Summer Selections: Jack Maggs and National Identities

by Chloe Godin

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, first published in 1997, is a re-doing of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. Dickens’ bildungsroman novel was published in 1860-1861, and was set in early to mid-nineteenth century Britain. Following his example, the Australian novelist, Carey sets his novel in Britain’s Regency era, which spanned from 1795 to 1837. It is a neo-gothic and neo-regency fiction, the latter of which grew in popularity in the late twentieth century. It charts the psychological journey of the titular character Jack Maggs, who grew up in the slums of London but was transported, in later years, to Australia for his crimes. He has spent roughly half of his life in England and half in Australia, thus giving him a nationality crisis. Britain’s Regency era was a time of extreme contrasts and great change, while the gothic was a time of fear and uncertainty. This essay will explore them both, as well as Jack’s nationality, from the perspective of Britain and from Jack himself. To gain a better understanding, this essay will also explore the term nationality and what it meant at the time Jack Maggs is set, in both Britain and Australia. Jack Maggs’s nationality crisis reflects the zeitgeist of the Regency era and gothic aesthetics.

The two conflicting nationalities of Jack Maggs, English and Australian, create uncertainty in his psyche. They reflect the social friction and extreme contrasts that were prevalent during the Regency era. The Regency era officially ran from 1811 to 1820, when Prince George IV ruled as proxy for his father King George III, who had been deemed unfit to rule. The period 1795-1837 though, is often associated with the Regency due to unique trends in fashion, culture, architecture and literature. It was a time of transition; after absolute monarchy but before democracy, and between the agricultural age and the industrial age. People watched their world completely transform; London was redesigned, the risqué waltz was introduced, and trading ceased with a mostly Napoleon controlled Europe. This climaxed with the battle of Waterloo, huge political unrest, resulting in riots, and economic hardship for the poor due to decades of war. George IV brought a time of ‘…degenerate ignominy – ‘an age of great material prosperity, but of moral and spiritual poverty…’[i] The stratifying of classes in London is evident in Carey’s novel, as he uses it to the extremes. The slums are described as ‘…Hell’s Doorway…’, and by capitalising this we can assume that, for Carey, they epitomise London’s underworld.[ii] In comparison, Buckingham Palace has ‘…gates that might have been the ones that Peter guarded…’[iii] Peter refers to St Peter who guards the gates of heaven, and Carey uses this holy reference to epitomise royalty, and the upper classes, to ridicule them and contrast heavily with the slums. These two opposing worlds exist together, with one being, usually unwittingly, ignorant of the other. You can also see this in J.M Coetzee’s Age of Iron, set in post-colonial South Africa’s Apartheid era. When Jack first returns to London gas lighting has been installed while he has been away, making the city look like it ‘…had become a fairground…’ [iv] Carey’s use of terminology could be comparing Regency Society with the tricks and illusions of a fairground. With this view, Jack is the victim of trickery and betrayal by Henry Phipps’s fake portrait of George IV. Not unlike how George IV deceived and betrayed his country with his rule and his portraits, as they were designed to make him appear slimmer. ‘Societies in times of transition are always societies in stress…’[v]  and both England and Jack were at war with themselves in their transitional periods. The Regency zeitgeist of unease reflects this, as when Jack moves to Australia, England moves to the stability of the Victorian era. 

