ickens's Great Expectations often refers to English prisons and convicts. In The Cornhill Magazine, the article titled “The English Convict System" provides insight into prisons in Victorian England at the time of the book's publication in 1861. The fact that Dickens set Great Expectations at least a decade or more before 1861 led me to inquire into the differences of the convict system in 1861 and a decade earlier that may explain the advantages of the earlier system to Dickens's story.
In chapter 32, Wemmick takes Pip on a tour of Newgate prison:
We were at Newgate in a few minutes, and we passed through the lodge where some fetters were hanging up on the bare walls among the prison rules, into the interior of the jail. At that time, jails were much neglected, and the period of exaggerated reaction consequent on all public wrong-doing- and which is always its heaviest and longest punishment- was still far off. So, felons were not lodged and fed better than soldiers (to say nothing of paupers), and seldom set fire to their prisons with the excusable object of improving the flavour of their soup. [ch. 32]
From the endnote, we learn that the incident with the soup refers to convicts rioting at Chatham Convict Prison after a reduction in their diet in February 1861 (Penguin edition of Great Expectations, 507). In contrast, the article in The Cornhill describes praises the food prisoners received: “The materials are excellent. The scale of diet was based upon eighty actual experiments, conducted with reference to the influence on the health, mood, and improvement of the prisoner" (714). In deed, the author claims: “There are few families in London which command better materials" (718) and “The cooking is excellent; better, far better, than in most ordinary inns" (719). Based on this article, it seems that convicts were not just well fed, but fed as well or even better than some non criminal Londoners.
Food is not the only area where English convicts seem to fare better than non convicts. For example, the author notes the convicts' strong health: “Nothing stuck me more than the bright and healthy look of the prisoners' eyes throughout the whole body. It is far above the average in the population out of doors, and is ascribable unquestionably to abundance of outdoor exercise, regular habits, sufficient feeding, and enforced temperance" (719). The article paints a picture of English convicts as healthier than the average population. Furthermore, “once a week every man has a bath in excellent baths" (719)" and “the bedding is good, the whole building is warm and every corner is most thoroughly ventilated" (714). From the article, it seems more advantageous for an English pauper to commit a crime and thereby be convicted to prison, where he could obtain better food, better baths, good warm lodging than if he were struggling to survive in the streets of London. Moreover, the English convict system provides the criminals with schooling. Not only do convicts attend classes, but “They are also allowed to borrow books from an excellent library in prison...It includes many standard works, historical, scientific, philosophical, and miscellaneous." (715). Given such desirable conditions in prison, it is not surprising that inmates would complain in a reduction of menu, resulting in the riot Dickens refers to.
A stark contrast exists between English convict life in 1861 and that of the time of the story's setting. The neglected jail that Pip walks through, with its bare walls and taint of crime and contamination differs from the warm, well ventilated prison the article describes. In addition, the Act of 1853 substituted penal servitude for transportation, thus ending the transportation of convicts to Australia. Such a contrast raises the question of why Dickens would want to set his story in an earlier decade under different prison circumstances.
Dickens may have chosen the earlier temporal setting to accommodate plot . For example, Magwitch would not have had a chance to make his fortune under the 1860s prison conditions. The article describes the way prisoners earned money in the 1860s:
If he behaves well for six months, he will be allowed to wear a badge, which will entitle him to receive a visit from his friends; at the end of three months he will have a second badge, and be allowed a second visit; the badge also entitling him to receive gratuities amounting to 4d., 6d, or 8d. a week, according to the quality and quantity of the work performed. He is warned, however, that during his period of confinement, or employment of any kind; the money is simply credited to his account, and accumulates to form a “gratuity" given him on discharge. 
Under this system, the type of work the convicts do consist of shoe and clothes mending, cooking, and performing public works, such as fixing roads or buildings. In addition, as can be seen from the passage, good conduct determines earnings. If Dickens had chosen to set Great Expectations at this time, because Magwitch had attempted to escape and had been caught by the police, he may not have received this second badge, entitling him to gratuities, and therefore would not have been able to make money.
In addition, setting the novel before the 1860s enables Magwitch to be transported to Australia, where he earns far more money than he would have if had remained in England. In chapter 39, Magwitch describes to Pip how he has made his fortune: “I've been a sheep-farmer, stock breeder, other trades besides, away in the new world. . . . I've done wonderfully well. There's others went out alonger me as has done well too, but no man has done nigh as well as me. I'm famous for it" (ch. 39). In The Age of Reform, E.L. Woodward describes life in Australia in the time of transportation, and mentions that sheep farming was the main lucrative trade: “after the development of the wool trade men of substance and good family began sheep-farming on a large scale" (372). Hence, if Magwitch had not been transported to Australia, he could not have amassed his fortune. Magwitch's position as Pip's benefactor has important significance. If Miss Havisham had turned out to be Pip's benefactor rather than Magwitch, Pip would not have learned that gentlemanness can exist in lowlier people like Magwitch and Joe. Hence, setting the story's time before 1853 when transportation as punishment ceased is convenient advances plot and theme.
Other prison conditions that existed in the era before the 1850s also accommodate the novel's plot. For example, if the prisons in Great Expectations were as pleasant as prisons described in the article, there would be less of an incentive to escape, especially for someone poor like Magwitch. Furthermore, the poorer prison conditions in the earlier period is more in line with Magwitch's characterization as a noble savage. When Pip provides Magwitch with food, he reflects: “He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction, of somebody's coming to take the pie away" (ch. 3). This hungry animal like convict is definitely at odds with a convict that would be coming from Chatham prison, with its superior food, schooling, baths, and good bedding. The reader and Pip sympathizes all the more with Magwitch because he is savage like, yet has a kind heart, living his life to attempt to provide for Pip. Hence, although I do not know for sure why Dickens chose to set Great Expectations at least a decade or earlier than the time of its publication, the earlier setting does complement aspects of plot and theme and characterization.
- Dickens, The Westminster Review, and the Convict Question
- Charles Dickens's “Philadelphia, and its Solitary Prison," Ch. 7 in American Notes (1842)
- Pentonville Prison (the silent system)
- Prisons in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit
Last modified 1996