Use the following background information about the novel and authorto
enhance your understanding of each reading selection.
Charles Dickenss novel Great Expectations
is set in Victorian England, as the Industrial Revolution and
other social upheavals were transforming the country. The topics below
give some idea of what life was like during this time and Dickenss
own background when he wrote the novel.
London in the Nineteenth Century
During the nineteenth century, London became a thriving industrial
center and the shipping capital of the world, importing wine, sugar,
coffee, textiles, and tea. The citys new industries demanded labor
and the city became a magnet for all who hoped for a better life. By
5 million people lived in London.
Until 1890, there was no city planning and no central government. The
rich lived well, but the industrialists and landlords who built the
city ignored the needs of the poor. London was smoky and chaotic, with
no open spaces. In the slums, housing and sanitation were appalling
and criminals preyed upon the struggling population.
By the late 1800s, Great Britain controlled a vast empire. Its empire
included British-settled, self-governing countries such as Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand. It also included the Indian Empire and independent
territories in Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the oceans.
The saying was that "the sun never sets on the British Empire"
because the English ruled so much of the world that on any given day,
the sun rose on some piece of the Empire.
The Industrial Revolution
During the nineteenth century, there was a shift from making things
by hand to making them by machine. This was the Industrial Revolution,
and it transformed British society. Until the late nineteenth century,
there were no building codes or controls and little concern for the
workers. Factories were filthy and unsanitary. Workers were overworked
and underpaid, running dangerous machines for long hours. Even children
often worked 14 hours a day for very low wages. Factory discipline was
harsh and severe. People were thrown in jail for not paying their debts.
Manners and Morals
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were happily married, with nine children.
They believed in family life and disapproved of gambling, heavy drinking,
and sexual freedom. Victoria was a forceful leader. Because of her example,
Victorian England is remembered for its strict morals and strait-laced
Manners were very formal and strictly observed. For example, a man
never spoke to a lady unless she spoke to him first. Proper ladies never
danced with the same person more than three times in an evening. Unmarried
women never walked alone and never wore pearls or diamonds in the morning.
A gentleman was always the first to go up a flight of stairs, but would
follow a lady on the way back down. During the first course of a dinner,
a gentleman was supposed to speak only to the lady on his right. For
the rest of the meal, he might talk to anyone at the table.
- 1833 Slavery is abolished in the British Empire.
- 1837 Victoria is crowned queen of the British Empire.
- 1840 Queen Victoria marries her cousin Albert, a German
- 1845 The great potato famine begins in Ireland.
- 1861 Prince Albert dies.
- 1875 Labor unions win the right to strike.
- 1901 Queen Victoria dies.
- 1812 Charles Dickens is born.
- 1823 The Dickens family moves to London. His father is
for debt. Charles begins work in a
- 1832 Dickens begins publishing his writing in magazines
- at age 21.
- 1837 Charles Dickens becomes famous overnight
- with The
- 1861 Great Expectations, his
greatest novel, is
- 1870 Dickens dies after completing an American tour.
During the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, the British
Navy dominated the oceans and the country was at peace. Victorias
reign was seen as a golden period for England. Industrial output and
exports soared, cities expanded, commerce flourished, and the British
empire spread around the globe.
Industrial growth created a huge demand for labor and a population
shift to the cities. By 1901, more than 80 percent of Englands
population lived in urban centers. Transportation was revolutionized
by the introduction of railroads. In 1870 voluntary schools were replaced
by a national education system for primary education.
Marsh Country of Medway
Dickens sets much of Great Expectations
in marsh country. Dickens grew up near the Medway River in the port
town of Chatham, southeast of London, where the Thames River runs into
the sea. When his family lived at Chatham, Dickens and his father took
sailing trips up the Medway River. They also liked to visit the dockyard
where his father worked. Dickens spent some of his happiest years playing
in the marshes alongside the Thames.
English Class System
For centuries, Britain was ruled by a strict class system. At the top
of the social pyramid were the peersthe 300 dukes, earls, barons,
and viscounts of the monarchy. They controlled almost all of the Empires
wealth and land.
Ranking below the nobility were the gentry, a group of wealthy landowners.
In Great Expectations, the gentry
is representedby Miss Havisham. Next came a new middle class that arose
during the mid-nineteenth century. This powerful class was made up of
merchants, lawyers, factory owners, and shippers. In Great
Expectations, the "new" middle class is represented
by such characters as Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Jaggers.
The Industrial Revolution also created a lower middle class, composed
of factory supervisors and skilled workers. The lowest class was made
up of agricultural and other laborers such as Joe Gargery and Orlick.
Until 1870, when a national system of primary education was enacted,
most lower-class people could not read or write. Working people in Englands
towns werent allowed to vote until 1867. It was not until 1882
that agricultural laborers received the vote.
Charles Dickens (18121870) often is called Englands greatest
novelist. Dickens grew up in the Medway River region southeast of London.
His father was a clerk in the naval dockyards at Chatham, where Charles
often watched convicts laboring at the docks and returning at night
to the ominous prison ship moored nearby.
In 1832 the family moved to London, and Charless father was thrown
into debtors prison. Charles, then 12, was forced to work in a
shoe-blacking factory. This was an intensely traumatic experience. Dickens
later said that, "Until old Hungerford Market was pulled down,
until old Hungerford Stairs were destroyed, and the very nature of the
ground changed, I never had the courage to go back to the place where
my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not go near it. My old way
home by the Borough made me cry, after my eldest child could speak."
With his fathers release, Charles returned to school. He left
at 15, working as a clerk and a reporter. In 1833 he began sending stories
and essays to magazines and newspapers. His Sketches by Box and
The Pickwick Papers made him the rage of London at age 24.
For the rest of his career, Dickens edited magazines and published
his fiction in monthly installments. His most notable works include
Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol,
A Tale of Two Cities, and Bleak
House. Great Expectations (18601861)
often is judged his masterpiece.
Married with nine children, Dickens was an active public figure in
London. His fiction, sketches, and essays enjoyed immense popularity.
The public responded to his vivid characters and dialogue, his strong
narratives, his gift for creating atmosphere, and his pointed attacks
on the social evils and institutions of Victorian England. Many Dickens
novels were adapted to the stage and Dickens himself dramatized his
works in 471 public readings in England and the United States. After
an exhausting American tour, Dickens died at Gads Hill, his home
near Chatham, in 1870.
- Sketches by Boz (1836, 1839)
- Pickwick Papers (1837)
- Oliver Twist (1838)
- Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
- The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
- Barnaby Rudge (1841)
- A Christmas Carol (1843)
- Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)
- Dombey and Son (1848)
- David Copperfield (1850)
- Bleak House (1853)
- Hard Times (1854)
- Little Dorrit (1857)
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
- Great Expectations (1861)
- Our Mutual Friend (1865)