Sonia, which book are we talking about?

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – The best plot ever!!

What’s the synopsis?

A poor orphan called Pip has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict in a graveyard on the marshes. Afraid for his life, he steals some brandy, a pork pie and a file from the blacksmith’s workshop; an act which will change his future irrevocably. A year later Pip is summoned to ‘play’ at Satis House, the home of the very mysterious Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. The house appears to be trapped in time, along with its creepy occupants. Pip falls in love with the beautiful, but heartless, Estella and subsequently becomes dissatisfied with his life and ashamed of his upbringing. At age twenty he receives a strange endowment by an undisclosed benefactor offering him a substantial property along with ‘great expectations’. His new life as a gentleman begins, but tragedy awaits…

So, a classic of English literature. What do you love about it?

I do believe that Charles Dickens was a genius, but there are a couple of reasons I like the novel so much. Firstly, I think it has the best plot of any book I have ever read – it’s so engaging, complicated and has a fabulous revelation, which ties up the actions of the seemingly unconnected characters and different strands of the plot! Not only has Pip been deluded about his benefactor; he has placed his trust in a future which doesn’t exist, believing that steel-hearted Estella was meant to be his wife. Secondly, it was the first book I read as a child that completely captured my imagination; I will never forget that beautifully grotesque scene in which Pip first enters the dining room and sees the decaying wedding breakfast, rotting away and riddled with mice. It’s wonderful!

I like this the best of all Dickens’ books, too. I think I remember more from Oliver Twist, which had great villains, but Oliver himself was too angelic for my taste. Pip is a more complex character, and not entirely likable. Which makes him more interesting. What does Pip do for you?

Children usually have very tough lives in Dickens’ novels! I agree that Pip is a complex and contradictory character. He has a lot of charm, which endeared him to Magwitch in the graveyard at the beginning of the novel. Pip has a big heart and is very loyal to Estella, Miss Havisham and Henry Pocket, although he does treat Joe appallingly due to his snobbery while living his new life in London. I love Pips’ sense of adventure and the way he grasps his new life and lives it to the full. Pip has an enormous capacity for love; we see this when he burns his hands trying ‘put out’ Miss Havisham while she is on fire. He is nearly murdered trying to get Magwitch out of the country and then risks his own life trying to save him during the doomed escape attempt. Having been cured of his snobbery, Pip visits Magwitch in prison, and he doesn’t care that Estella is the daughter of a convict, and is proud to declare his love for her. Social conventions are less relevant to him at the end of the story, and he is a much better man for it! I appreciate his capacity to grow and change due to life experience.

Is it a less sentimental novel than most of his books?

There are degrees of sentimentality in his novels, but that doesn’t detract from his amazing accomplishments in fiction. If anything, Pip is a victim of his own naive sentimentality in this novel. He is besotted with Estella, who has been emotionally damaged beyond repair by Miss Havisham’s eccentric parenting. A modern psychological interpretation would suggest that Miss Havisham is an abusive and narcissist parent, who uses Estella as an extension of herself to wreak havoc on the male population; without empathy or any respect for Estella’s wellbeing. In turn, Estella becomes a cold, narcissistic nightmare, incapable of feeling much or giving anything to her relationships. The end of the novel is somewhat disappointing as Pip still believes ‘love conquers all’ and he is still fully immersed in his delusion. In this case, Dickens has given into a dangerous type of sentimentality. If you prefer the romantic ending, try and imagine Estella being a loving wife and mother…

Miss Havisham’s revenge on men is fascinating in that she’s cruel to Estella and to Pip, but also to herself, which she ultimately realises. Pip might still have a romantic view of life at the end – do you think Estella, in a sequel, could truly escape the ice Miss Havisham has put in place of her heart?

