Did Wearside tale inspire Dickens’ Great Expectations?

ENDURING CHARACTER: Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in the recent BBC adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations. Below, historian Michael Bute.
ENDURING CHARACTER: Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in the recent BBC adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations. Below, historian Michael Bute.
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COULD Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations have been inspired by a Wearside tale of heartbreak?

Millions of viewers tuned in over Christmas to watch Gillian Anderson play the jilted, eternal bride-to-be Miss Havisham in a BBC adaptation of the famous book.

It is thought the spinster’s tragic tale was inspired by a broken-hearted bridegroom from Cleadon Village, where Dickens once stayed.

Now historian Michael Bute is set to present new ideas on the link – including a theory on mysterious mirror-writing which appears in the landmark Cleadon House.

He said: “George Cooper Abbs, who lived at Cleadon House, told Dickens the tale of the jilted bridegroom whose bride disappeared with a groomsman before the wedding breakfast was laid out, and that he set all the clocks in the house to stay at the time he was due to be married and also the reception room to be locked up as it was laid.

“Dickens reversed the role of bride and bridegroom to suit the plot for Miss Havisham.”

Historian Joe Cox wrote the story in his history of Cleadon, which was reported in the Echo in the 1990s.

Now Mr Bute – an acquaintance of Mr Cox, who died in November 2010 – has carried out further research, which he intends to present at his talk.

He said: “Joe told me that George Cooper Abbs always met Dickens on any occasion he was in the area. I later researched the idea further.

“I already knew from my own research that Lewis Carroll knew George Cooper Abbs, as his diary shows. Abbs was an eccentric and a mine of information on the area. His house at Cleadon was described as a veritable museum, with the relics of Hylton Castle etc.”

But it is a piece of mirror-writing etched into a window at Cleadon House which most intrigues Mr Bute – who is an expert on Wearside’s links with Lewis Carroll, author of the world-famous Alice in Wonderland stories.

Mr Bute said Mr Abbs also knew Carroll and believes the woman behind the Cleadon tale of heartbreak was responsible for the mirror writing – and therefore inspiring both Dickens and Carroll.

“In my book A Town Like Alice’s, I explored the possibility of Hylton Castle being the location for the chess game in Through the Looking Glass.

“This was Carroll’s book which begins with the reversed writing on the mirror. Could Cleadon House have given Carroll the idea? His working title for his second Alice book was originally Looking Glass House.”

“On a bedroom window there someone has etched into the glass ‘The Agreeable Miss Roddam’.

“Was this Miss Roddam perhaps the future bride, etching her agreement to be married with her diamond engagement ring on the window, only to change her mind at later date? Indeed did her actions inadvertently influence the works of two world famous authors?”

Mr Bute will discuss some of the finer points of his research, including some ideas on the identity of the mysterious Miss Roddam, at his talk at Cleadon Methodist Church Hall at 7pm tomorrow.

The event is part of a series of talks by Mr Bute to mark the 140th anniversary of the publication of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Cleadon talk also coincides with events marking Dickens’ 200th anniversary.

Lewis Carroll talks are scheduled for Roker Methodist Church on February 1 at 10.30am, Sunderland Museum on February 26 at 2pm, Monkwearmouth Library on March 8 at 2pm and Wheatley House in Wheatley Hill on April 25 at 7.30pm.

Mr Bute said: “Despite similar titles no two talks are the same. Each presentation is designed to highlight Carroll’s links to that respective area.”

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