Walworth and Newgate, Offline and Online

Great Expectations dwells obsessively on questions of identity and authenticity. This probably doesn’t say all that much (and nothing I’m going to say here has not been said before). All novels explore this territory to some extent: the question of who we really are when we are ourselves is one of central concerns of the form. But, Dickens’ tale of ultimately disappointed expectations (spoiler alert?) explores the question of what makes up the authentic self with unusual focus. Great Expectations is filled with con-artists, actors, frauds, and circumstances where appearances do not match up with reality. Even outside the central plot twist that most dramatically announces this central theme (hint: Pip’s benefactor is not who Pip thinks it is), Dickens slyly lets the narration by an older, wiser Pip looking back on his life raise questions concerning subjectivity and the self. As Pip tells his story (and it is his story in his telling) the reader is left to ask: who is the real Pip? The poorly educated apprentice? The naive innocent manipulated by others? The hopeless romantic? The ungrateful son? The wasteful snob? The loyal friend? The “true” gentleman? (etc.)

But, even if there are many different Pips, they are all rather self-involved bores and Great Expectations is much more fun exploring identity and authenticity through the character of John Wemmick, a clerk for Mr. Jaggers (a lawyer, and Pip’s guardian once he moves to London). Wemmick is described as a man with two separate lives split between his work in the shadow of Newgate prison with the intimidating Mr. Jaggers, and his cottage (which is made to look like a castle) in Walworth, where he cares for his elderly father, the “Aged P.” Wemmick is described as attentive, kind, and caring when in Walworth, but becomes “dryer and harder” as he nears the office until “at last, when we got to his place of business and he pulled out his key from his coat-collar, he looked as unconscious of his Walworth property as if the Castle and the drawbridge and the arbor and the lake and the fountain and the Aged, had all been blown into space together by the last discharge of the Stinger [the “castle’s” canon].” When Pip first visits Wemmick in his home Wemmick explains that Mr. Jaggers has “Never seen [the house] … Never heard of it. Never seen the Aged. Never heard of him. No; the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you, you’ll oblige me by doing the same. I don’t wish it professionally spoken about.” The divide is so severe that Pip comes to think of Wemmick as two people, referring to him as twins: a good, warm (Walworth) twin and an stern, calculating (Newgate) twin.

The stark private/public divide in Wemmick’s life seems like a caricature, but in that peculiar way Dickens has (especially with his minor characters), the very extremity of the characterization gives the portrayal a sense of reality (one of Dickens’ great powers is to remind the reader that reality is more extreme than we sometimes care to admit). Modern cubicle dwellers (like myself) can likely recognize something of themselves in Wemmick. We are different people in the office than we are at home: we dress differently (my toddler recognizes my “dada wook shoes”), we speak differently (I do not “touch base” at home), and my family has a limited understanding of what exactly it is I do all day (I’m not totally sure myself, but it involves spreadsheets, emails, and phone calls). The self can be divided in other ways as well – the sort of professional/personal split Wemmick tries to maintain is probably only possible in modern, urban environments where work happens away from home (and Dickens makes this explicit in his portrayal of Joe, the village blacksmith, whose house and forge are the same building). In our current “social media” moment, it is interesting to think about the self we present in public and the lives we live in private: the online twin and the offline twin. For Wemmick, “Walworth is one place, and this office is another … My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken in this office”; for us, “Instagram is one place and our actual day-to-day life another … only (shiny) Instragram-worthy moments will be posted to Instagram and the rest of the day-to-day will remain unremarked.” The oddity of this particular split is that so much of our private life gets broadcast in public.

In thinking about the divided self and the way we portray our lives in different contexts, it is worth recognizing the difficulty Wemmick has in maintaining a separation between his two selves. As mentioned, Wemmick’s cottage is a “castle,” complete with ramparts, a canon, moat and drawbridge. This is primarily played for humorous effect by Dickens (the moat is just a shallow ditch a person could easily step across, the castle is a tiny cottage etc.), but it is clear that Wemmick at some level sees his Walworth life as something in need of defense and protection. But, defense against what or against whom? Jaggers, maybe (although Jaggers has his own difficulties with his professional persona creeping into his personal life, despite his constant hand washing with scented soaps). But, it seems much more that Walworth Wemmick is trying to protect himself against Newgate Wemmick. Eating toast with the Aged P. or working in the garden is precious to Wemmick but this life is something that his office persona cannot participate in or even understand. Yet, Newgate creeps in everywhere. Wemmick has a hard time shaking off his Newgate self, noting that even when “we are strictly in our private and personal capacity, still it may be mentioned that there are Newgate cobwebs about.” Newgate has even broached the walls of the castle as Wemmick keeps a “collection of curiosities” on display in his house that are “mostly of a felonious character; comprising the pen with which a celebrated forgery had been committed, a distinguished razor or two, some locks of hair, and several manuscript confessions written under condemnation,—upon which Mr. Wemmick set particular value as being, to use his own words, ‘every one of ’em Lies, sir.’”

It is important that in terms of influence the pressure is always applied by the public, professional Wemmick on the personal, private Wemmick. There never seems to be much risk that Newgate Wemmick will go soft; the concern is that the Walworth Wemmick will lose his gentleness and kindness. The one time Walworth Wemmick makes an appearance in the context of the law office it leads to awkwardness between Jaggers and Wemmick until a client arrives whom Wemmick can attack and reduce to tears before throwing him out, thus restoring his professional identity. It is a comic scene, but like all good comedy it has a hint of the tragic mixed in. The reader feels as though the Walworth Wemmick is the “real” Wemmick (perhaps because Pip seems to think so), or perhaps better, that Walworth Wemmick ought to be the real Wemmick. But, Walworth Wemmick (and the Aged P.) depend on Newgate Wemmick to pay for the nightly toast, and as long as this is the case the divide will remain, as will the need for defense against the “Newgate cobwebs.”

The “real” Wemmick is some mix of both Newgate and Walworth, and while I find Wemmick to be one Dickens’ funnier creations I do feel some anxiety that Walworth Wemmick will eventually lose his battle and succumb to the shadow of Newgate. How will Walworth survive the loss of the Aged P., I wonder? Perhaps Miss Skiffins can man the ramparts. I suppose some of my anxiety is connected to the feeling that just like Walworth needs defense against the encroachment of Newgate, it does feel like the offline twin needs protection from the online twin when thinking through the divide between the self we project on social media and the self we are in everyday life. How much of contemporary life is evaluated by whether it is Instagram worthy (or not)? I’m not sure Wemmick’s policy of strict separation is one that should be emulated, but any attempt to combine the private and the projected seems doomed to failure: the projection would consume the reality – it’s engineered into the architecture of the medium. Maybe it would just be better to leave Newgate behind altogether and join Joe the blacksmith in the country, leaving the doubleness and falsity of London behind.

Advertisements