Tea Duelling (and Other Splendid Steampunk Adventures at Lincoln 2014)

“Competitors, dunk your biscuits.”

Tea Duelling, the biscuit choice

The room grows tense as the biscuits disappear into the tea. The only voice is that of the Tiffin Master, counting down the five long seconds.
The dunkers withdraw their biscuits, and then settle themselves into comfortable positions. The elegantly attired lady, replete with miniature top hat, focuses her gaze on her soaking biscuit rather than her waist-coated and be-goggled competitor.
“Ahhh, the ‘vertical hold’,” nods the Tiffin Master, indicating the biscuits held upright in the dunkers’ fingers. “A very popular hold.”
The dunkers continue to stare resolutely at their soaking biscuits, watching for signs of a wobble. They need to be the last person to consume (“nom”) their biscuit to win, but only if none of their biscuit collapses onto their hand or anywhere else. The balance between waiting long enough to outlast the competitor and still performing a “clean nom” engrosses the entire hall of onlookers.
“The elevated hold offers the advantage of closing the distance between biscuit and mouth, increasing the chances of a clean nom,” comments the Tiffin Master, drawing attention to the lady with the tiny top hat, “but the lower hold has the advantage of resting on the table, keeping the hand more steady.”
The gentleman suddenly moves, consuming his biscuit cleanly, and the lady follows suit. We applaud loudly for the tiny top hat and her victory.

Tea Duelling was just one of the splendid events held at Lincoln’s Weekend at the Asylum VI, Europe’s longest running and largest Steampunk event. As a postgraduate researcher of neo-Victorian fiction, I’d managed to convince my Australian university to give me extra funding to attend this speculative neo-Victorian event whilst I was already in the UK for the British Association for Victorian Studies conference.

They say that immersing yourself in a culture is the best way to learn a language, and there is no doubt that Weekend at the Asylum is immersive. In its sixth year now, the entire historic Bailgate quarter of Lincoln is transformed by the markets, events and the more than 2000 costumed attendees.

One of the earliest events of the weekend was the enthralling Steampunk Western Shoot-Out, between competitors wielding painted and upgraded nerf guns. The unholstered category winner was a young lad, whose small stature assisted in his missing being the accurate target of the hilariously inaccurate weaponry.

The holstered category was won by a gentleman who pulled himself out of his wheelchair, made his way to his corner with the help of his cane, and then proceeded to annihilate his opponents with his superb accuracy. He even claimed victor in the three way shoot-out, to the triumphant cry of the woman standing beside me: That’s my husband!


This was followed by the first round of Tea Duelling. I refreshed myself appropriately, with tea, although later in the day the refreshments were provided by Hendrick’s Gin. They generously offered free G&Ts for entertaining the garden of other attendees, so my ability to recite Wordsworth and Shakespeare was put to good use.

It was then back to the Ballroom for the excellent Costume Competition.

That evening was the Empire Ball. The event had sold out months earlier, but as always there were last minute tickets for sale, and I managed to snaffle one up.


The next day was the Tea Duelling Championships, and the Wacky Races, including jetpack and cycle races. The highlight was the sportsmanship of the cycling competitors, who raced up the drive to the Castle, circled the court… and continued circling until the young boy being pushed had caught up and was on his way back. The adult competitors gaily fought it out for second place, to the cheering of the crowd.

At a small panel discussing international Steampunk, earlier in the weekend, we’d discussed the inclusivity of the genre. There are almost no rules to Steampunk, especially in comparison with The Society for Creative Anachronism (aka Medieval Re-enactment), and very few ways of “winning.” By far and large, Steampunk is about participation.

So in that spirit, perhaps I will bring Tea Duelling back to Australia!

EDIT: The first Van Demonian Tea Duel has indeed now been held! A few months after visiting Lincoln I decided that my quarter century celebrations needed a good Tea Duel, and gathered some well-dress gentlefolk to join me. Tea Duelling has been on the Australian mainland for at least a year.

A wonderful report of the weekend from Steampunk Journal. Bonus points for spotting me!

A pictorial guide to Tea Duelling.

Some great photos of the weekend from The Guardian.

And my own full resolution photos, on Flickr.

