Essentially a reworking of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and set in the middle of 19th century London, Peter Carey was surprisingly awarded the 1998 Miles Franklin Literary Prize for Jack Maggs.
Not that there is anything wrong with the novel – many critics believe it is the author’s finest hour.
It is simply the fact that the Miles Franklin, at the time, was awarded to novels that promote Australian literature and Australian sensibilities. Jack Maggs is wholly set in London (although Maggs himself has travelled from Sydney) and Carey was, at the time, living in New York.
But regardless of the decision, Jack Maggs not only collected the Miles Franklin (Carey’s third), but also went on to pick up the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award.
A compulsive tale of a society on the cusp of change, Jack Maggs returns to London in utmost secret and in the gravest of danger should he be found to be walking the very soil of his home city. Deported for life at a young age to New South Wales, he has made an about turn in his fortunes and is a wealthy man from the honest craft of brickmaking.
Arriving in London with particular interest in a young gentleman, Henry Phipps, Maggs becomes involved in the household of a Great Queen Street residence, initially taking service as a disguised footman. It is the very next door to Phipps, who is living in the house Maggs himself purchased years previously. Only the young man has done a bolt, likely to be in connection with Maggs’ arrival.
Attempting to discover his whereabouts is the basis of Jack Maggs and, as a result, Maggs finds himself embroiled in affairs of the heart, illicit love, dangerous double-dealings, the occasional murder and mesmerism as emerging novelist Tobias Oates strikes a bargain with the former convict.
Looking for material for new bestseller, Oates has tricked Maggs into agreeing to be hypnotised, ostensibly to help cure a terrible facial tic. The reality is something very different as Oates plunders the unsuspecting mind for a vast wealth of material for his next book – desperately needed as the writer’s fortunes dwindle and his love for his young sister-in-law results in a socially awkward pregnancy.
This Faustian pact is at the heart of the novel as the two men battle for supremacy over each other – the battle of Goliath and David where both men play the part of David and Goliath. Wit, repartee, social standing and new science are all at hand for Oates, whereas brute strength and cunning are at the service of the colonial as Maggs discovers the games the novelist has been playing. Instead of crushing him, Maggs forces Oates to help him find Phipps.
The twentieth century ‘reply’ by Carey to Dickens’ novel is gripping, totally engaging and something of a page-turner as, in parts, Maggs’ history is revealed alongside the determination of the man to achieve his objectives.
Maggs is very obviously the Magwitch of the original, whilst Pip becomes Phipps. But there are considerable differences. The story of the young orphan boy made into a gentleman by a returned convict as a result of a kindness long ago remains. But where Pip is central in Great Expectations, the cowardly Phipps is noticeable by his absence. Unlike Magwitch, Maggs does not die a tragic death – instead he returns to his own family and grows ever wealthier no longer able to help the foolish and vain young man.
But Jack Maggs is not simply a pastiche of Dickens. It is its own story, its own novel.
Oates is loosely based on Dickens himself – in 1837 the novelist had gained a small degree of fame with the publication a year earlier of The Pickwick Papers and Dickens is known to have been attracted to his sister-in-law (although the sexual liaison and pregnancy is a myth on Carey’s part).
And twentieth century sensibilities allow more revelation and social commentary than the England of Dickens and Queen Victoria. Abortion, homosexuality, child rape, sexual passions, descriptive murders and ill-treatment of prisoners all feature in detail.
The result is a powerful novel about the displaced and the dispossessed and a tale of murder, mayhem, lust and painful lives.