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While it is a great thing (so I feel) to pay homage to authors neglected by the public at large, still one cannot do so always. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge a work of recognised genius and such is that of Great Expectations. This will not be a “review” per say – because of its popularity and because of the format I chose to hear it in, I shall not be recapping the plot but only discussing the elements I find especially praiseworthy. Proceed with caution.

Two things of whose value I always was uncertain: audiobooks and Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In the former there was always an earnest distrust. Listening to a book prevents close reading, skipping back to savour a passage or forward to see if the chapter’s nearly through. A hands-off approach not at all to my style.

As for Dickens…I once tried Oliver Twist and was rather enjoying it until the introduction of the heavenly Rose Maylie, at which point the narrative became so bathetic and bogged down that I despaired of further criminal doings and forgot to finish the book. A Christmas Carol was charming but I found that it didn’t retain its freshness upon rereading (quite unlike the Alastair Sim film). Therefore Dickens, to me, meant an excess of sentimentality, broad caricatures with silly names, villains black as night, heroes invisible beneath their virtues and the famed unlikely coincidences (crutch of bad writers everywhere and Paul Auster). Give me Thomas Hardy any day.

So when Dickens’ bi-centenary rolled around I wasn’t thrilled. I was figuring to read Hard Times (three guesses why) when my mother told me to try Great Expectations and moreover in a Barnes and Noble audio edition narrated by Frank Muller.

I knew what most know of the plot: the little boy who meets the convict, meets the crazy old lady and then grows up to long for cruel-hearted Estella. This simple meme goes around endlessly and quite fails to convey the genius at the heart of this novel.

Part of Great Expectations‘ success lies in the fact that this is, in some sense, a gothic novel. Perhaps the gothic traits are only used to highlight a coming-of-age tale, but they so strongly colour the narrative that the overall impression is disquieting. The gothic imagery is also the most powerful: the lonely limekiln out on the marsh, Jaggers’ housekeeper, the hallucinations, and (of course) everything that occurs in Satis House. Pip’s first sight of Miss Havisham is only the most famous of many. An early example:

It was in this place, and at this moment, that a strange thing happened to my fancy. I thought it a strange thing then, and I thought it a stranger thing long afterwards. I turned my eyes – a little dimmed by looking up at the frosty light – towards a great wooden beam in a low nook of the building near me on my right hand, and I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white with but one shoe to the feet; and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the face was Miss Havisham’s, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me. In the terror of seeing the figure and in the terror of being certain that it had not been there a moment before, I at first ran from it, and then ran toward it. And my terror was greatest of all when I found no figure there.

There are also some events that do not quite fit the gothic mold but serve to aid the atmosphere, such as the hilariously random and baffling encounter with “the pale young gentleman” that is dropped into the narrative, seemingly forgotten and only picked up again much later in the book. That is really the way of it: Dickens threads a needle with some enticing event, be it convicts or an attack on Mrs. Joe, and then lays it aside for later. Plots and subplots enough for ten books within this narrative, and oh yes, there are many coincidences but the lion’s share of them are cleverly handled. And why is that but by the inclusion of Mr. Jaggers?

Jaggers isn’t what most people think of when they think of Great Expectations but he’s a pivotal character in that he’s the reason those famed coincidences actually work. Several characters are tied together with Jaggers as the lynchpin but since he’s a high-profile lawyer it is not so difficult to believe that his separate clients could sometimes overlap – specifically with Dickens emphasising the imagery of crime (convicts, law and prisons permeate) and secrets (the boarded up Satis House). It is surprisingly dark in tone with even the “happy ending” striking me as bittersweet.

Continuing from there, I also maintain that the characters are fantastic, Jaggers being the most successful as a good man who happens not to be especially likable (in the ordinary sense of the word; I liked him just fine). There’s a casual sharpness to him, a fierce and sardonic manner that keeps him from being approachable in all but a business capacity and hence he’s the only important character who disappears from the narrative without closure. He manages to float over the London landscape despite having relatively few scenes in the book and his best showcase is certainly at the dinner he gives to Pip and some of Pip’s friends from the club. Two separate dramatic points are made in the scene, one with the introduction of Jaggers’ housekeeper (and their highly suggestive relationship) and the other with the cringe-inducing behaviour of Pip and his comrades. Dinner went off gaily, and, although my guardian seemed to follow rather than originate subjects, I knew that he wrenched the weakest part of our dispositions out of us. For myself, I found that I was expressing my tendency to lavish expenditure, and to patronise Herbert, and to boast of my great prospects, before I quite knew that I had opened my lips. It was so with all of us, but with no one more than Drummle; the development of whose inclination to gird in a grudging and suspicious way at the rest was screwed out of him before the fish was taken off. Later on, Jaggers having toasted Drummle: If his object in singling out Drummle were to bring him out still more, it perfectly succeeded. In a sulky triumph, Drummle showed his morose depreciation of the rest of us, in a more and more offensive degree, until he became downright intolerable. Through all his stages, Mr. Jaggers followed him with the same strange interest. He actually seemed to serve as a zest to Mr. Jaggers’s wine.

