London is Memoir Country: Aspiring Authors in Jack Maggs?

Alexander Zevin, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict in Great Expectations, is not simply re-imagined in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, he is re-written and inter-contextualized within the rather stuffy compartments of Percy Buckle's residence on Queen Street. Gone are the marshes, the queer funereal drapery of Satis House, replaced by a London mansion in which the servants are thye protagonists. Here the downstairs are upstairs; and timid Mr. Buckle flees to the snuggery to read lest he be trampled under foot. The former fried fish salesman will soon have no choice but to come down, for with the arrival of Jack Maggs, Buckle and his house are quite literally taken hostage. If this sounds like the stuff of a novel that is because it is a novel -- many of them, to be precise. Lest you get any ideas Tobias Oates has already staked his claim with typical titular flair: "A Grocer in Great Queen Street."

But let's not forget Maggs whose fast-drying, expressive script we see more of than anyone else's including Oates'. Indeed Maggs will not allow himself to be forgotten. He is no passive subject of Oates's hypnosis; he is a surly and menacing servant; even his physical presence is hulking, his scent musky, with piercing eyes set beneath a furrowed brow. He vies along with Oates and Buckle and even Carey for discursive control of the novel. For this reason Jack Maggs is not a retelling of Great Expectations so much as a struggle to tell. Maggs confesses his life story to an unwilling Henry Phipps; Oates imagines the public spread out beneath his feet listening intently -- and paying for the pleasure. Even Constable and Mercy Larkin struggle with a painful past that repeatedly rises to the surface of the text. Thus each scene is retold, histories repeat and overlap, and authorial imprimatur reseeds into a fraught fog -- a narrative prism.

The author, after Carey, who attempts to exert control of the text most forcefully, is Tobias Oates. His exploitation of Jack Maggs, for spectacle and inspiration, has disastrous consequences. Oates explains his near maniac enthusiasm for Maggs thus:

"At night, Mr. Buckle, I walk the city. I walk down past your old shop in Clerkenwell, down into Limehouse, back up through your dreadful Seven Dials. Wally Duke's. The Hopping Toad. The Sheaf of Barley. I have them all here inside my cranium. But what you have brought me here is a world as rich as London itself. What a puzzle of life exists in the dark little lane-ways of this wretch's soul, what stolen gold lies hidden in the vaults beneath his filthy streets."

"I don't follow you, Sir?"

"It's the Criminal Mind," said Tobias Oates, "awaiting its first cartographer."



Does Maggs represent the "Criminal Mind"? Does Oates represent the Victorian author? In what ways do these labels fit? In what ways are the labels subverted or transfigured by the intent of Maggs and Oates, and Carey?


Oates calls Magg's mind "as rich as London itself." What does this imply about Maggs and about London? Are both inseparably criminal and wretched? Are both full of life? Or are both valuable only in so far as Oates can exhume them using magnets and quills?

The word "cartographer," is a striking choice in the context of London and the "Criminal Mind" of Magwitch. The word holds inevitable imperial connotations used vis--vis metropolitan London, "mother" or "head" of the colonies, of Empire. What is the role of the writer, here, in representing that world -- his power to distort or reflect or produce the hegemony of empire, the rationale of empire? How is Carey implicating Oates in this colonial architecture?

In what ways does Maggs rebel against this subjection and classification? How does his writing style -- and his implicative purpose in writing -- contrast with that of Tobias Oates? And Carey's?


Carey, Peter. Jack Maggs. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004