It is the mid-nineteenth century, and a man has secretly returned to London from the colonies. Having made his fortune in Australia, and anonymously forwarded it towards the prosperity and education of a young man who as a child was kind to him, Maggs now seeks out Henry Phipps.
Names and dates slightly changed, this is a familiar plot to any reader acquainted with Great Expectations. Yet a reader expecting a straightforward adaptation of the original from the Australian perspective would be disappointed. The characters of Dickens’ Magwitch and Carey’s Maggs immediately have marked differences, for Magwitch returns to London in 1829 at the age of 60, and Maggs returns to London at an earlier and more fashionable time of his life, and in 1837, emphasising Carey’s rewriting of the Victorian era.
Moreover, the familiar events all take place in the background of the novel, and it is Carey’s own fictions that fill the foreground. The liminal convict – a pivot for Great Expectations, but nevertheless a sidelined character – is the protagonist, and his plot is Carey’s re-writing of the novel. Maggs, like Magwitch, attempts to go directly to his funded English gentleman, but unlike Pip, Phipps is not at home, and the whole course of their interactions is thus radically altered. Instead, Maggs becomes a footman for the neighbour Percy Buckle, a former grocer and now another gentleman ‘made’ by the inheritance of a fortune. It is here that Maggs meets Tobias Oates, a young author who seeks to mesmerise Maggs in order to explore the ‘Criminal Mind’, in exchange for providing Maggs with the man who he claims can track down Phipps. The plot then follows these central characters, with few (and entirely negative) portrayals of the debauched Phipps.
The plot gets even more complicated with Tobias Oates, because far from being based on a character, he is based on the young Charles Dickens himself. Carey delves into and fictionalises his private life, blending Dickens’ idealising relationship with his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, with his adulterous affair with Ellen Ternan. This appropriation of literary figures as fictional characters is a trend in Neo-Victorian fiction. However, Carey is not simply reversing the roles of protagonist and antagonist, but drawing attention to the constructed nature of texts, and the convoluted nature of our relationship to the Victorians. It is put particularly well by Caryn James in a review in the New York Times:
”Jack Maggs” stands in relation to ”Great Expectations” as ”Great Expectations” itself stands in relation to Dickens’s life: it is a fictional extrapolation in which ”real” events and sources are merely glimpsed; they have been transformed into something fresh, which defies one-to-one correspondences.
In spite of this parodic approach, Jack Maggs convincing reads like Charles Dickens. The novel even borrows dialogue; yet it is these invocations of sameness that make the differences that do exist more potent. While the original Magwitch said “I’m much of your opinion, boy” (GE18), agreeing with Pip that he had the “ague” (fever), Maggs uses these same words to Tobias Oates (JM) in thinking that the boy Phipps was kind. In the former, these words are spoken derisively and off-handedly by a starving convict, in the latter, they are spoken contemplatively by a reminiscing philanthropist. These differences in perspective and focalisation are at their most powerful when alluding closely to the original novel, because the familiar becomes destabilised in reading one event in multiple ways.
This can be interpreted as the philosophy of the novel as a whole: revisiting the familiar territory of Great Expectations with a postcolonial perspective, and thus destabilising it. But there is always a dual relationship of Australia with Britain, of indebtedness and rebelliousness: for without Great Expectations, there could be no Jack Maggs.