Saturday, November 5, 2016

Great Expectations and Lillo

In chapter 15 of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, young Pip finds himself being "read at" by Mr. Wopsle at Uncle Pumblechook's house.

Mr. Wopsle reads from "the affecting tragedy of George Barnwell, in which he had that moment invested sixpence." This is George Lillo's play The London Merchant, a bourgeois tragedy based on an old ballad of an apprentice gone wrong.

At first Pip is reacting to the story as if Wopsle himself is the play's unfortunate protagonist:

As I never assisted at any other representation of George Barnwell, I don't know how long it may usually take; but I know very well that it took until half-past nine o'clock that night, and that when Mr Wopsle got into Newgate, I thought he never would go to the scaffold, he became so much slower than at any former period of his disgraceful career. I thought it a little too much that he should complain of being cut short in his flower after all, as if he had not been running to seed, leaf after leaf, ever since his course began.

What is interesting, though, is that under the gaze of Wopsle and Pumblechook, Pip, who has recently been made an apprentice to Joe Gargery, begins to associate himself with the apprentice in the story. Dickens continues:

What stung me, was the identification of the whole affair with my unoffending self. When Barnwell began to go wrong, I declare that I felt positively apologetic, Pumblechook's indignant stare so taxed me with it. Wopsle, too, took pains to present me in the worst light. At once ferocious and maudlin, I was made to murder my uncle with no extenuating circumstances whatever; Millwood put me down in argument, on every occasion; it became sheer monomania in my master's daughter to care a button for me; and all I can say for my gasping and procrastinating conduct on the fatal morning, is, that it was worthy of the general feebleness of my character. Even after I was happily hanged and Wopsle had closed the book, Pumblechook sat staring at me, and shaking his head, and saying, 'Take warning, boy, take warning!' as if it were a well-known fact that I contemplated murdering a near relation, provided I could only induce one to have the weakness to become my benefactor.

Indeed, the play has Barnwell murder his own uncle, who is saintly enough to forgive him for the crime. Here's how the murder goes down in the play:

Oh! I am slain! All gracious Heaven regard the Prayer of thy dying Servant. Bless, with thy choicest Blessings, my dearest Nephew; forgive my Murderer, and take my fleeting Soul to endless Mercy.

[Barnwell throws off his Mask, runs to him, and, kneeling by him, raises and chafes him.

Expiring Saint! Oh, murder'd, martyr'd Uncle! Lift up your dying Eyes, and view your Nephew in your Murderer.—O do not look so tenderly upon me.—Let Indignation lighten from your Eyes, and blast me e're you die.—By Heaven, he weeps in Pity of my Woes.—Tears,—Tears, for Blood.—The Murder'd, in the Agonies of Death, weeps for his Murderer.—O, speak your pious Purpose,—pronounce my Pardon then,—and take me with you.—He wou'd, but cannot.—O why, with such fond Affection do you press my murdering Hand!—What! will you kiss me!

[Kisses him.

[Groans and dies.

This seems a bit much for audiences today, buy Lillo's 1731 play was still popular well into the Victorian era. On Easter and Christmas holidays, apprentices were often treated to performances of the drama. As Barnwell goes off to the gallows, he entreats (in verse) the audience to heed his tale:

                              If any youth, like you, in future times
                              Shall mourn my fate, though he abhors my crimes,
                              Or tender maid, like you, my tale shall hear
                              And to my sorrows give a pitying tear,
                              To each such melting eye and throbbing heart,
                              Would gracious Heaven this benefit impart:
                              Never to know my guilt, nor feel my pain.
                              Then must you own you ought not to complain,
                              Since you nor weep, nor shall I die in vain.

The sad tale of George Barnwell takes on extra resonance at the end of the chapter, when Pip's sister is found scarcely alive, "knocked down by a tremendous blow on the back of the head, dealt by some unknown hand."

Poor Pip is not responsible, of course, but the evening's entertainment makes him feel guilty, nonetheless.