Great Expectations?! World Book Day 2021

World Book Day is a day dedicated to celebrating books and encouraging children to read. It takes place on March 4th this year.

Charles Dickens, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: ms37103/1/11v/2

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, follows the story of Philip “Pip” Pirrip as he grows from boy to man. As its name suggests, Pip struggles to fulfil various and occasionally conflicting expectations that other people have of him, such as those of his wealthy childhood benefactor Miss Havisham, his crush Estella, and his father figure Joe Gargery, but most of all, the expectations he places on himself.

Like most other novels at the time, it was written as a series of instalments which were individually published.1 By the time Dickens started publishing it in his periodical All The Year Round2, in 1860, he had almost thirty years of writing experience under his belt, from the comedic The Pickwick Papers to the sombre A Tale of Two Cities. Readers hung onto his every word – Victorian literature scholar Robert Patten estimates that around 100,000 copies of All The Year Round were sold each week3, some of which have made their way into our Special Collections. At the time, Britain’s population was only about 29,000,000 people.4

When the instalments were collated into three volumes in 1862, people once again rushed to buy it – one library bought 1400 copies!3 Even now, time has not diminished Dickens’ appeal. Instead, it has transformed his works into staples of English literature that are known all around the world.

Despite being considered classics, Dickens’ stories are not purely relics from the Victorian era. His stories have been adapted for modern mediums such as the radio, TV, and the silver screen countless times, which would make him turn cartwheels in his grave – Dickens was a professional actor for a time, and loved giving dramatic readings of his own work, so much that he would push himself until he collapsed during the more strenuous readings.2

However, the sheer dramatics of his works’ adaptations is not the only thing Dickens would have loved about them. His contemporaries knew him as one of London’s most prominent human rights campaigners2, and this is reflected in many of his books, which denounce human rights violations such as child labour, public executions, and slavery. This philanthropic spirit is reincarnated in adaptations such as BBC Sounds’ A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London, which aims to raise awareness about the Syrian civil war by reimagining A Tale of Two Cities set there, instead of in the French Revolution.5

A Tale of Two Cities:Aleppo and London, title image from BBC Radio 4, image courtesy of Goldhawk Productions Ltd.

          Thus, there is something for everyone in Dickens’ works, whether you prefer short stories or novels, comedy or tragedy, audiobooks or paperbacks. And libraries are free, so get reading!

Without our student volunteers we wouldn’t be able to produce all this great content for our blog. The author of this content is Patsy Ng, a first year Computer Science student at the University of St Andrews. Over her time with us Patsy, who has been studying remotely from home in Hong Kong during the pandemic and has been meeting regularly with Cathy Cruickshank, her mentor from museums. As well as producing content Patsy has challenged Cathy (a reluctant reader of Dickens!) to read more Dickens! Generally a fan of contemporary fiction she is now working her way through A Tale of Two Cities and thoroughly enjoying it! Why not challenge a friend to read something new?! We here at Museums have great expectations for your World Book Day!

[1] “Victorian Serial Novels.” University of Victoria, accessed February 25, 2021.
[2] Collins, Philip. “Charles Dickens.” Encyclopædia Britannica, October 22, 2020.
[3] Patten, Robert. “Return to Chapman and Hall.” Charles Dickens and His Publishers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 292.
[4] “UK Population Estimates 1851 to 2014.” Office for National Statistics, July 6, 2015, Excel sheet “ukpopulationestimates18512014”, page “UK Total Pop 1851-2014”, row 5.
[5] Carr, Flora, ““All of Dickens is about child abuse”: reworking Charles Dickens against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war.” RadioTimes, June 3, 2018.