Havisham Novel Review Essay

The tradition of the literary prequel or sequel has a long and chequered history. A few, like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, have gone on to become classics in their own right. Many more are disappointing, clumsy pastiches or pale imitations of the original. And still the temptation remains to breathe fresh life into the immortal characters of fiction. Peter Pan, Long John Silver, Scarlett O'Hara, Elizabeth Bennet – we part with them as though with friends, with the greatest reluctance. They seem too vital, too real, to be condemned for ever to a few hundred measly pages. Pride and Prejudice alone has inspired more than 70 spin-offs.

The most successful of such novels take as their starting point things that are missing from the original text, exploring their silences, their lacunae. Geraldine Brooks's March, which imagined Louisa Alcott's Little Women from the perspective of the girls' absent father, won the 2006 Pulitzer prize. As for Bertha Mason, the "clothed hyena" in Jane Eyre, she is a shadowy figure with neither voice nor history, as hidden from view in the text as she is in the attic at Thornfield. "She seemed such a poor ghost," Rhys was later to say. "I thought I'd like to write her a life." In Antoinette Cosway, Rhys not only brings the "Vampyre" Bertha shatteringly to life, she forces a dizzying shift of balance, creating a new vantage point from which to look at Brontë's original novel. As Antoinette tells us: "There is always the other side, always."

In Havisham, Ronald Frame seeks to tell the story from the side of another famously unhinged 19th-century character, Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Unlike Bertha, Miss Havisham has a history – she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer who left her with a fortune, while her erstwhile bridegroom was a slippery swindler called Compeyson. Working within this framework, Frame attempts to explain how a girl with great expectations of her own might become the spectral and embittered Miss Havisham, seeking to avenge herself on men through her beautiful, unfeeling ward, Estella.

Frame may have expropriated Dickens's character but his style is quite different. Elusive, dreamlike, the story is constructed in scraps and fragments, cut with filmic rapidity like images caught in the many facets of a diamond. Catherine Havisham is an isolated child, both precocious and insecure. Her only friend is Sally, the daughter of a loader crippled by an accident at the Havisham brewery. The friendship is deep but unequal, the social difference between the two girls an invisible but insurmountable barrier to intimacy. When she is old enough, Catherine's father sends her to an impoverished aristocratic family of his acquaintance to be "finished". There again Catherine finds herself cut off by the deep chasms of social class. By the time her education is complete, Catherine is at home nowhere. It is only the charming bounder, Compeyson, himself an outsider, who seems to offer her a place to belong.

The idea of raising a child to fulfil a destiny not of her own choosing artfully foreshadows Catherine's manipulation of Estella, just as her eagerness to seize happiness with both hands ("my suffering will be – thinking that I held back from life") poignantly prefigures her petrified future. Despite some fine writing, however, the novel moves slowly. What Catherine recognises as the "gracious but stultifying life" of an upper-class girl is no less stultifying in her accounts, and the narrative lacks sufficient tension, resembling instead a series of the static tableaux that Catherine and her companions act out to pass the time. It is only when the story picks up the threads of Dickens's novel that it comes properly to life.

The greatest difficulty with Havisham, however, lies at the very heart of the endeavour. Frame seeks to recast Miss Havisham as a woman of flesh and blood, driven mad by heartbreak, but that is to miss the point of Dickens's creation. Miss Havisham is not an elusive ghost like Brontë's Bertha but nor is she real, as Pip is real. She is an illusion of startling intensity, like the gods of fable or the witch in a fairy story. Trapped in her mausoleum of a house, the embodiment of disillusionment and bitterness, of a life wasted and anguish turned inside out, she derives her power from her otherness. By making a real person of her, Frame is obliged not only to scale her down to human size but to explain all the awkward logistical quibbles that Dickens imperiously overlooked. In so doing, he diminishes both her majestic inhumanity and her terrible pathos, and loosens her hold over our imaginations.

• Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies is published by Harvill Secker.

The enigmatic Miss Havisham has haunted the popular imagination for more than 150 years. She appeared inGreat Expectations, one of Charles Dickens' best-loved novels: It's been read widely since its publication, and was made into several immensely popular movies.

Havisham is a ghastly, aging bride in a tattered dress and veil: Cruelly abandoned on her wedding day years ago, she still presides over her wedding feast, now rotted and covered with cobwebs. Dickens' protagonist, Pip, is fascinated by Miss Havisham and, particularly, by her lovely ward Estella.

But author Ronald Frame is less interested in Pip's adventures and more intrigued by the story of the prematurely aged woman behind that veil. His new book, Havisham, is something between an autobiography and a novel. In it, Havisham gets a first name — Catherine — and a fully realized story of her own.

Frame tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the practicalities of wearing the same dress for decades, Havisham's unique relationship with Pip, and the influence of classic literature on her character.

Interview Highlights

On how Frame first encountered Miss Havisham

I was introduced a long time ago, not through the book but ... through the film: David Lean's wonderful 1946 black-and-white creation of that world. Many years later, probably, I came to the novel. And Dickens had inserted into his narrative something which, curiously enough, many people forget about, which is a back story for Miss Havisham. And it seemed to have a sort of richness and a particularity, which suggested that Dickens had thought about it very carefully.

On a scene in the book, straight from Dickens, in which Miss Havisham tells Pip to walk her around the room

It's simply a case of a degree of physical intimacy between the two of them as they walk round and round the dining table, which contains the remnants of the breakfast feast ... which hasn't been touched in the many years since, so that spiders and mice scurry about the table, and it's covered with cobwebs.

It's a complicated picture in the book because, as I said, we know that she's a recluse — on the other hand, the house seems to be filled with relatives, with people that she knows who come to her, usually asking for money, and she has a kind of Brahmin-like demeanor with them — she clicks her fingers and they all jump. And yet this is a completely different kind of relationship, and it's one that she doesn't actually have with Estella either. It's a much pricklier one with her ward, whereas with Pip, she's able to say things that we discover she can't say to anybody else.

On Catherine Havisham's education and her references to literature

I think if you study people in the street today, you do sometimes feel that they have taken their behavior and their language from things that they have seen rather than read — from soap operas and movies and so on. And I was conscious also that probably things, well, they were different and they weren't so different in Miss Havisham's time. And this idea of how do you take your inspiration, how do you know how to behave ... it seemed to me that it came from studying the classics, from music, from lyrics of songs, from poetry. And you are struck by the fact that while they did without all the kind of Internet accessibility that we have and time-saving gadgets, actually how very full their lives were, and how much reading they did, and the breadth — but also the depth — of allusion that they were capable of, that they took from their education. It's humbling.

On why he had Miss Havisham replace her wedding dress three times

I think there were two reasons. One is simply the business of personal hygiene, and it was a basic question that you had — you know, if this was the only dress that she had, how close could one physically come to her? The other thing which quite appealed to me was I wanted to show a woman whose intelligence was rather underestimated. I think she's got a very wry appraisal of her own position, and she sees quite clearly what other people think about her. And all these petitioners who come to the house, very few of them go away satisfied, and then she realizes this, and yet she kind of keeps them at the end of a rope and has some fun with them.

On whether he felt affection for Miss Havisham

If not affection, understanding of the character, yes. And, well, as [Gustave] Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, "C'est moi" — I think it's so much a part of you. You have lived with this person for days and weeks and months and, in this case, years on end. I was sorry to leave her, let's put it like that.

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