My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
Great Expectations has a great beginning. Pip’s opening gambit has been pleasing and puzzling readers for a little over 150 years, and it still seems a bit of a tongue twister. It is an endearing preamble, this matter of naming and sounding ‘explicit’; and yet these Pirrips and Pips amount to something more than just a comic turn. What ‘tongue’ do novels speak? How should a narrative begin? What’s in a name? These would hardly have seemed new questions to a reader in the early 1860s, and although the beginning of Great Expectations asks us to ponder the very nature of beginnings, it should also be read, perhaps, as an illustration of late style, and a sign of how far Pip’s author had come since his own motley upbringing.
Charles Dickens (1812-70) was born in the seaside city of Portsmouth, and brought up for the most part in Chatham and the marshlands of Kent – a swampy playground that would also do for Pip, as biographers have noticed. The Dickens family moved to London in 1822, hounded by financial difficulties, and there Dickens began to meet some of the characters for whom he’d later find a place in his fiction. After a disrupted schooling and a stint at a blacking factory, Dickens worked first as a law clerk and then as a parliamentary journalist. Given his skill for prose character sketches, the reporter soon turned his eye to lengthier projects, and in 1836, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club began to appear in serial form under the name of ‘Boz’, Dickens’s homely pen name. This rambling city narrative (more commonly known as The Pickwick Papers) brought its author firmly into the limelight, introducing him to scores of readers who would follow his development with mounting interest, from short seasonal numbers such as A Christmas Carol (1843), to novels like A Tale of Two Cities (1859). On the basis of these and other kinds of literary activity, Dickens became, in various senses, a writer of great expectations. To find out more about his rise to literary fame, have a look at one of the biographies listed in the ‘Further Reading’ download, or follow this link: