“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.” Like Pip, I too grew up in Kent, down by the river. A few miles north was the graveyard that inspired the famous opening to Great Expectations. Just up the road was Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’ home for the last years of his life.
On the way to school I walked through the centre of Rochester where Pumblechook’s seed shop, the Blue Boar, and Miss Havisham’s Satis House could still be seen. However, it wasn’t until I left Kent that I began to appreciate Dickens’ genius, his ability to create character after wonderful character. And especially his ability to create memorable characters out of relatively minor players in his great dramas: characters like John Wemmick, the clerk to Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations.
Wemmick is a man divided. Divided between work and Walworth, where he lives out an idyllic denial of all that is dehumanising about his workaday existence. Wemmick’s home is his castle. Or, at least, he makes his home as much like a castle as he can: “a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden, and the top of it was cut out and painted like a battery mounted with guns.” It has gothic windows, a gothic door, a flagpole, a drawbridge, and even its own gun, called Stinger, which is fired each evening at 9 o’clock and which is “protected from the weather by an ingenious little tarpaulin contrivance in the nature of an umbrella.”
When he isn’t at work, Wemmick pulls up the drawbridge and barricades himself into his home, where he cares for his Aged Parent (to whom he is “untiring and gentle in his vigilance”) and where he is visited regularly by his fiancée, Miss Skiffins, and occasionally by Pip himself. In creating such a home, he anticipated our contemporary desire to live simply and be self-sustaining, growing his own vegetables and keeping his own pig, fowls and rabbits, and proudly telling Pip that “I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades.”
Wemmick’s home is one of Dickens’ finest comic creations. “The Aged prepared such a haystack of buttered toast,” Pip tells us, “that I could scarcely see him over it as it simmered on an iron stand hooked on to the top-bar; while Miss Skiffins brewed such a jorum of tea, that the pig in the back premises became strongly excited, and repeatedly expressed his desire to participate in the entertainment.” I don’t own a pig myself but our dog would surely concur with the pig’s sentiments.
However, as the passing references to agricultural and industrial work reveal – “he had constructed a fountain … which, when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet” – there is more to these passages than knockabout comedy because the world of work has not been entirely displaced from Wemmick’s home.
Indeed, there is something disturbing about Wemmick’s comment that “if you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions” and something disturbing too about his insistence that “the office is one thing and private life is another.” The problem is not simply that, in an age of smartphones and emails, we can no longer make sense of this distinction. Rather the problem is that the world has been turned on its head: Wemmick leaves his work behind when he goes home (for the most part) but he also leaves home, and homely values, behind when he goes to work. “When I go into the office,” he tells Pip, “I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you, you’ll oblige me to do the same.” Pip does his best but can’t help wishing, on visiting Mr Jaggers at home, that he too “had had an Aged in Gerrard-street, or a Stinger, or a Something, or a Somebody, to unbend his brows a little.”
Wemmick’s tragedy is that he is only partially redeemed by his home life. He may not suffer from the same dehumanisation that afflicts Jaggers and Miss Havisham but he lives only a half life at work. Symptomatic of this stunting is the moment when Pip offers an outstretched hand shortly after their first meeting only for “Mr. Wemmick at first [to look] at it as if he thought I wanted something.” In a world that suffers from an attenuated understanding of work, even a simple handshake can be misinterpreted as a grasping after what Wemmick repeatedly calls “portable property.”
As so often in Dickens’ work, the deficiencies of this world of total work are encapsulated in a warped notion of time. That Stinger is fired regularly “at 9 o’clock” is not an inconsequential detail. Nor is the Aged’s explanation of Wemmick’s absence when Pip comes calling: “He is very regular in his walks, is my son. Very regular in everything, is my son.” This industrial regularity sits uneasily alongside the pre-industrial lifestyle Wemmick attempts to create at home and is a sign of the damage that has been done to his understanding of the world. Worse still is the way his marriage to Miss Skiffins is slotted into the working week as if it were an aberration, an inexplicably non-transactional relationship in a life dominated by commercial practices.
Nevertheless, Wemmick has enough virtues to become one of the people who effect healing in Pip as he goes on his palindromic journey. The tragedy that has enveloped him at work is overshadowed by the wonderful comedy that emerges from his home. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” Pip tells us early in the book. Wemmick cures him of that, even if he cannot comprehend why it is also a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of work. Maybe we still struggle with that idea too, which is just one of the many reasons why we can return time and time again to Great Expectations and discover new wonders on each reading.
This review first appeared in Humanum Review.