The neo-gothic Jack Maggs not only maintains the gothic elements from Great Expectations for aesthetic purposes, it also exploits them to become a reflection of Jack’s nationality crisis. Gothic London’s dark and narrow streets reflect the disorientation and confusion in Jack’s psyche. The popularity of the gothic literary genre, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was partly due to its arrival coinciding with a time of pre-existing unease. The Napoleonic Wars, French Revolution and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution caused fear, uncertainty and even riots. During this time fictional London became a city of terror through darkness, the unknown and obscurity. Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny is often connected with gothic fiction, as making the familiar strange is, to the reader, both disturbing and fascinating. Carey’s London ‘…becomes implicated in the motives, desires and conflicts of…’ Jack Maggs.[vi] In the beginning of the novel his past is hidden, slowly though, it is revealed he is a convicted criminal who had previously been transported to Australia. This discovery results in Jack’s anxiety growing, and an increase of gothic terminology, which, heightens the reader’s perception of it. London turns darker and foggier, partly due to weather and partly due to pollution. At this time London’s air was heavily polluted, which was known to cause accidents and deaths. Carey describes the pollution as sulphurous, and could have been inspired by the Tambora volcano that erupted in 1815. It released sulphur dioxide into the air causing a year without summer for the entire northern hemisphere in 1816. London, it could be interpreted, was poisonous, and it could be said that Jack was polluted and corrupted by London, which then, made him a criminal. Jack’s increasingly ‘…turbulent emotions…’ are physically represented in the ‘…dark cumulus clouds…’ that hover over London.[vii][viii] Since cumulus clouds can lead to cumulonimbus clouds, otherwise known as storm clouds, this foreboding culminates, literally and figuratively, in the storm of the climax. Carey’s distortion of space is combined with also a distortion of time. The beginning of the novel keeps a detailed account of the year, month, day and time, however as the novel’s events progress, and Jack’s anxiety increases, these details become vague until there is hardly any mention. A lack, or losing, of time, which is disorientating for the characters and the reader, blur the days together, charting Jack’s mental breakdown. When Jack starts thieving mentions of spiders and spider webs begin, which could be Carey’s gothic metaphor for how Jack gets tangled in the web of London’s criminal underworld. The reader, the other characters, and even Jack himself start off confused about who Jack is, and the deeper we all delve into his psyche, the darker the streets of London become. Carey, unwittingly or not, has made the dark streets of gothic London, for the reader, become an emotional aesthetic.

The city of London made Jack Maggs’ a criminal and, at this time in Britain, criminality meant foreign, and therefore Australian. It is also through Jack’s time spent in London that his realisation of his true nationality comes. During the Regency era the British Empire was at the height of its power and stayed that way for over half a century. The more the empire encountered and subdued foreign lands and people, the more their fear of the foreign increased and the more they associated foreign with criminality and barbarism. Barbarous and primitive were, in fact, the term gothic’s original meaning when it was first used by Horace Walpole, in his novel The Castle of Otranto published in 1764. This fear of the foreign was followed by an ‘…uneasy awareness of a hybrid, deeply fractured, and contradictory self.’[ix] Convicts, like Jack, who had suffered ‘…emotional dislocation…’ from transportation, became such hybrids.[x] Further emphasising this is when Jack himself, potentially, stereotypes Australians as barbaric by firmly demanding he is ‘…not of that race…’[xi] As a baby Jack had been raised from the mud of the ‘…evil-smelling river…’ Thames.[xii] As if the evil river had corrupted him from birth, Carey often uses terminology that induces the idea of London connected ‘…with evil and corruption.’[xiii] The Thames, during Jack’s time, was actually polluted and corrupt; it was used as a dumping ground for the city’s sewage and rubbish. As a mud rat, Jack and other criminals are vermin of Britain as rats are the vermin of London. When he starts thieving he enters houses via chimneys, and, ‘…like a babe…’ he gets pushed down, suggesting Jack’s rebirth into London’s criminal underworld.[xiv] The black chimney soot covers him and could be another of Carey’s references to the connection between foreignness, specifically black people here, and criminality. There are instances of irony, such as his adopted mother Mary Britten’s last name, True Briton, the name of the coach he travels in, and possibly even Jack’s first name in reference to the Union Jack. Irony makes the reader think, as it highlights Jack’s situation, especially as he ends up abandoning Britain. He is often described, by other characters and by Carey, as unnatural. At one point he has an ‘…alien body…’ which emphasises Jack’s foreignness and his intrusion.[xv] This idea Carey uses could be inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein’s monster is alien and unnatural, and Carey even uses a well-known description of the monster; ‘…lustrous black…’ to reinforce this.[xvi]  Jack’s foreignness gets physically represented, when Jack gets a limp from wearing the dead footman’s old shoes; they do not fit him just as he does not fit in England. On the ebbing of the river Severn a willow branch was ‘…drifting slowly to the south…’ and as Jack had earlier been described as flotsam, something that is rejected or discarded, it could be a sign that he will inevitably be drawn south back to Australia.[xvii] Perhaps by coincidence, the willow tree is compatible with other species and creates hybrids; just like Jack’s hybridity. Britain had inadvertently created an entirely new country in Australia, of new people, who had abandoned Englishness. They had therefore become foreign, and as Jack was raised, then polluted and corrupted, by London into criminality, it could be argued he has always been Australian and never been English. It is only by being in England, and therefore London, that the constant subtle hints of Jack’s foreignness to it, make him realise the truth. The changed England no longer has a place for him, so he accepts his Australian nationality. Jack returns, of his own free will to Australia, as a settler and not as a convict and the nation welcomes him home.

