Part of the original manuscript of Great Expectations. Photo BBC.
I wanted to watch this first episode because it dealt with Great Expectations, one of my favourite books. The Secret Life of Books is a strange title for this series, as I couldn’t see that anything particularly secret was revealed. The presenter, Tony Jordan, is a former Eastenders scriptwriter. It was refreshing not to have an academic or a member of the literati fronting the programme; Dickens was, after all, a popular novelist.
Jordan was good on Dickens’ serialisations, modern soaps and the art of the cliffhanger. It was telling when he read aloud the end of one episode, just as it appeared in Household Words, to have it followed by the ‘Dum dum dum’ of Eastenders, familiar even to people like me who’ve never watched it. The ‘secret’ or mystery was about the way the book ends. It was quite a thrill to see, even on television, the original manuscript. (How different now, when we write on computers and amendments erase the original idea for ever.) As is well known, in Dickens’ first draft the ending is bleak, in keeping with the rest of the novel. The published version offered a glimmer of hope for the future. Why did he change it? Jordan thinks it was not because ‘a friend told him to’ but because of the turmoil in his own life. By the time Great Expectations was published Dickens had separated from his wife and was under the terrible strain of keeping secret his affair with Ellen Ternan. One interviewee pointed out the similarities in the names ‘Estella’ and ‘Ellen Ternan’; all those ‘l’s and ‘t’s. Dickens worshipped Ellen the way Pip worships Estella and possibly by providing a happier ending for his hero he was seeking hope for his own situation? It’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.
Unless Tony Jordan was interviewing someone or visiting Dickens’ one time haunts, there was a problem with visuals: far too many shots of modern London, flowers; anything, it seemed, which appeared before the camera lens. Why do programme makers think we’re all morons who can only stand a talking head for about one minute? Worth watching, though? Yes. ‘Arguably his best novel’. ‘it seemed effortless’. Shots of the marshland of Pip’s childhood. It made you want to read the wonderful book yet again.