On the first of December, 1860, Dickens began the publication, in All the Year Round, of his novel of Great Expectations, and closed it in the number of that weekly which appeared on the 3d of August, 1861. His first intention, as in the case of The Old Curiosity Shop, was to write a short sketch or story for the periodical he edited. Forster had suggested to him that he should try something in his old way, — something which would recall to the public his youthful achievements in humorous scenes and characterizations. Dickens replied: “For a little piece I have been writing—or am writing, for I hope to finish it to-day—such a very fine, new, and grotesque idea has opened upon me that I begin to doubt whether I had not better cancel the little paper and reserve the notion for a new book. You shall judge as soon as I get it printed. But it so opens out before me that I can see the whole of a serial revolving on it in a most singular and comic manner.” This grotesque idea was, doubtless, the relation established between Pip and Magwitch, which might easily have been narrated in a few charming pages, such as those in which he had disposed of the germs of many other romances, in the series of essays, sketches, and portraitures of life which he was then writing under the general title of The Uncommercial Traveller. But the idea of an innocent boy establishing unconsciously an immense influence over the mind of a hunted felon, merely by giving him that assistance which he dared not refuse, haunted Dickens’s imagination until he gathered round it a whole new world of characters and incidents. He thought at first that it might furnish the materials for a monthly serjal, in twenty numbers, like Dombey and Son, or Little Dorrit; but the falling off in the circulation of All the Year Round induced him to publish it in that weekly, amid to confine it to the dimensions of A Tale of Two Cities. It is doubtful if he could have sustained himself in making the story double its present length. As it is, nothing could be better of its kind; but the atmosphere of Old Bailey and Newgate, which penetrates the whole tale, might have become insupportable in a romance as long as Copperfield or Bleak House. The only method by which the interest could have been sustained would have been a forced extension and development of Pip’s character through scenes which might have followed the downfall of his “expectations,” and which would have led him up to his eventual marriage with Estella in a less curt fashion than that which the romancer eventually employed.
To account for the conclusion of the story as it now stands, where, in a concluding chapter, “the heroine, after being married, reclaimed, and widowed, is in a page or two made love to and remarried to the hero,” we must refer to a remonstrance from friends, which was more effectual in the case of Dickens than that which protested against the death of Clarissa Harlowe, in the case of Richardson. Carlyle was among the persons who listened to the reading of advanced sheets of the story, and on one occasion, at a meeting of friends in Dickens’s house, called, in his boisterous, laughing way, for more of that “Pip nonsense;” and Bulwer Lytton was so strongly opposed to the conclusion of the story as originally written that Dickens reluctantly altered it. “I have changed the end of Great Expectations,” he wrote to Forster, “from and after Pip’s return to Joe’s, and finding his little likeness there. Bulwer, who has been, as I think you know, extraordinarily taken by the book, so strongly urged it upon me, after reading the proofs, and supported his view with such good reasons, that I resolved to make the change. You shall have it when I come back to town. I have put in as pretty a piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”