England and the London in Carey’s novel were, at this time, struggling to define their identity. The term nationality became incredibly important during this time in England, which therefore had repercussions for Australia. The French Revolution and its aftermath caused whispers of revolution in England. However, due to an already pre-existing fear of the foreign, England was, at this time, attempting to ‘…distance all that was “English” from the French…’[xviii]  A revolution in England would, therefore, have been considered un-English. It resulted in ‘…Englishness [becoming] a defining characteristic…’ though for Jack it is the opposite.[xix] Around 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies in total, where they would, through working on the land, be supposedly morally cleansed. Transportation was treated as ‘…the necessary amputation of diseased or criminal limbs from the body politic…’ [xx] Jack has two fingers missing, so it could be a physical representation of his amputation from England. Carey frequently makes connections between the Thames being the dumping ground for London, just as Australia was the dumping ground for Britain. This presents the idea of Jack, who had been dumped into both, becoming almost a metaphor for unwanted rubbish or something to be discarded. One of Peter Carey’s students stated that; ‘When you change countries you lose your peripheral vision.’[xxi] While Jack was being tortured in Australia, he would ‘…imagine the long mellow light of English summer.’[xxii] England, for him, became a place to escape to from the pain, so it explains his lack peripheral vision and his obsession with England. Nationality though, does not seem as relevant to England’s lower classes, as Jack mentions that they ‘…never knew the name of the country that they lived in…’ let alone had any nationality.[xxiii] This could be another reason why Jack has this nationality crisis to begin with. A lack of any substantial national identity would have made him even more confused, and therefore fragmented. It is not surprising then that Carey uses a reverse of the terminology for Jack, as in the end, he ‘…escaped London…’ to go back home to Australia.[xxiv]

With an awareness of gothic aesthetics and Regency zeitgeist, and what nationality meant at this time, Carey’s choice of setting for Jack Maggs’s nationality crisis takes on a new significance. In Jack’s time of transition, and eventual identity epiphany, his national identity, and also that of Regency London’s, is questioned by the gothic genre. One of gothic’s key features, critics have acknowledged, is the fragmentary condition of its narrative. The storm, loss of time and point of view, his deteriorating appearance and London’s increasingly gothic aesthetics, could be argued to be the deterioration and fragmentation of Jack’s psyche externalising. Dickens stated that ‘…subjectivity or the narrating self is… constructed through [London’s] gloomy squares that are identifiably Gothic.’[xxv] Jack’s discovery of his nationality therefore, comes as a result of his time spent in gothic London, as it questioned his identity. The gothic, like the Regency era, is ‘…excessive, grotesque, overspilling its own boundaries and limits.’[xxvi] These qualities subvert the dominant and create uncertainty and fear. In Jack particularly they, through destabilising normality, destabilise his already fragmented identity. By his letters, admissions and Oates’s invasion of his psyche, we learn ‘[w]hat a puzzle of life exists in the dark little lane-ways of this wretch’s soul…’[xxvii]  The deliberate act of comparing London’s gothic streets with Jack’s soul, informs us that Carey wanted the reader to consider the cityscape as a reflection of Jack’s psyche, and possibly as well an extension. Foreignness, gothic, and corruption are all linked, which are particularly present in Carey’s novel, and Regency gothic London, harbours all three. Gothic London’s toxicity, from the polluted river and atmosphere, corrupted Jack, making him a criminal, and since for the Regency that also meant foreign, gothic Regency London, it could be said, ironically created, in Jack, what it feared most.