A minor character like Drummle seems to me not so much a caricature (in the negative sense) as a pointed study in type (think of the caricatures of Evelyn Waugh). Dickens was a great people-watcher and his cast is populated with characters who reflect that. Pumblechook might be over-the-top but who can fail to recognise his bloviating, thoughtless hypocrisy? Herbert, the modest and true friend, also strikes only one note throughout the book but Dickens gets away with that too, based on Herbert’s own incredible likability. About the only misstep he makes in the novel is one scene of excessive sentimentality with the Pocket family and their army of babies. Luckily, they only dominate one chapter. Elsewhere, so sentimental a character as Biddy is held in check by both Pip’s lack of appreciation of her and by the counterweight of Estella. The same really holds true of all lightness herein – there is an equal and opposite sorrow to go along with every good fortune: against Wemmick’s family life there is his grim office work; against Provis’ dignity there is Pip’s horror and shame of him; against Pumblechook there is Joe Gargery…the variations of this theme are endless and show it for an exceptionally well-balanced work of art.

And now leaving aside Dickens himself, I sincerely advise you to try the audiobook rendition. After all, Dickens was famed for his public readings – he wrote his books to be read aloud, to be dramatized. The one thing that ties together Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations in my mind is a shared flamboyance, nowadays called Dickensian, which lends them beautifully to an auditory format. As an aside, my understanding of this aspect of his work came from the Peter Ackroyd docu-play The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which I would recommend both for its illuminating qualities and for Simon Callow’s bravura performance as the author/host.

Frank Muller (1951-2008) was an extremely gifted and sadly missed narrator and what he brings to proceedings is a liveliness. The ideal reader is an actor, one who has to be able to inhabit and give voice to an entire cast and all their moods without benefit of visual aid – a staggering task, if you think of it. Frank Muller was capable of this. As Pip his narration is crystal clear but not colourless, tinged in places with regret and in others with bemusement. Pip, in spite of his shallowness, his tendency to run up debts and otherwise make a hash of his life, is a very likable fellow – he wants to do the right thing, he just hardly ever does so. If the candour of his narration is Dickens’ doing, the warmth of it is certainly Muller’s. The love Pip has for Estella is also aided by Muller, in that his farewell to her, the ecstasy of unhappiness in which he confesses his feelings, is heartbreaking to listen to.

In many respects this is more like viewing a miniseries without benefit of music and visuals than it is to reading a book. “Who’s the spider?” says Jaggers. “The blotchy, sprawly, sulky fellow.” A short sentence made real by Muller pausing over “blotchy” as if hunting for Drummle’s other attributes. Drummle’s voice, muffled and slurred, is Muller’s most masterfully outrageous accent but he acquits himself beautifully with all of the exceedingly large cast. As for the women? Well, unless a man has pipes like Tim Buckley he can’t really mimic women’s voices with ‘accuracy’ but Muller manages by softening his voice for the gentle women such as Biddy and, yes, Estella, whose voice is as untouched as her heart but nevertheless delicate and persuasive. For such a fishwife as Mrs. Joe there’s a shrill note that works just fine. No problems, no wrong notes.

Miss Havisham’s voice is wonderful – he plays her as someone kept alive by bitterness and as someone tragic, not as a crazy old lady. Her slow and gruff voice is held in check so thoroughly that it truly is a shock when she gets herself into a passion, ranting and wheezing, vicious and pathetic. Yet there’s also a good sense of her awakening conscience during those key later scenes, her arguments with Estella and Pip’s leavetaking paving the way for her agonized repentance; which in turn is what makes her story a tragic one, not merely grotesque.

Then of course there is humour and Muller is adept at bringing out the dry variety. Pip’s first naive conversation with Wemmick had me laughing outright at not only the pithy cynicism of Wemmick but also at the dry and precise manner that Muller equipped him with. As a story on the page, I might often have smiled through the text but as an acted audiobook I often found myself laughing.

To wrap this appreciation I must simply confess myself converted to the audiobook as, at its height, a genuine form of creative interpretation. Frank Muller appeared early on the audiobook scene (1979) and is one of its most noteworthy narrators, but I knew nothing of that until I looked him up after completing this book – at the time he was simply an incredibly gifted narrator (as I said, an actor) and I was greatly saddened to learn that he’d died. Thus, my post is as much an enthusiastic recommendation of his work as it is of Dickens’ novel. Try it out and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.