Themes in: Great Expectations

Great Expectations is the first novel I ever wrote a blog post about. It was written by Charles Dickens and published in 1861. Great Expectations is a bildungsroman (‘coming of age’) novel about the growth and personal development of an orphan nicknamed Phillip Pirrip, affectionately known as Pip.

Criminality

Crime is key to the novel. Firstly, as a young boy, Pip meets Magwitch, a criminal. From this encounter, Pip grows fearful of criminality. Even once he has grown up and, due to fortuitous circumstances, becomes involved in middle-class society, he is worried his childhood encounters with a criminal have tainted him forever.

Criminality also adopts different forms in the novel.

For example, Magwitch is a stereotypical criminal. He speaks with a local dialect, uses slang, is dirty and violent, and even threatens to cut Pip’s throat. Dickens draws on an obvious stereotype: if he looks like a criminal and sounds like a criminal, he probably is a criminal. However, this in itself is ironic; young Pip doesn’t even know what a convict is, so he does not make these assumptions, and helps Magwitch escape.

‘I put my mouth into the forms of saying to Joe, “What’s a convict?” Joe put his mouth into the forms of returning such a highly elaborate answer, that I could make out nothing of it but the single word “Pip.”

(Great Expectations, Chapter 2)

As a second example, Compeyson is not a stereotypical criminal. He looks like a gentleman, he is well-spoken, educated, charming, although perhaps a little arrogant.

Yet, (spoiler) when Magwitch reveals to Pip he and Compeyson are both criminals, and were involved in the same counterfeiting scheme, this is a complete shock. Magwitch was given 14 years in prison – Compeyson was only given 7, as Compeyson’s lawyer stressed the differences in social class between the two men; Compeyson didn’t fit the mould of a stereotypical criminal, essentially. Thus, Dickens is critiquing how his audience viewed criminality, highlighting that society is more complicated than just dividing people into “good” or “bad”.

Class

Speaking of class, this is also another interesting theme in the novel. Dickens critiques the binary notion of just “lower-class” and “upper-class”. Social mobility – whether rising in class or lowering in status – was increasingly possible in the Victorian period.

For example, Pip makes the declaration:

‘I want to be a gentleman’

(Great Expectations, Chapter 17)

As a boy, he is initially apprenticed as a blacksmith by his guardian and brother-in-law, Joe. When he suddenly receives finances from an anonymous benefactor, he moves to London as a young man and is able to better his circumstances, experiencing and enjoying city society. This highlights the extreme fluidity there is in social class, and challenges the notion that individuals are born and “trapped” in one way of live forever.

– Judith

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Book Review: The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Frforde, draws on a mix of genres, such as humour thriller, sci-fi, detective and fantasy. It tells the story of Thursday Next, a literary detective in an alternative 1985, where everyone is obsessed with literature. The real world and the “book world” overlap, quite literally bringing citizens’ favourite book characters to life, which is all fun and games… until Jane Eyre is kidnapped.

My favourite aspect of The Eyre Affair was its witty references to “pop” literature, such as the Dickens’ books – this reminded me of Dickensian, the BBC drama set within the fictional world of Dickens – or the Shakespeare/Marlowe conspiracy theory. At times, these references seemed a little heavy-handed, but I think this excess paid off, adding to the charm of the alternative reality.

I also appreciated how Thursday’s own narrative, in some ways, mirrored the narrative of Jane Eyre. This was a clever and well-executed idea, and I enjoyed the allusion to how Thursday’s intervention and “reconstruction” of Jane Eyre resulted in the Bronte story we know and love today.

Yet despite its title, The Eyre Affair took longer than expected to focus on its main plot, the Jane Eyre kidnapping.

A lot of time was spent building the world with at times clunky or (dare I say it) cheesy sci-fi abstract descriptions, and introducing characters who, to me, held no significant role in the narrative. Although world-building is a significant part of any series, I prefer books where this description and scene-setting is done more subtly, rather than a heavy exposition.

However, the time spent in The Eyre Affair background and character descriptions may reduce the level of exposition needed further down the line, and these characters may well be more significant in future books in the Thursday Next series, so I can’t complain too much.

Overall, despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed The Eyre Affair. Although he “relies” on existing texts and authors (to an extent) to construct his own story, he blends his own ideas and style with existing characters and texts well, and it was a fun, light-hearted read.

I’d love to read the rest of the Thursday Next series, as well as more books by Jasper Fforde, an author previously unknown to me.

– Judith

An Interview With Florence Bell

This week, I “interviewed” Florence Bell, a theatre blogger and theatre kid.

