I have loved the book Great Expectations for as long as I can remember, not only because it was one of the first books I read unabridged at the age of eight or so, but because the images of the “meshes”, of Joe, of “bringing up by hand”, of Pumblechook, and his “May I”, of Miss Havisham and her house slowly falling apart, have been with me as I grew up.
Through it all, I have never really bothered much about the man who created it all, Charles Dickens, having always thought of him as a dull old fogey, whose childhood resembled that of Oliver Twist. But now I’ve picked up the book, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, and am filled with a new desire to engage with Charles Dickens.
I have only reached a few pages into the book, and already the voice of Matilda, the child protagonist, has enchanted me. In the novel, set in an island in the middle of a war, the real teachers desert the school and go away to mainland. A recluse, Mr. Watts, takes up the challenge of trying to educate and engage the children in some way. He decides he will read the book Great Expectations to the children, and tells them they are to meet Mr. Dickens the next day. Not knowing that Mr. Dickens is the author of the book, the students imagine they would meet a real person, a “white” man like Mr. Watts:
I heard Mr. Watts speak…If he said we were to meet Mr. Dickens, then I felt sure we would….It never occurred to me to ask where this Mr. Dickens had been hiding himself…..next morning when I ran off to school, my mum called me back.
“This Mr. Dickens, Matilda–if you get the chance, why don’t you ask him to fix our generator.”
Every other kid turned up to school with similar instructions. They were to ask Mr. Dickens for anti-malaria tablets, aspirin, generator fuel, beer, kerosene, wax candles. we sat at our desks with our shopping lists and waited for Mr. Watts to introduce Mr. Dickens.
I smiled at the gentle humor of the situation, the simplicity of the island folk, and the poignancy of a long dead English author touching the lives of children across the barriers of time and space. I’m going to read the rest of the book to try and discover what magic the English classic can weave on children who know nothing of the world beyond their island…and how Llyod Jones carries this fragile yet precious story forward.