In the book Great Expectations, Pip narrates:

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up ‘by hand.’

What does this term mean? Is it an idiom?

  • I trust that Dickens' grammatical faux pas in the first sentence is noted on this site. – WS2 Oct 18 '13 at 9:16

This web site says that "brought up by hand" means that he was bottle- or spoon-fed rather than nursed by his mother or by a wet-nurse.

By hand, brought up: Infants, in the absence of the mother, were either sent out to be fed by a wet-nurse (another lactating woman), or were spoon- or bottle-fed. Mrs. Joe's claim to neighborhood fame -- that she raised Pip "by hand" -- refers to the latter method.

This gave Mrs. Joe Gargery a "great reputation" because at the time, infant mortality was much larger among babies "brought up by hand". One can find usage of this original meaning of "brought up by hand", as well as discussion of the high resulting infant mortality, in Google books (the linked book is from 1846, a little more than a decade before Dickens wrote Great Expectations).


I think that the phrase is intentionally ambiguous.

Originally 'by hand' meant nursed by someone other than ones biological mother (not necessarily by bottle). But Dickens is making a bit of use of amphiboly:

The full Dickens quote is:

My sister Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up "by hand". Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand. (C. Dickens, Great Expectations

This reads to me that 'bring up by hand' mean something special and Dickens is making a play on words to the effect that 'by hand' evokes using her hand corporally against her husband and kids, so, ha ha, even though one of the kids was nursed by his mother, they were both brought up with the back of a hand applied.

Unfortunately, I can find no evidence of what I claim is the original definition in the OED.


In this context brought up by hand means brought up with the aid of lavish and unsparing use of corporal punishment, administered by slaps and cuffs rather than with the use of a cane, slipper or belt.

  • 2
    I don't believe this is the meaning at all. As the answers below indicate, to bring a young creature up 'by hand' is to rear it without benefit of its mother's milk. Young Pip, not understanding this true meaning, interprets it to mean the corporal punishment both he and Joe Gargery receive (Joe being the husband, not another child). – Mynamite May 4 '13 at 0:34
  • @Mynamite, you are right in saying what brought up by hand usually means. But here its meaning is what I have said, and the effect is intended by Dickens. Mrs Gargery obtained her great reputation because sparing the rod, and thus spoiling the child, was not regarded as a virtue in Victorian times. – Brian Hooper May 4 '13 at 7:05
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    @BrianHooper I agree Dickens is playing on a double meaning of the expression, but I think Mrs Gargery's reputation with her neighbours has come from accomplishing the difficult task of rearing an orphaned child without benefit of his mother's milk. That is my interpretation anyway, and I suppose that's what makes literature so interesting - that we can all get something different from it. – Mynamite May 4 '13 at 13:05

"At hand" means close by, or nearby. "By hand" as used in the old days, meant by the use of the hand. It means he was either spanked or slapped, or was basically a victim of any physical abuse as discipline.

protected by RegDwigнt Oct 18 '13 at 9:08

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