I would love to read a sequel to Great Expectations! I think Estella is incredibly damaged and it wasn’t just Miss Havisham who abused her – she married Bentley Drummle, a physically abusive bully who treat her appallingly! Surprisingly, she actually chose to marry him herself, continuing the cycle of torment. After a lifetime of abuse, both psychological and physical, Estella may have suffered from P.T.S.D., possibly experiencing nightmares, blackouts and memory loss. I think the only real hope for any lasting change would be if her new life and happiness with Pip were seriously threatened, forcing her to adapt, change and hopefully rediscover her heart. If the threat resurfaced from her past, it would be much more engaging and dramatic. Estella’s mother, Molly is still alive and working as a housekeeper for Jaggers. We never found out why he took her in after defending her, perhaps that would be an excellent place to begin a new chapter in their lives?

What’s Dickens’ main theme in Great Expectations? There are always so many it’s hard to know where to start, but one of the big ones for me is the disdain for the times’ ambitions to be a gentleman – a useless, snotty ambition. What’s your biggest takeaway?

Yes, I agree with you on that point – it’s not until Pip has been working as a clerk for his living for a couple of years, that he has any respect for the value of money; he wasted so much on frivolity and then got into serious debt after losing his benefactor. There are two central themes for me, personally. This is a novel about terrible parenting and the harm it causes, not only to the individuals, who suffer terribly but also to others who care for them. As a teenager, I was fascinated by Miss Havisham and the danger of making one disappointment control the events of an entire lifetime. Miss Havisham literally transforms herself into an embodiment of her own unfulfilled past. If you can’t move on from unfortunate circumstances, then your life will rot before your eyes, Mr.Dickens informs us in this wonderful tale. I used a similar theme for a short story I wrote, called, Gatekeeper of Memories, which was influenced by Miss Havisham and her plight. The story will be in my collection, Nightmare Asylum & Other Deadly Delights, which is to be published by Near To The Knuckle in February of next year.

That sounds great. Did Dickens inspire the whole collection?

That is the only Dickens reference, although there are influences of other amazing writers to be found lurking about in the darkness. My story Perfect Love is in part, a modern version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A companion android (sex toy) called Ted (named auspiciously after Mr. Bundy) is given human emotions in an experiment in order to provide a more satisfying experience to his female purchasers – unfortunately it all goes very wrong, and Ted goes on the Rampage – almost as badly as Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations! Other influences are Helen Dunmore, especially in Winter Baby and Chuck Palahniuk in almost everything. The title story, Nightmare Asylum is the scariest thing I have ever written, it even spooked my writer friend, Chris Roy, and that takes a bit of doing I can tell you! This story is an attempt to capture a reoccurring nightmare I had when I was young. It felt so real, I lived it in my dreams; obviously, it’s been embellished but I aim to terrify – and I hope I have succeeded. I am delighted to have my short story collection published by Near To The Knuckle, and I can’t wait to see Craig Douglas’ illustrations and cover; it’s so exciting.

Thanks for adding to my TBR list. Your short stories are, well – short and snappy. When you write long-form do you like to get all Dickensian? As in – you go deep, you go full descriptive, your characters have a million complex attributes?

I am not quite as descriptive as Mr . Dickens… I write a lot of flash fiction and find it an exciting challenge to realise a full story in such a short number of words. Nightmare Asylum is a much longer story with layers of plot and a distinctive structure. Describing events in a horror story is something I have learnt to do over the last couple of years, it’s important to try and fully immerse your readers in the experience if you want to scare them! My characters are all psychologically damaged in some way; that is something I feel very comfortable with in my writing. Male psychopath is my favourite P.O.V. as it gives you a lot of freedom as a writer. I also enjoy a bit of paranoia; disturbed psychology is essential to my writing. I hope that answers your question in a short and snappy fashion?

A recent article said if Dickens was writing today he’d be a crime writer. Do you go along with that? Which themes would flood his work?

