Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Did Charles Dickens write the first Choose your own Adventure novel?

Warning: Plot spoilers for Great Expectations

I ask this question in case you ever wonder what's up with the ending of Great Expectations. You might find yourself asking, 'Hey, does Pip actually marry Estella?' Because it's a bit ambiguous, and you might assume a brilliant author like Dickens could've been clearer, especially so close to the end of his career. I believe it was his last novel.

If you've read the book and would like a quick recap, here it is. After all that went down in the story, eleven years passed. Pip and Estella accidentally chose the same evening to revisit creepy old Satis House, now a deserted husk. She has been softened by her sorrow. It wasn't easy being married to mean Bentley Drummle. Estella earnestly asks Pip to consider her his friend, even though they're about to part ways again. As they stroll out of the gates together, he reflects to himself that he 'sees no shadow of further parting from her.' And then it ends. Is that sentence enough for us to assume that they tie the knot, or is Pip still jumping to conclusions as he did in their youth? If Dickens was still alive, I'd be among those fans requesting more information.

Wait, there is more though. The afterword at the back of my novel told me that he'd once written a completely different ending, and a Google search confirmed it. In Dickens' original draft, Estella had married a country doctor after her disastrous marriage to Drummle was behind her. One day, she happened to pass the time of day with Pip on the street before they went their separate ways. And Pip thought, 'She looks pleasanter than she used to. Perhaps time has softened her attitude.'

I like that ending even less, and thankfully Dickens was talked into changing it. He went to stay a few nights with his good friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also a well-known Victorian novelist. Dickens showed him the rough draft, and Bulwer-Lytton complained that the ending would be far too disappointing and anti-climactic for fans, especially after all they'd been through with Pip. He was a wise man. So Dickens scribbled out the last few pages and re-wrote them. He posted Bulwer-Lytton the new ending to see what he thought. It evidently got a nod of approval, because it's the ending we have now.

But you might say we still don't know for sure. Did they marry or not? I think Dickens was telling his friend in effect, 'Now I've worked it so everyone'll be happy. Sentimentalists like you can cling to the hope that Pip and Estella do get married. But at the same time, realists and pragmatists don't have to buy into it, if they choose not to. A good solution for everyone all round.'

What do you think? Was that clever of him or what? Dickens really did come up with a 'choose your own adventure' scenario, over a century before the concept took off. The netflix series I watched recently clearly went for the marriage option, and I was happy to go along with it.

 I think Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the real hero of this true anecdote, and I'll always be grateful to him for his bit of proof-reading. A bit more research on him shows that we owe this guy even more than you might think. He turns out to be one of those writers we often quote without even knowing it. The phrase, 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' was first coined by Bulwer-Lytton, although I might have guessed Shakespeare. He also came up with 'in pursuit of the almighty dollar' and 'dweller on the threshold.' But perhaps his biggest claim to fame (or infamy) might be his immortal opening line, 'It was a dark and stormy night.' He might have been happy enough to let his ownership of that one slip into obscurity :)

Here's my review of Great Expectations.
I've also written this rave about Pip.

Which of the alternate endings of Great Expectations do you prefer? 


  1. I definitely prefer the one where Pip sees no shadow of another parting from her. There's also some nice prose in the lead up to that ending.I like to think they get together. I enjoy your reviews, thanks Paula.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree, Jeanette, and it's nice to know he reworked it just for fans like us 😏 Even those of us who hadn't been born yet.