Speculative Fiction is definitely finding its way into academia, with the Steampunk Scholar leading the charge beautifully.


Word Crimes and Ass Hats

Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, Word Crimes, is the equivalent of saying “You are an ass hat.”

Some Cunning Linguist

Now, let’s step back a bit and analyse this.

Weird Al, best known for his parody songs, has a new album, Mandatory Fun. In promoting this album, Weird Al has released eight of the music videos online, including the song Word Crimes. This song is a parody of the 2013 single Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, although unlike the hoard of parodies about sex and rape culture prompted by the original song, Weird Al’s parody is on grammar misuse in English.

It starts out optimistically, addressing itself to those without knowledge of the grammarian’s version of English.

…maybe now you find
That people mock you online
Okay, now here’s the deal
I’ll try to educate ya

But soon descends into the purpose of the parody: comedic hyperbole, against the various pet peeves of grammarians.

You should know when
It’s “less” or it’s “fewer”
Like people who were
Never raised in a sewer

Of course, in the confines of a short song one could not explore complexities of grammar, and so the song understandably opts for a swift succession of rules. For instance, one of the favourite frustrations of Grammar Nazis is the use of the word literally to mean figuratively, the exact opposite of the original meaning. Actually, the historical usage of the word literally to mean figuratively dates back to the 1790s (following a common trend called semantic bleaching), and has only retrospectively been considered incorrect, but Weird Al’s response to this usage suggests that perhaps he is not interested in the etymology anyway.

Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head

This raises two issues that have been picked up on in other blogs. The first is prescriptivism, and has been railed against by the very people Weird Al calls in for assistance: linguists.

I hate these word crimes
You really need a
Full-time proofreader
You dumb mouthbreather
Well, you should hire
Some cunning linguist
To help you distinguish
What is proper English

I’ve previously written about the prescriptive/descriptive divide within dictionary culture, which can simply be summarised as: descriptive is an approach to grammar that records the existing language without imposing norms, and prescriptive is an approach that establishes norms of usage through rules about grammar. Take an example from within the song:

B C R U, are words not letters
You should never write words using numbers
Unless you’re 7
Or your name is Prince
I hate these word crimes

Prescriptivists call this incorrect usage. Now, there must be some legitimate language change over time, since otherwise we’d still be speaking Old English (and I know that I certainly find the Old English Beowulf hard to read). This is hinted at in the song with the use of the word “unless”, which basically says that words are acceptable in certain circumstances, even within a rule system. On the other hand, linguists record and describe changes within the language that occur naturally, rather than restricting or defining what is correct usage. (I discuss this further in my rant about squee and other words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary Online.) Other blogs have also already discussed this quite well. Dictionary.com, for instance, has a wonderfully considered response precisely concerning precriptive/descriptive approaches.

I agree with these analyses, but as a recovering Grammar Nazi myself, I won’t give Weird Al too much flak. (A few years ago I would have found the song quite amusing, especially since I’ve been a Weird Al fan for many years and admire a lot of his work. Tutoring undergraduates and high school children, and dating a linguist, have rather changed my outlook.) Instead, I examine the song from one of the basic premises of the Internet: Paul Graham’s brilliant essay on How to Disagree.

While not part of the original essay, the rather cutting insult that opened this rant, “You are an ass hat”, turns up as an example in the graphic illustration of his argument. The whole essay is worth reading, but in short, Graham argues that there is a hierarchy of disagreement, with the weakest, least convincing form of disagreement being name-calling, and the higher forms refuting the argument rather than the arguer. “[T]he greatest benefit of disagreeing well”, according to Graham, “is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier.”

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

Graham’s hierarchy is, ultimately, perhaps overly optimistic. He wrote it back in 2008, and reading it now, one cannot help but feel that the attempt was somewhat futile.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Back in 2008, Graham was probably blissfully unaware of the waves of trolling that would run rampant through the Internet, in spite of his intentions. Nevertheless, I would not consider Weird Al’s parodies to be trolling, and they can usefully be examined with the heirarchy. The arguments Word Crimes relies solely on are the three lowest forms of disagreement: name-calling, ad hominem and tone (or, in this case, grammar). Name-calling is quite obvious within the song, which includes a wide variety of insults. Ad hominem (“to the person”) disagreements attempt to invalidate the argument by invalidating the arguer. In this, Word Crimes says that improper grammar users are clowns from the sewer, which implies (in a somewhat unsubtle manner) that their form of English is necessarily inferior. Most of all, the song condemns tone, for the entire purpose of the song is to condemn how people speak, rather than what they are saying.