Jack Maggs’s nationality crisis reflects the zeitgeist of the Regency era and gothic aesthetics. They both become Peter Carey’s advantage, as they combine to create a mirror image of Jack’s psyche, and his psychological journey. Through the gothic, his psyche is externalised as it reflects his emotional aesthetics. While through the zeitgeist of the Regency, his psyche’s ambience and growing anxiety is reflected. They could be interpreted as becoming Carey’s attempt to externalise Jack’s nationality crisis and then reflect it upon the city of Regency London. Just like Dickens used the gothic to inspire fear and a sense of destabilising of reality, whether deliberate or not, Carey’s London achieves the same. Freud’s concept of the uncanny allows us to understand how we, the reader and the other characters, find Carey’s gothic Regency London, and by association Jack, morbidly curious. It is this curiosity that compels the reader and the other characters, particularly Oates, to delve deeper into Jack’s psyche and, also by association, London’s streets. Perhaps a reason why Carey chose Regency London for his setting, apart from following Dickens, was because of the times identity issues that seem to perfectly mirror Jack’s. Both had been through a time of corruption and both had, in 1837 when the novel ends, realised their identity and become secure in their national identity; just as post-colonialism won in Australia, it also won in Jack’s psyche. Since gothic connects with corruption, and corruption with foreignness, then Jack, being foreign with his fragmented psyche, would be terrifying to Regency London. It could also be argued that Jack himself has been betrayed by London. It raised him to be a criminal, almost like a parental figure, but then rejects him because of it. It interestingly coincides with the children in novel who are betrayed and let down by their parental figures. Carey maintains the idea of reflection though, and uses the reflection from Jack’s silver mirror to reveal Jack’s concealed thoughts. They are written backwards and in invisible ink, he then in turn, uses reflection to reflect Jack’s nationality crisis, onto gothic aesthetics and Regency zeitgeist in London.    


[i] Nicholas Dixon, "From Georgian To Victorian | History Today", Historytoday.Com, 2010 <> [accessed 25 March 2017].

[ii] Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, 1st edn (London [etc.]: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 77.

[iii] Carey, p.96

[iv] Carey, p.2

[v] Leonard Picker, "Mystery Captures The Zeitgeist: PW Talks With C.S. Harris", Publishersweekly.Com, 2013 <> [accessed 25 March 2017].

[vi]  Lawrence Phillips and Anne Witchard, London Gothic, 1st edn (London: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2010), p. 2.

[vii] Carey, p.150

[viii] Carey, p.290

[ix] Cannon Schmitt, Alien Nation, 1st edn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 1997), p. 14.

[x] Kirsty Reid, Gender, Crime And Empire, 1st edn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), p. 2.

[xi] Carey, p.312

[xii] Carey, p.104

[xiii] Phillips and Witchard, p.1

[xiv] Carey, p.98

[xv] Carey, p.82

[xvi] Carey, p.173

[xvii] Carey, p.258

[xviii] Schmitt, p.13

[xix] Schmitt, p.10

[xx] Reid, p.12

[xxi] Mel Gussow, "Championing A Fabled Bandit; For Novelist, A Rogue Australian Sums Up His Underdog Culture", Nytimes.Com, 2001 <> [accessed 21 March 2017].

[xxii] Carey, p.322

[xxiii] Carey, p.93

[xxiv] Carey, p.327

[xxv] Phillips and Witchard, p.2

[xxvi] Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, Victorian Gothic, 1st edn (Basingstoke [u.a.]: Palgrave, 2000), p.xi

[xxvii] Carey, p.90

Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.