It has often been said that Dickens would frequently take night time strolls through London, in order to get inspiration for writing. Some say it was due to his rampant insomnia… others say it was his rampant infidelity. Either way, he was one rampant guy. And his night time tramping (take it how you will) gave birth (again) to some of the greatest writing of the 19th Century.
Great Expectations tells the story of a lovable ragamuffin, Pip, who is plucked from obscurity and given the opportunity to make something of himself in London town. As he navigates his way into being a gentleman, Pip is never sure of the identity of his wealthy benefactor. And it is Dickens’ intimate knowledge of the streets of London which make the tale come alive. The description is so vivid, you can almost taste 19th century London. He paints it not as the centre of civilisation and culture, but as something gritty, haphazard. As Pip himself says;
‘We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.’
The strangest thing is, it hasn’t changed much. The moment you touch down in Heathrow, and settle into the faded blue seats of a scungy Piccadilly line train to ‘Cockfosters’, you will understand. For every grand soaring marble structure, there is a homeless person underneath, singing into a traffic cone, desperate for ‘yeh spare coppers’. For every Kenneth Brannagh, there are more than enough Johnny Rottens, or sadly even some Sid’s. This is not to be disparaging of London. Or the Pistols. They’re a wonderful band and London is a wonderful place… which is still in some ways ‘ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty’. A trip down Brick Lane on a Sunday will show you the beauty amongst the grit. This jumble of villages stumbled into the 21st century, and somehow landed on its feet. Because of this, the underlying aesthetic of London, which Dickens paints on the page, still surrounds you today. So get this book, get to London, and don’t let a few extra Kit-Kat wrappers lying on the ground kill your Great Expectations.