If I say “Dickensian London” the English reader generally knows what I mean. Industry, soot, fog, poverty. Children working dangerous jobs for little pay.
Jack Maggs has just arrived back in London after what was supposed to be a life sentence to Australia. When the man he desperately seeks, Henry Phipps, is nowhere to be found, Maggs ends up as a footman in the house next door. His new master is Percy Buckle, a former grocer who has become a gentleman after an unexpected inheritance.
Maggs is everything you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. He’s rough and powerful, overly sensitive and ready for violence at any moment. When he has a sort of fit while serving dinner to Percy Buckle and the author Tobias Oates, Oates sees it as the perfect opportunity to delve into one of his pet interests – the Criminal Mind. He and Maggs strike a deal and, under the guise of curing Maggs’ fits, Oates delves into Maggs’ past via hypnotism, searching for content for his next great novel.
It’s the characters that really make the novel. Maggs is rough and unlikeable but Carey creates a certain sympathy for him as we learn about his past, his tragically Dickensian childhood, and his current quest. Buckle is a fascinating character. Someone who has made the journey from poverty to riches. I found my opinion of him constantly changing as his actions began to reveal who he was. Carey paints a portrait of a weak ineffectual man and then slowly reveals what his impoverished past has created within him. The character of Buckle is heavily nuanced, particularly as we learn more about his relationship with his housemaid, Mercy Larkin. Mercy is headstrong, and either brave or foolish as she dares to get closer to Maggs than any one else.
When I compare this novel to Dickensian literature its because Carey’s inspirations here are clear. This is a clever re-telling of Dickens’ Great Expectations, from the perspective of Magwitch, the secret benefactor of young Pip. Carey borrows heavily on the imagery and flavour of London as Dickens saw it. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the more unsavoury aspects that Dickens only alluded to – adultery and abortion in particular. The writer, Tobias Oates, stands in for Dickens at the beginning of his career. One success behind him already but desperate to be able to find his next money-maker. It isn’t a flattering portrait of the author as Oates mines the lives of unwitting victims around him but it seems like more of a send-up of the entire profession than Dickens alone and so Carey points the finger back at himself as he takes from the literary landscape of another author.
Whether or not you have read or enjoy Great Expectations (and it’s my least favourite Dickens novel) Jack Maggs makes a good strong read. The book loses nothing if you don’t pick up on the allusions to Dickens and his work and if you have read Dickens then Carey still offers some unexpected turns.