This could all be refuted on two fronts: that Weird Al’s song is intended as and interpreted as a parody.

Of course, it is a parody, of Thicke’s original song, and it is cleverly composed. If it is intended as and treated as a parody then it simply a (somewhat scathing) humorous song. This is how it is defended by Christopher Daly of The Better Editor, who argues that Weird Al is only occuping the persona of a Grammar Nazi. However, an interview with Weird Al by Grammarly, that school for Grammar Nazis, calls into question the strength of both these refutations. Grammarly treats the song explicitely as educational, and Weird Al responds in kind, adding,

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.

Indeed, Weird Al’s Youtube channel includes videos of him correcting printed signs with grammatical errors, and another interview with NPR includes him saying that “When I came up with the idea for ‘Word Crimes’ I thought, ‘That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.’ I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar.” Daly defends this statement, and we could give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that Weird Al does not support grammarians. Nevertheless, the song is interpreted as educational, by the seeming vast majority of the Internet.

Yet should it be considered educational? Surprisingly, even some proofreaders (who tend to be more prescriptive than linguists, since that’s their job) cringe at the excessive insults in Weird Al’s song. Lauren Squires guest blogging on Language Log also makes a similarly invaluable point: this song is not and should not be used as a teaching tool, because it encourages snobbery and discrimination, and pointedly does not teach grammar. One of my favourite responses to the video comes from the beautiful Mignon Fogerty, the woman behind Grammar Girl, who not only points out the flaws in Weird Al’s prescription, but concludes that, simply, insulting people is mean, whether they used grammar correctly or not.

Indeed, the song uses a variety of descriptions for these misusers of English, including “morons”, “mouthbreathers,” and “spastics”*, and just before Weird Al “gives up” on these people in the outro his last words are:

Go back to pre-school
Get out of the gene pool
Try your best to not drool

The song privileges white, educated native English speakers, and does so explicitly at the expense of others. It invites the listener to laugh at people who speak English that is not ‘proper’, and while in person we may restrain ourselves from bullying someone with a less privileged upbringing, the Internet has no such restraint. We are, conversely, actively encouraged to indulge in petty pedantry, and to pick on people’s online grammar if we have no stronger argument against them: precisely the reverse of what Graham had intended. Arguably, Weird Al’s song is an intellectually dishonest argument, relying on the weakest forms of disagreement to incite an – apparently – entirely justifiable vilification of speakers of dialect. And – though I am sorry to say it Paul Graham – no amount of blogging about prescriptivist grammar and just plain bullying is going to change that.

We say “You are an ass hat”, and then we laugh.


*Weird Al has since apologised for the use of the term “spastics”, which has much stronger negative connotations in the United Kingdom than it does in the Unites States. See the analysis of this by Ben Zimmer at Language Log for more information.

On Being Human

Sex sells.
But humans sell too. The smiling face of a baby adorns boxes of disposable nappies. Coca Cola advertisements sell a lifestyle as much as a product. And Old Spice is a household name thanks to actor Isaiah Mustafa.

Similarly, humanising something makes it more engaging.

Compare these two passages:

During the 19th century, London was transformed into the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire. Its population expanded from 1 million in 1800 to 6.7 million a century later (1.9% average annual growth).

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above.

The first is taken from Wikipedia. The second is from the Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. They are talking about the same place in the same period of history. However, unless we are looking for facts about nineteenth century London, we are unlikely to continue reading the first passage, nor remember it well. Conversely, the second is memorable, because it is vivid and humanising. It is not the description of the city, but an experience of the city, a single image of it, full of life and filth.

There has been a move in academia in the same direction, particularly in the humanities. We are embracing the first person, and the first person experience. It is the humanities after all, and this should be celebrated.

Blogging works in the same way: blogs that are eccentric and personal tend to engage a wider audience than those with a distant narrator.