Great Expectations is saturated with crime! At one point in a carriage on the way back to the marshes, Pip feels the danger of it surrounding him, physically, like a hot breath lingering on the back of his neck. If Dickens was writing today, I think there would still be a lot of crime in his books, but there are many other themes such as the dangers of psychological torture as in Hard Times, and physical bullying as in David Copperfield ( also in Great Expectations, when Mrs. Joe repeatedly assaults Pip). There is more than one book that draws attention to terrible prison conditions; the debtor’s prison being a constant threat in all of his novels, especially so in Little Dorrit. I think that most of his themes are timeless and could shape-shift into modern day writing, without too much trouble. These days, he would probably be a multi-genre writer – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Dickens did say David Copperfield and Great Expectations were his two favourite children. They both feature children as protagonists and the spectre of debtor prisons – which Dickens very much feared in his personal life growing up. Do you see any other similarities?

David Copperfield was a thinly disguised autobiography, as Dickens was sent out to work at aged 12 in a blackening factory (which sounds very grim) after his father was incarcerated in a debtors prison. The theme of child abuse, both psychological and physical runs through both of these books; child workers were exploited mercilessly. There were few things more frightening than to be an orphan in Victorian England according to Mr. Dickens. David Copperfield also admires Steerforth, who is supposed to be a gentleman but turns out to be a nasty piece of work. The value and purpose of being a gentleman are questioned yet again in David Copperfield!

Never trust a gentleman. Which film version of Great Expectations do you like best?

It’s got to be the 1946 David Lean version, which is so dramatic, atmospheric and full of fantastic actors such as John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons, and Martita Hunt. There are a lot of liberties taken with the plot, though. In this version, Estella doesn’t marry Drummle and takes to Miss Havisham’s chair as if history is about to repeat itself.

Miss Havisham looks exactly as I had imagined her from the book, and the decaying dining room is perfect! I hate the ending with Pip and Estella running off into the sunset like a pair of love-struck teenagers, its just too Hollywood and superficial for my liking. I think this film is a product of its time and is terrific despite its many deviations from the novel; it’s a beautiful, timeless classic.

It’s been years since I saw it, but I remember the feel of the film, if not the details. Who’s in your perfect film version, if it was made right now?

I wouldn’t remake it, Jason, new versions are always disappointing in some way. Best to leave the classics alone…

Armando Ianucci is adapting the novel. I think I can get behind that. If Dickens was alive now, what would he be writing about? Is Britain still obsessed with class?

He is apparently adapting David Copperfield this summer… maybe even as we speak! I think that particular novel could take some updating, the original film of that book wasn’t as exciting as Great Expectations. I read that Armando Ianucci is doing a more improvised version, so hopefully that will have a less ‘staged’ feeling than the old black and white film I remember. Mind you, I loved that adapted boat/house on the beach. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere cooler than that!

Nobody seems to convey social anxiety quite as amusingly as Dickens. If he was writing today, I think he would still be covering similar class themes, perhaps adding pointless celebrities to his list of societal problems?

Of course, I confused the two. 

Is there any modern work out there which has come anywhere close to the novel’s impact on you?

Books are very special to me, and I tend to reread them in times of stress and uncertainty. I have lost count of how many times I have read Great Expectations! The only other book I gravitate towards is Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore. I wish I could have written that book! It’s unusual and challenging, written from the perspective of a character (Simone) living on a knife edge of debt and disaster. Given her already precarious circumstances, a dangerous ex-lover emerges from the mists of the moorland, turning her chaotic existence into a world of fear and darkness. Edged into a corner what can she do? What terrible things are we capable of to protect ourselves? It’s a fantastic story; beautifully written, and full of poetry and psychological insight.

Sonia, you’ve been great. Thanks a bunch.

It was fun, Jason!

Further Reading:

Time magazine rates Great Expectations as Dickens’ second best novel.

My Favourite Dickens: Great Expectations

Beyond Expectations: Rereading Dickens

You can buy Sonia Kilvington’s books at Amazon US and UK.