The problem I have with Great Expectations is that it was the first Dickens novel I read and yet it was not. A mangled carcass identified as Great Expectations was mummified inside the 10th grade reader used in my high school. What unthinkable horrors the editing vivisectionist committed against the innocent text, which must have been amputated fore and aft and middle for length and also, even worse, much worse, for reading level. Fortunately, I have repressed most of my memories of my encounter with this freak, aside from a cartoonish illustration of an old lady burning to death, but I now – I still – read Great Expectations with the sense that I am brushing against the ghosts of murdered passages.
The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community. (Ch. 11)
This cannot possibly have survived the censors – epergne! – and I fear that everything interesting was whacked, everything but the spiders. They must have kept the spiders.
Maybe it was not as bad as I fail to remember. I do remember discovering, when I read the real book, that everything resembling a joke had been killed off as inessential to the plot. No way that last bit about the spider community survived. So we poor, helpless, little ignoramuses were given a Dickens who was not funny, as if the design were to poison any further interest in Dickens, or literature, or printed texts of any sort.
So much of the pleasure and art of Dickens is in the unnecessary aside, the spider community, Wemmick discarding his white gloves in the church font (Ch. 55), the Gogolian funeral attendant “(a carpenter, who had once eaten two geese for a wager)” (Ch. 35), that last fellow only mentioned that once, as far as I can tell a marvelous example of pure play by Dickens. Someone should write a 500 page neo-Victorian novel about that fellow. And someone else should create a children’s picture book about the spiders and beetles who live in Miss Havisham’s old fruitcake.
I have been meaning to reread Great Expectations ever since I named the book blog, but instead read thousands of other pages of Dickens. Dolce Bellezza gave me the shove I needed. She decided to write about the cleanlinessand soap theme. So that is what I will write about tomorrow. Or maybe dirt and bad smells, because why else would Dickens need soap?