Which gets me to my point. A week ago WordPress wished me a jolly anniversary for having started writing a blog a year ago on May Day. (The blog, wordsandwilds, was originally meant to be about both my research AND my outdoor activities… but the latter consumed the former, and some months later this second blog was born.) I duly noted this, contemplated following the usual pattern of writing some anniversary post about… what I’d learned from blogging in the year, or being generally reflective about myself, or whatever it is that people usually write about… and then I decided to go back to whatever I was doing.

Like many people, I don’t mind other people being reflective or personal. I just don’t often feel compelled to do this myself. This blog proves that nicely: my book reviews are entirely text-oriented, and my personal experience of reading the book almost entirely neglected. Although I will use the first person, it is sparing, and I write in a somewhat detached (though hopefully engaging!) tone. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it something that I am likely to change (this very post, for instance, does not open in the first person either).

But I was forced to think on this again last week, when I was congratulated on being a human.

You see, Canberra (which is the capital of Australia, though few outside Australia seem to know this) has always had a poor reputation, and in a world-first tourism advocacy campaign† run during the Canberra Century of 2013, 500 social media users were invited to Canberra for a weekend of activities. The ensuing social media outpouring became the Human Brochure, the brochure of people experiencing Canberra in the here and now.

A year later, Visit Canberra are running the local version of the brochure, for 101 Canberrans in Canberra’s 101st year, and I am one of them.

For some people there might be qualms about selling themselves and their audience to public relations. Not me! I feel no obligation to write about anything that does not interest me, and if it does interest me enough to write about it then it must be reasonably awesome. I genuinely think that Canberra is a pretty cool place – here we have the national everything, from the National Library to the National Arboretum to the National Folk Festival. Moreover, taking free stuff is not the qualm of any student anywhere.

I know that some of my fellow humans feel imposter syndrome. There is the sense that they do not fit in, that their social media audience is too small or too ignored, that their social media output is unprofessional or untalented by comparison with that of others. But that’s the point. We were chosen because we are locals‡, and we have our own subjective experience of Canberra, and that is enough. Everyone’s opinion is valid! Besides which, more than 1150 people applied, and only 101 were chosen, so we all must be a bit special in our own way. Certainly, I am far from suffering imposter syndrome for this brochure: not because my social media abilities are exceptional (far from it – we’re meant to use Pinterest? And Instagram? I barely know what the former is, and I don’t have a smartphone for the latter!), but because my entire reserve of imposter syndrome has been drained into my PhD candidature. No one rocks imposter syndrome like a postgraduate researcher.

No. For me, what worries me about this is… being human. Sure, I can write to my heart’s content about the meanings and thematic concerns of neo-Victorian fiction, or rant about the word antidisestablishmentarianism. What is much more difficult is writing about my personal experience of a text, or ranting about things that matter to me.

The campaign is clever. Humans sell. But humanising makes something more engaging, and perhaps it is time for me to embrace that. Even in academia the humanities are letting in the first person.

Perhaps it is time to embrace that I am human.

* Before you complain about Oxford Dictionaries making “selfie” the 2013 Word of the Year, read my discussion of the matter. And yes, this quite possibly says something about the cult of the individual that reigns in this generation, but that is precisely the point that I am making in this post.

† As student of journalism and public relations, I have to admire the genius of the human brochure campaign. You can read the very short description from the PR company here.

‡ Apparently one is upgraded to “local” status in Canberra after only a year! Conversely, Tasmanians usually reject anyone not born of the island.

Originally posted on wordsandwilds. The version for this blog has been somewhat modified.


Wanted to text at the next red light.
Got green lights all the way home.

Although it has passed its peak, the #firstworldproblems hashtag and meme are still in common usage. According to that omnipotent resource, Know Your Meme, the phrase is for ironic and comedic purpose.

First World Problems, also known as “White Whine,” are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.

download (1)



Now, there are problems with this phrase, as pointed out by Adam Thomas on Medium. Thomas argues that there are three reasons to abandon the tag:

1. The First World no longer exists.

2. The popular conception of the Third World does not exist.

3. People outside of the ‘First World’ have trivial problems too.

Thomas’ first two points refer to the historical origins of the terms First, Second and Third worlds. Basically, these terms arose during the Cold War, to differentiate countries governed by capitalism (First), communism (Second) and everything else (Third). Of course, as I have argued previously, concepts are not intrinsically attached to words, and ideas and language evolve and change over time. Thomas acknowledges this to an extent in pointing to the rise of globalisation (which mitigates the differences between countries), and the development of a two-world system within the United States of America, wherein 10% of the population own 80% of the financial assets.

