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Did Charles Dickens Want a Different Ending for 'Great Expectations'?

By Kristin Masters. Jun 4, 2013. 10:00 AM.

Topics: Legendary Authors, Book Collecting, Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens began writing Great Expectations in 1860. According to his friend and biographer John Forster, Dickens indicated in a letter around October 12, 1860, that he intended the new novel to be "humorous and droll."*

Clearly the book took a different turn--including a final one after Dickens had already submitted the final chapters to the printer in June 1861. At the advice of a trusted friend, Dickens changed the ending to Great Expectations, a decision that has intrigued critics and collectors ever since.

 

The Original Ending

Charles Dickens

In 1860, Dickens was under pressure. He'd commissioned Charles Lever to write A Day's Ride as the main attraction in All the Year Round. The tale proved unpopular; the periodicals sales and subscriptions were suffering. Dickens needed a replacement feature, so he embarked on Great Expectations. When he wrote to John Forster in October 1860 to tell him about the new novel, he intimated that he planned a comedy. That's not how the book turned out, obviously, and when Dickens submitted the last installment of Great Expectations, it included this ending:

 

"I was in England again--in London, and walking along Piccadilly with Little Pip--when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

'I am greatly changed, I know, but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!' (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.) 

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be."

 

An Alternative Denouement

Soon after, Dickens went to visit his good friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, himself a prominent crime and historical fiction writer. Dickens shared the end of Great Expectations with Lytton--and Lytton strongly urged Dickens to revise it before publication. Dickens recounted Lytton's reaction, saying "Bulwer was so very anxious that I should alter the end...and state his reasons so well, that I have resumed the wheel, and taken another turn at it. Upon the whole I think it is for the better." The updated ending has Pip encounter Estella on the grounds of Saten House:

 

"'I little thought,' said Estella, 'that I should take leave of you in taking leave of this spot. I am very glad to do so.'

'Glad to part again, Estella? To me, parting is a painful thing. To me, the remembrance of our last meeting has been ever mournful and painful.'

'But you said to me,' returned Estella, very earnestly, '"God bless you, God forgive you!' And if you could say that to me then, you will not hesitate to say that to me now--now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape. Be as considerate and good to me as you were, and tell me we are friends.' 

'We are friends,' said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

'And will continue friends apart,' said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen logn ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her." 

 

This new ending is often interpreted to imply that Estella and Pip "walk off into the sunset" together. But if Dickens had wanted a happy ending, he could have written one; Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit all offer unequivocally happy endings. Instead, he gave us ambiguity--and actually changed the last line a few times as well. The version above has been the standard since 1862. But the first edition reads "I saw the shadow of no parting with her," while the manuscript read "I saw the shadow of no parting from her, but one." 

Collecting 'Great Expectations'

For Dickens collectors, all these endings mean extra hunting for variant editions of Great Expectations. The novel's original ending remained a secret, until Forster published it as a footnote in his 1870 biography of Dickens. The first time the original ending appeared in an edition of Great Expectations was in the 1937 edition published by the Limited Editions Club. George Bernard Shaw included it in the preface he wrote for that edition.

This is one example of a time when collectors might seek not only a first edition, but also subsequent editions of a work to for a complete collection of an author's output. It also illustrates the value of having available the basic bibliographic resources which can identify these sorts of circumstances,as well as working with a knowledgeable professional bookseller who can guide you in your collecting adventures.

 

* This letter is apparently not currently extant, though we know of it through Forster's Life of Dickens (vol 3, p 329).

 

By Vic Zoschak, Tavistock Books.
Vic Zoschak is proprietor of Tavistock Books in Alameda, California, one of the leading dealers in all things Dickensian and frequent collaborator with Books Tell You Why in a variety of forms. He kindly joins us today to answer a question posed by a reader about the dual endings of Great Expectations.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.

 

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