Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Ch. 7

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Chapter VII

At the time when I stood in the churchyard reading the family tombstones, I had just enough learning to be able to spell them out. My construction even of their simple meaning was not very correct, for I read "wife of the Above"d as a complimentary reference to my father's exaltation to a better world; and if any one of my deceased relations had been referred to as "Below," I have no doubt I should have formed the worst opinions of that member of the family. Neither were my notions of the theological positions to which my Catechism bound me, at all accurate; for, I have a lively remembrance that I supposed my declaration that I was to "walk in the same all the days of my life,"h laid me under an obligation always to go through the village from our house in one particular direction, and never to vary it by turning down by the wheelwright's or up by the mill.

When I was old enough, I was to be apprenticed to Joe, and until I could assume that dignity I was not to be what Mrs. Joe called "Pompeyed," or (as I render it) pampered. Therefore, I was not only odd-boy about the forge, but if any neighbor happened to want an extra boy to frighten birds, or pick up stones, or do any such job, I was favored with the employment. In order, however, that our superior position might not be compromised thereby, a money-box was kept on the kitchen mantel-shelf, in to which it was publicly made known that all my earnings were dropped. I have an impression that they were to be contributed eventually towards the liquidation of the National Debt, but I know I had no hope of any personal participation in the treasure.

Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid two pence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it. She rented a small cottage, and Mr. Wopsle had the room up stairs, where we students used to overhear him reading aloud in a most dignified and terrific manner, and occasionally bumping on the ceiling. There was a fiction that Mr. Wopsle "examined" the scholars once a quarter. What he did on those occasions was to turn up his cuffs, stick up his hair, and give us Mark Antony's oration over the body of Caesar.h This was always followed by Collins's Ode on the Passions,h wherein I particularly venerated Mr. Wopsle as Revenge throwing his blood-stained sword in thunder down, and taking the War-denouncing trumpet with a withering look. It was not with me then, as it was in later life, when I fell into the society of the Passions, and compared them with Collins and Wopsle, rather to the disadvantage of both gentlemen.

Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, besides keeping this Educational Institution, kept in the same room—a little general shop. She had no idea what stock she had, or what the price of anything in it was; but there was a little greasy memorandum-book kept in a drawer, which served as a Catalogue of Prices, and by this oracle Biddy arranged all the shop transaction. Biddyh was Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt's granddaughter; I confess myself quiet unequal to the working out of the problem, what relation she was to Mr. Wopsle. She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel. This description must be received with a week-day limitation. On Sundays, she went to church elaborated.

Much of my unassisted self, and more by the help of Biddy than of Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter. After that I fell among those thieves, the nine figures, who seemed every evening to do something new to disguise themselves and baffle recognition. But, at last I began, in a purblindw groping way, to read, write, and cipher, on the very smallest scale.

One night I was sitting in the chimney corner with my slate, expending great efforts on the production of a letter to Joe. I think it must have been a full year after our hunt upon the marshes, for it was a long time after, and it was winter and a hard frost. With an alphabet on the hearth at my feet for reference, I contrived in an hour or two to print and smear this epistle:—

X [d] "wife of the Above"

Writing & Reading

Pip's literalism is among his most charming childhood attributes. It is often a double literalism when it concerns words themselves. His impression of his deceased father is based on "The shape of the letters on my father's [tombstone]," indicating that he had been "a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair." In a moment he will interpret literally the answer to the second o…

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X [h] "walk in the same all the days of my life,"

Religion

The answer to the second question in the Anglican catechism.

X [h] Mark Antony's oration over the body of Caesar…

Writing & Reading

A standard exercise for elocution, because it demands subtle changes of tone and irony: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen...."

X [h] Collins's Ode on the Passions,

Writing & Reading

William Collins was a mid-18th-c. poet of early Romantic sensibilities and melodramatic statement that appeal to Mr. Wopsle's theatricality. The reference is to the following stanza—best read aloud, of course—from "The Passions, An Ode to Music." The poem maps a turbulent emotional topograhy. One can envision Wopsle attempting to follow the last line's description and have his eyeballs "bursting from his head":…

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X [h] Biddy

Writing & Reading

The name might suggest a nurturing hen, but that meaning did not enter known print until about 1875. The Irishman Jonathan Swift titles a 1708 poem "To Mrs. Biddy Floyd," suggesting "Biddy" is simply a name, perthaps Irish in origin, for it also came to mean an Irish maidservant.   

X [w] purblind

Weak-sighted.