But, unfortunately, Thomas’ first point has, well, missed the point.

The “First World” is a concept that is alive and well. The Oxford English Dictionary definition A.n.2 is the relevant one here:

The industrialized, developed, relatively wealthy and powerful nations of the world (collectively); spec. the industrialized capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. See also quots.

And, indeed, the OED notes a few key quotations that help to illustrate the wide usage of the term. Even more significantly, the OED adds this:

In early use, freq. as opposed to the communist nations (formerly) constituting the Second World; now more usually as opposed to the less-developed and poorer nations constituting the Third World.

But this is just being pedantic about language. Thomas’ second argument is that these terms are used to perpetuate certain ideas about the world that are changing. I do think that the terms First and Third world are problematic, particularly as it implies an inherent hierarchy. They does not account for the growing economic disparity within ‘First World’ countries, nor the diversity of countries and cultures that are lumped into the Third World category. But the use of the term “First World” does not correspond with the use of the term First World Problems. This means that we cannot blame the latter for perpetuating the use of the former.

No, most interesting is Thomas’ third point, that trivial problems are universal. I absolutely agree. I also concur that self-reflexive irony is not restricted to developed countries.

But the point is about relativism. When we complain about a #firstworldproblem, it may well be the same problem that someone in the “Third World” has. But they may well also have bigger problems, and the hashtag reflects a First World awareness of that. Relative to the rest of our lives, maybe someone next to us sucking loudly on a straw, or someone leaving their indicator on, or a friend not texting us back until the next day IS a big deal. The phrase allows us to laugh about the triviality of our genuinely felt but very small issues without feeling entirely self-obsessed and without any relativism. It allows us to laugh at ourselves.

So is the hashtag just an indulgence in the same complaints that we would make anyway, with a bit of irony and self-awareness thrown in on top? Probably. Will it change the way we think about the First and Third Worlds? Probably not. But laughing about our lives probably won’t hurt anyone either. Even Thomas’ edit notes that.

I just re-read this last paragraph through and it sounds all wrong. Don’t stop complaining. Complain about problems, make fun of trivial things, that’s one of the beautiful things about freedom and communication and all of that other life stuff. But, can’t we just have a funnier, smarter hashtag to use while we do it?

And maybe there is a hashtag that we deserve… but not the one that we need right now.
After all, by the time Thomas wrote his article, #firstworldproblems was already falling out of usage. So complaining about it was, ironically, a #firstworldproblem.


Sixty Lights, Gail Jones

“You want the maculate, not the immaculate…”
“Yes”, said Lucy. “The world is like this, don’t you think? Marked, and shadowed, and flecked with time.”

(Sixty Lights, 146)

If there was ever a book marked, shadowed and flecked with time, then this is it.

A work of historical fiction (neo-Victorian fiction, to be precise), Jones’ novel moves across the nineteenth century world with lyricism, whimsy and intentional anachronism to explore a nostalgic vision of the Victorian era.

This is the tale of Lucy Strange, who opens the book as a young and pregnant woman in India dreaming of death, and whose death at age 22 is revealed to the reader on the second page. This prologue is succeeded by the image of Lucy as an eight year-old in the Victorian colony of Australia in 1860, watching her mother’s pregnancy and death, followed in the same chapter by her father’s suicide. The narrator says before the imminent death of Lucy’s mother that “it is from this day that [Lucy’s] life enters the mode of melodrama” (7), and she is indeed thrown out into a wide and engaging world.

Lucy, orphaned with her brother Thomas, is sent to live with their uncle Neville in England. With Neville’s spiritual forays and financial ruin, the children are sent to work, and later Lucy to India. The rest of the novel is Lucy’s young adult life, including her forays into photography and her pregnancy and motherhood, and finally her pre-determined terminal illness.

