Dickens and the Pirates of Print

Pip at the Fingerpost: Nineteenth-Century Urban Conflict and the Regional Reception of Great Expectations

Mary Hammond, Tuesday 12 Apr 2016, CEIR Seminar Series 

In The Country and the City (1973) Raymond Williams examines how rural and urban life has been depicted in English literature since the sixteenth century. Arriving at Cambridge University as an undergraduate from his hometown in the Welsh Black Mountains, Williams discovered that the way rural life (a life he knew very well) was represented in literature was nothing like the reality. In fact, Williams argued that rural life, as portrayed in the literary canon, was  a construction that served the social order of the times. The country was Edenic, whilst the city was a thriving metropolis of capitalist production.


Dr Mary Hammond

It is a binary that Dr Mary Hammond (University of Southampton) unpicked (or, at least reduced), in her recent paper at the Centre. Taking a highly nuanced approach, Mary used Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) as a lens to think about cultural change during the novel’s initial reception context. Arguing that Victorianists often only refer to London-based media to understand a text’s immediate historical significance, Mary suggested that we begin to interrogate the rural press, as well, to enhance our understanding of how the novel signified to different audiences. Great Expectations is the perfect text to explore these reactions as the pivotal moment in the novel is when Pip leaves the Kent countryside of his childhood for London in order to become a Gentleman.Suggesting that this moment is less of a metaphor (a Miltonic fall, a loss of Eden) and more of a ‘cultural barometer’, Mary proposed that the scene reveals changing attitudes to urbanisation. For example, Mary noted that whilst Great Expectations is set during the first part of the nineteenth century it is ‘implicitly concerned with the complex turbulent changes and tensions between the city and the countryside in the 1860s.’ Mary went on to give some context to these tensions by quoting Eric Hobsbawm, who described 1851 as being a ‘tipping point’ in English history due to that year being the first time more people lived in cities than in the country.

What we discover, then, by the time of Great Expectations’ publication, is that the relationship between country and the city was ‘less stable than it had ever been’. In a fascinating piece of research, Mary then proceeded to demonstrate how the reviews of the novel in the urban press differed from that of the rural. For example, much of the criticism from the the metropolitan critics was concerned with ‘Dickens’ blindness to class differences’, whilst the rural press was far more enthusiastic, with one paper commenting that all the characters in the novel were drawn in a great way.  Particularly revealing is the growing importance of London in the lives of people from the country: the railway meant that news from London was easily accessible, and most rural newspapers had a London correspondent. This familiarity with London meant that the rural press could make satirical jibes about the lives of Londoners, confident that their readership would understand the joke. This is exemplified further by how, in some cases, these humorous asides appeared in articles on the same page as a ‘pirated’ extract taken from Great Expectations.


The most-quoted trans-Atlantic reviews of Great Expectations

These ‘pirated extracts’ are so interesting because, as Mary noted, they are standalone pieces taken directly from the novel and there is nothing in Dickens’ correspondences or financial records to indicate that he had ever given his permission for his work to be used in this way. Taken out of context and placed within what Mary called a ‘mosaic’ of articles about London scandal and gossip these extracts, especially one known as ‘Tea with Estella’, served to reaffirm rural identity, whilst at the same time giving readers access to London news. These complex negotiations between the rural and the city, between newspaper proprietors and their readerships and even between national and international publications of the novel itself (in the US Great Expectations was published with illustrations, whereas in Britain it was, initially, published without—again providing us with a unique perspective in which to view Great Expectations and its reception history), challenge us to rethink not just how we understand Great Expectations, but also other novels from this period.

Concluding her paper, Mary observed that literature is embedded and is subtly changed by different regional cultures and times. If Raymond Williams was born in the Victorian period, instead of going to Cambridge, he may, like Pip, have left his home in the country and instead gone to London to become a Gentleman. However, as Williams was Welsh, that would have set into play a whole new range of cultural complications.

What larks, indeed.


— Michael Goodman


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