I say interviewed; it was more of a chat. Florence is a good friend of mine, and a fellow English student at the University of Nottingham. She wrote her first blog post in December 2016.

Florence Screenshot 2

The first play Florence ever saw was an amateur pantomime production of A Christmas Carol. “I was around three years old, and I remember the guy who played Scrooge putting pyjamas on top of his clothes. Of course, the audience was meant to suspend their disbelief, but three-year-old me was blown away that someone could wear clothes under their pyjamas.”

Since grappling with the discovery of costume in theatre, Florence has moved on to grapple with plays at an advanced critical level.

“I had been tweeting about theatre for a while and people kept encouraging me to start a blog, or asking me if I had a blog. I had been thinking about it for a while, but a few people suggesting it was all it took.” she said.

“I had already booked to see Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre and I knew that I’d be able to write an in-depth and interesting review of it. I probably spent more time on that review than on anything else I’ve ever written. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to grab people’s attention. I wanted to make a splash.”

‘I wanted to grab people’s attention.’

Florence certainly did make a splash; prominent theatre critics including Andrew Haydon and Matt Trueman both praised and retweeted her first blog post.

Florence Screenshot 3

She is upfront about writing, as well as reading, honest reviews.

“I like reviews that say what they mean, because that’s what they are meant to do. Reviews that mock awful shows can be fun to read, but they’re rarely the best reviews. My favourite reviews to read are assertive, thoughtfully considered, and beautifully worded.”

“I stopped writing negative reviews because all I was doing was annoying people who might employ me when I graduate, and there’s no point in being cruel. It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best. It’s rude to both the theatre makers and your readers to take the piss out of a show and not give a careful and considered approach to what went wrong.

‘It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best.’

If I’m going to be really negative about a show, instead of just slating it, I’d rather engage with it on a political level. That way, I can explain why the show had issues.Florence Screenshot 1 Sometimes I am too finicky though. I went to the theatre with a friend recently and I think I weirded her out by asking: Do you think this is problematic?’ during the interval!”

However, although she’s been blogging for a few months, Florence is adamant that writing is not her end-goal.

“I don’t want to be a critic and I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t think I have a ‘writing style’ either –  other than an overuse of parentheses and a reliance on long paragraphs.”

“I like to think that my writing isn’t dissimilar to Meg Vaughan’s, but I’m kidding myself.”

“I write blog posts for fun.” she continued, “This is something I’m doing while at university, and I’ve met lots of cool people doing it, but being a critic is just not what I want to do with my life.”

Instead, Florence wants to be a director, and theatre has always been a big part of her life.

She has seen a variety of productions, but for her, it all started with a production of Oresteia. “It’s still my favourite play. I know half of it off by heart. Most theatre fans hum along to their favourite showstoppers in the shower. I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.”

‘I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.’

As someone who is not so much of a theatre kid, I steered the conversation towards a common interest of ours – Shakespeare.

As part of the BA English course at the University of Nottingham, both Florence and I chose a module title Shakespeare’s Histories: Critical Approaches. The texts we looked at were Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.  Eagle-eyed followers may note this is why some of my blog posts focused on these last year.

Shakespeare’s Histories has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of studying English at Nottingham so far.” Florence said, “The plays we studied will always have a fond place in my heart; the module really got me into the degree. I think it helped me settle in. And I met you through Shakespeare’s Histories, so that’s always a plus.”

I blush.

When asked about her favourite Shakespeare productions, Florence said, “In terms of a director’s vision, Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War and Roman Tragedies, Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, and Icke’s Hamlet. Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale and Deborah Warner’s King Lear were also gems.” she said.

‘There’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule to as what makes theatre good, and I’m definitely not the person to ask.’

“I find original practices productions, like Dromgoole’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe, quite hard to engage with. I’m interested in directors who are capable of cutting the text and finely tuning their stagecraft to engineer a tone and an atmosphere based on the events in the play, and actors capable of making Shakespeare’s words sound like they were written yesterday.”


Quick-fire Questions:

Favourite theatre actor?

Andrew Scott or Hans Kesting.

Favourite theatre actress?

Lia Williams, duh.

If you could be any female character in any play who would you be and why?

Most of the plays I see are far too depressing to actually want to be any of the women in them. None. Literally none.

What about a male character?

Nope.


At any rate, it’s clear Florence is a confident theatre blogger and theatre kid but, crucially, she is not a theatre critic. She has other plans for when she grows up.

‘What do you wanna like be when you grow up?’

‘I am grown up.’

(Annie Baker, The Flick at The National Theatre)
(Florence Bell, Top Ten Plays of 2016)

***

Thank you for reading!

– Judith