BOOKS: Jack Maggs

Peter Carey
Jack Maggs
Knopf

In more than one interview, the Booker-winning Australian author Peter Carey has remarked that his "race" got the short end in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. Carey saw traces of his ancestors in the repugnant Abel Magwitch, the thief who was banished to New South Wales in Dickens's classic novel; and, to compensate for his distaste at that depiction, Carey has now recast the story in his own period novel, rendered in Dickensian language.

The story is pretty familiar to Dickens fans: The banished thief Jack Maggs returns to England to find Henry Phipps, who helped Maggs during his arrest some 20 years prior. This time--for our era of victimization, therapy, and repressed memories--Carey writes a history of Maggs's damaged youth to explain and create sympathy for his rough character. Carey even psychoanalyzes Dickens through the person of Tobias Oates, a philandering, money-obsessed writer who wants Maggs's story for a lucrative serial novel. Oates plays Carey's whipping boy throughout--a nifty revenge on the 19th-century author.

In fact, each of Carey's lifelike characters exposes a different aspect of Dickens's England; through them, Carey explores class, as well as seedier topics--such as prostitution and abortion--that Dickens couldn't touch. And with each subplot, Jack Maggs adds a more modern comment on the era: In one, a low-class "midwife" and nurse of "female troubles," Ma Britten, renders her abortion services to higher-class women in trouble. Meanwhile, she runs a thieving ring, sending orphaned children--young Jack among them--down chimneys of tony homes to steal silver plate.

As obsessed with social class as any 19th-century writer, Carey seems to say that Ma Britain's got everyone's blood on her hands, terminating the unformed progeny of the upper classes while killing and exploiting her charges in a low-caste imitation of the rigid, superficial class structures of the empire.

 
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