he Metropolitan News section of the January 5, 1861 The Illustrated London News contains a report of the proceedings of a Royal National Life-Boat Institution meeting. The senior members of this organization awarded captains, coastguardsmen, and deckhands various medals and monetary prizes for their valiant efforts to rescue shipwrecked sailors. The excerpt lauded the men operating the lifeboats for putting themselves at risk to save the lives of others. Despite gusting winds and turbulent waters, “the most dangerous and adverse circumstances” (Metropolitan News, 7), courageous Englishmen dragged distressed sailors from their sinking ships to the safety of the lifeboats. British seamen utilized the lifeboats to recover not just their fellow Englishmen, but foreigners as well. For example, English lifeboats saved not only “six from the Danish brig Freia” (Met. News, 7) but also “ the Russian brig Ulrica” (Met. News, 7). This article provides two, opposing views of seventeenth century seafaring boats. The wrecked brig jeopardizes, whereas the lifeboat saves men’s lives.

The “brig wrecked on the sands” ( Met. News, 7) editorial did not bear man safely across the sea, but rather left him exposed to the wrath of the ocean. In the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, young Pip similarly associates ships with terror and vice. Pip describes the ominous Hulk on the marshes as evil and foreboding. Pip perceives “the black hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by the massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seem[s] in [his] young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners” (Dickens, 76). Pip equates the Hulk to a deceitful convict. Both the wrecked brig of The Illustrated London News and Dickens’ Hulk do not deserve man’s faith. “Like the prisoners” (Dickens, 76), both ships betray the trust of man. The brig cannot support its sailors and the Hulk carries its prisoners to their doom. Although Pip matures and surmounts his childhood fears, he has a second frightful vision of a boat as an adult. During his attempt to free Magwitch, Pip imagines that a phantom boat is pursuing them. Pip states that “the dismal wind was muttering round the house, the tide was flapping at the shore, and I had a feeling that we were caged and threatened. A four-oared galley hovering about in so unusual a way as to attract this notice, was an ugly circumstance that I could not get rid of” (Dickens, 463). Like the Hulk, the “four-oared galley” (Dickens, 463) haunts Pip’s thoughts. The galley symbolizes Pip’s fear of Magwitch’s capture. The images of the wrecked brig, Hulk, and galley illustrate fear and disaster.

The report in the The Illustrated London News presents ships as not only deserters, but also saviors of the human race. For every wrecked brig there exists a lifeboat. The lifeboat embodies compassion and self-sacrifice. Great Expectations reflects this dimension as well. Pip’s attempt to row Magwitch to safety mirrors the lifeboat captains’ efforts to rescue shipwrecked sailors. Like captains of the lifeboat, Pip endangers himself to save Magwitch. Pip runs the risk of his own imprisonment when he agrees to transport Magwitch in the small boat to a larger steamer leaving England. As Pip trains and practices rowing down the river, Herbert “never br[ings][him] a single word of intelligence that [is] at all alarming. Still, [he] [knows] that there [is] cause for alarm, and [he] [can] not get rid of the notion of being watched” (Dickens, 403). Pip consents to help Magwitch escape, despite apparent danger. Like the lifeboat captains, Pip assents to put his life on the line for someone he has no true relation to. The crews of the lifeboats save shipwrecked sailors who not only bear no familial bond but also come from a different country than their saviors. Similarly, Pip helps Magwitch flee despite their difference in blood. The Illustrated London News’ lifeboats and Pip’s rowboat both symbolize human selflessness in the face of danger.

Swinburne’s depiction of ships perfectly embodies the two alternate views of boats presented in the The Illustrated London News. In“ The Triumph of Time,” Swinburne portrays man as the castaway of a shipwreck, vulnerable to the ocean’s fury (Landow). A ship should support and carry man to his destination, or safety in the case of the lifeboat. But, boats also have the ability to destroy man. Swinburne reveals that a ship has two natures; a boat can protect or abandon its passengers.

The competing perceptions of ships in both the The Illustrated London News and Great Expectationss reflect the presence of duality in Victorian literature. Victorian authors often assign their characters’ double natures. Protagonists of many popular Victorian works lead two lives. For example, Lord Dunsany’s Thomas Shap is not just a dull businessman but also a respected king in his imagined reality. Similarly, Pip is not just a child from the country but also Handel, gentleman of London. This repeated theme of duality also reveals Victorian literature as a literature of experience. A person can perceive the same thing in different ways. Pip, as a fearful child, sees ships as ominous and ghastly. But, as an adult, he comes to see ships as hopeful and promising — as lifeboats.

Related Material

References

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Graham Law and Adrian J. Pinnington. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.

Landow, George. “Swinburne's "The Triumph of Time and His Characteristic Poetic Structure.” Victorian Web. Web. May 6 2010.

“Metropolitan News.” The Illustrated London News XXXVII (5 Jan. 1861): 7.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 12 May 2010