The Secret Life of Books: Great Expectations

“I want to be something so much worthier than the doll in the doll’s house. ”

Charles Dickens

The Secret Life of Books appears to be a new BBC4 series focusing on the stories behind some of our most famous literary classics. This week, former Eastenders writer Tony Jordan goes off to find out why Charles Dickens changed his ending to Great Expectations. A documentary about Dickens? Yes please!

As it turns out, being an English student has a definite dampening effect on being able to enjoy programmes about books. For a start, I was always under the impression that Dickens essentially sold out to his audience with the Great Expectations ending. This isn’t a judgement call; he wrote for a living, after all, and he needed to keep his readers onside, just as the soap writers do. But Tony does not want to admit that Saint Charles was, in fact, a human being with mercenary as well as artistic priorities. He informs us that “Dickens was aware of his audience, but he didn’t pander to them,” without providing any evidence to support this assertion (which is, by the way, almost certainly untrue. The plot of at least one of Dickens’ novels was changed between the publication of its first part and the publication of its last due to reader feedback, and if that isn’t pandering I don’t know what is). And so, in search of other reasons for Dickens’ apparent indecision, Tony goes charging off to find out about his personal life.

And that’s where The Secret Life of Books really starts to get iffy. Again, this may be simply because I’m too familiar with literary criticism, but biographical discussion of books is always dodgy territory. Because what does the assertion that Dickens’ dissatisfaction with his married life feeds into the fact that Great Expectations has an ambiguous ending really add to the discussion of the novel? What kind of answer does that give us? It tells us nothing of what to make of the book, nothing of what it “means”, if you like; it clears up none of the little inconsistencies and loose threads of the narrative; it gives us no thematic resolution, and nowhere to go with discussion. In short, it’s a way of neatly wrapping up a troubling and troublesome piece of story so we don’t have to deal with it any more. It would have been far more interesting to approach this question through, say, the many adaptations of Great Expectations that have been made over the years. How have they interpreted the ending? And what does that do to the story?

I appreciate that that may not make for a programme with particularly wide appeal, but, let’s face it, very little of what is on BBC4 actually has wide appeal. And what does have wide appeal invariably gets scrapped. (*cough*Dirk Gently*cough*) It’s there to provide interesting, intellectually improving content for those who want it, so why doesn’t it?

This is the crux of the problem. The Secret Life of Books is uncertain what its purpose, and what its audience, is. It doesn’t know whether it’s broadcasting to readers familiar to Great Expectations – in which case there’s too much recapping of main plot points – or to new readers – in which case MASSIVE SPOILERS – or to people who aren’t readers at all – in which case what’s the point? Is it an introduction to Dickens’ life and times, or a discussion of Great Expectations? It tries to hedge its bets between the two, and thus fails on all counts. It’s unsuitable for beginners, because of the aforementioned spoilers, and it’s dull for those who’ve read it because it’s so basic.

Next week promises to cover Shakespeare’s First Folio. I may watch it, in hope, since I have a paper to do on Shakespeare next term. But it’s a shame that any kind of television that promises to be intellectually rigorous is so watered down by platitudes that it becomes dull and contradictory. Now that  is what pandering to one’s audience really looks like.

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