It is aptly named, for Sixty Lights is a novel of sixty photograph-like chapters, each with their own tone, shade and images. Photo-graph, transliterated from the Greek as “light-writing”, is precisely Jones’ concern. Her chapters are illuminated in a variety of ways, from the candlelight and sunlight of Australia to the gas-lamps and magic lanterns of London, as well as employing flames and mirrors.

Throughout this novel, Lucy develops a philosophy of bioluminescence: that life creates light, and that light is connected with images, experiences and memories. This is a text that takes a less critical approach to neo-Victorian representation than some recent novels.* However, Jones is nevertheless no less self-reflexive or intertextual than many neo-Victorian novels, and she intersperses her nineteenth century narrative with “ghosts” from the present – anachronistic references, and modern sensibilities.

A neat analogy for the novel is a scene in which Lucy is charmed by her thumbprint on photographs (199). Lucy is recognising that in seeing her thumbprints she is being honest about the construction of them. This analogy can be applied to the book as a whole: in allowing us to see the ‘thumbprints’ of the postmodern world, Jones is celebrating the maculate nature of the world, and accepting the necessarily constructed nature of art. This is a poetic, nostalgic novel, whose characters are at times lost to the lyricism, but whose light-writing makes it a memorable read.

Sixty Lights

*This novel is much less critical of the Victorians than, for instance, Jack Maggs, which is Peter Carey’s re-writing of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Jack Maggs, Peter Carey

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.

Jack Maggs

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

Great Expectations comes with, oddly enough, a great number of expectations.

The author, Charles Dickens, was so renowned in his own time, and so well recalled and respected in our own, that “Dickensian” has come to connote most of our ideas of Victorian London. Great Expectations itself is widely considered one of Dickens best and most mature works of fiction, and is frequently set as school or university text. In fact, whenever there is suggestion of teaching less Dickens, there is a plea for him to be returned: “Our children must read Dickens to grasp the universality of the human condition, compassion for human suffering, and the reality of human heroism.”

So, does Great Expectations meet expectations? Does Dickens teach us about the universality of the human condition?

Well, this depends on what the question means. Great Expectations was was Dickens’ 13th and penultimate novel, and was published serially in All The Year Round in December 1860 to August 1861 before being published in the Victorian tradition of a three volumne book form* in October 1861. The story is about a orphaned English boy, Pip, and his journey into great expectations (of class mobility) with the financial assistance of an anonymous benefactor.

This story is most definitely a product of Dickens and the Victorian era, with much of its popularity depending precisely on its exemplification of so many of the traits of both: dramatic chapters grown out of a serial format; typical bildungsroman style (a story of personal, moral and physical growth); social commentary; eccentric and memorable characters; linear timeline with a realist representation of causal relationships.

Yet while this story is entirely a product of its time, it presents with sophistication and deftness some of the more universal struggles of humanity. Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, amongst others, remind us that the more basic tenants of universal feeling are physiological needs, Great Expectations nevertheless addresses some of the key struggles of modern culture. Pip is a satisfyingly flawed protagonist, beset by ambition, guilt and weakness, as well as courage and kindness. The plot may be driven by wealth and class struggles, but these are powerful institutions within most modern cultures, and they are treated accordingly by Dickens. And above all, Pip learns that wealth and class are institutions that do not necessarily come with human empathy or love. But perhaps most importantly, Dickens is currently one of most powerful figures of literature, and while his legacy may be considered problematic for a huge number of reasons, it is a legacy all the same. And reading that legacy, and being able to respond to it in an informed way, is a way of engaging with it.

So, for what it’s worth, I would recommend reading Dickens: it is time to meet those great expectations.

Great Expectations, Penguin Classics

For a short and lovely review of the book (and one that actually talks a bit more about the plot!), check out If You Give a Girl a Novel.

* This three volumne, or triple-/three-decker, form developed as a result of the popular circulating library in the Victorian era. With printing and binding still relatively expensive, this form offset costs for the publisher, who could borrow these services on credit and pay it back after selling the three-deckers to the lending libraries (especially the well-established Mudie’s Lending Library, the largest at the time). This form allowed multiple users to read different sections at once, encouraged people to finish the story by borrowing all three volumnes, and helped earlier volumnes pay for the publication of the latter. For more information, see the The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel.