known for sure about their relationship, which remained a close secret for fifty years after Dickens’ death in 1870, but it appears that although Dickens was totally infatuated with her, Ellen held out for some years before becoming his mistress.
The fast pace and high pitch of Dickens’ life was another problem: Catherine simply and literally could not keep up with her husband. He never stopped, either mentally or physically, and his activities were legion. Since 1850, much of his time had been consumed in writing journalism for a weekly magazine called Household Words, which he also edited, micro-managed and part-owned. Quarrels with his partners in this enterprise led to its closure and replacement in 1859 with another weekly called All The Year Round, of which Dickens was sole owner. The central feature of this magazine was its publication of new fiction, appearing in instalments. Dickens himself contributed a novel set during the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, which appeared between April and November 1859.
As well as all this writing and editing (not to mention his vast correspondence, busily convivial social life, and involvement in amateur dramatics and several charitable causes), Dickens had also embarked on gruelling tours of the provinces, reading extracts from his novels to huge audiences. Always restless, always hungry for acclaim, he loved these recitals, which he delivered with electrifying histrionic intensity. But the stress of it all began to take a toll on his health, starting a long decline which led to his premature death from a stroke in 1870 at the age of 58.
In 1860, further problems emerged in Dickens’ unhappy family. Kate, his favourite daughter, had felt compelled to escape from an oppressive domestic situation by marrying a man of whom Dickens strongly disapproved, while his second son Walter was running up terrifying levels of debt while working in India. Other woes included the sudden death of Dickens’ brother Alfred, leaving him with a widow and five children to add to his long list of dependents. Then there was the worry of his aged mother, who was turning demented in senility. His feelings for her were complex, and he could never forgive her for the part she had played in the humiliation which had destroyed his childhood - when he was eleven and his imprudent father’s finances had collapsed, he had been sent with her approval to a blacking warehouse, where he spent some months labouring in drudgery for a pittance. When he was released from this hell, she had seemed ready to send him back there.
In a symbolic reckoning with his past, Dickens burnt twenty years of accumulated letters, sold the family home in Bloombsury and transferred his London base to a rented house in Regent’s Park. For the remainder of his life, his main residence would be Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, a village near Chatham and Rochester, the towns where Dickens had spent much of his childhood. The purchase of Gad’s Hill was deeply significant to him, a sort of dream come true: he claimed he could vividly remember looking at this rather stolid mansion when he was young and being told by his father that ‘if he would only work hard enough’, he might one day own it.
This remark is repeated in No. 10 of The Uncommercial Traveller, a series of slightly fictionalized, but largely autobiographical essays published through 1860 in All the Year Round. Dickens was an insomniac as well as an incessant walker, who would sometimes traipse thirty miles through the night from London to Gad’s Hill, and The Uncommercial Traveller includes the fruit of his reflections and observations along the way.
Several pre-echoes of Great Expectations can be heard here, all suggestive of the intimacy of Dickens’ identification with Pip. In No.15, for example, he recalls arriving in London for the first time at the ‘Cross-Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside’, precisely as Pip does in Chapter 20, while in No.17, memories of his days as a teenage legal clerk carousing with his optimistic friend Parkle in a mouldy apartment in Gray’s Inn inevitably evokes Pip and Herbert in Barnard’s Inn. In No. 15 returns to the scene of his youth – a portrait of Rochester thinly disguised as ‘Dullborough Town’ – to find it changed beyond measure by the advent of the railway. He feels a sophisticated city-dweller’s ironic amusement at life in a quaint backwater, mixed with nostalgia and remorse – a combination of conflicting feelings that will be developed in the novel in Pip’s attitude to his home. The timing of this essay’s composition in June 1860 suggests that it was the trigger for what Dickens described in a letter to his friend John Forster as ‘such a very fine, new and grotesque idea’ for a new novel.
But the immediate incentive to write Great Expectations was the pressing need to reverse a dip in the sales of All The Year Round. Dickens had commissioned Charles Lever to contribute a novel called A Day’s Ride to the magazine, but circulation sank after its first instalments and it became clear that some other attraction would have to be substituted. Luckily, Dickens was raring to go. In October 1860, he wrote again to Forster to tell him that the first chapters of the novel he had started were full of comedy - a riposte to those who had found his previous novel A Tale of Two Cities regrettably humourless - and in the mould of David Copperfield, another pseudo-autobiographical, first-person narrated novel he had published to enormous acclaim a decade previously. But novels never turn out quite the way that novelists initially think they will, and the implication that Great Expectations would be a romp was not fulfilled.
Unfortunately, very few of Dickens’ letters from the ensuing eight months survive, so we have no insight into his mood during the period when he was working on the novel. But we do know that it was written though a very cold winter, and as he alternated between Gad’s Hill and Regent’s Park, he was much troubled by pain in his face and back. He also paid a visit to the theatre where he witnessed a hilarious mishap which may well have prompted some of the farce associated in the novel with Mr Wopsle.
Other elements of Dickens’ life are reflected in the novel. Some critics believe that the character of the cold-hearted Estella relates to the reluctant Ellen Ternan – it is certainly something certainly strikingly odd that Estella is a name that Dickens invented, and a partial anagram of Ellen Ternan. The landscape of Pip’s childhood closely follows the real contours and features of the landscape round Gad’s Hill : the churchyard in the village of Cooling contains the strange collection of tombstones mentioned in the first chapter, while the model for Miss Havisham’s gloomy mansion can still be seen in the centre of Rochester (see Box X). Pip’s unhappy apprenticeship as a blacksmith might be a conscious reference to Dickens’ sojourn in the blacking factory, and the penniless Pip’s sojourn in the east working as a clerk could have been suggested by the similar ventures of his sons Charlie and Walter.