Havisham by Ronald Frame

I am usually very, very wary of sequels, prequels and other stories spun around classic novels, but I was drawn to Havisham like a moth to a flame.

The picture that Charles Dickens painted in Great Expectations, the picture of Miss Havisham frozen in time, on the morning of a wedding that would never be, while the once grand Satis House decayed around her is both extraordinary and irresistable.

“In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.

She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me.

I should have cried out, if I could.”

I had to go back and re-read Great Expectations, of course I did. And I still loved it, as much as I ever did.

HavishamNow it takes a brave man – or maybe a foolish man – to take on one of Dickens’ finest characters. And to give that character who had only ever been seen and heard with the eyes and ears of another – in this case one Phillip Pirrip – her own voice to tell her own story. But I have to say that Havisham works. It isn’t perfect, but I have to say that I think Ronald Frame has told this particular story as well as it could have been told.

Crucially he has got the voice right. I found it easy to believe that the young Catherine Havisham would grow in to the Miss Havisham who makes such an impression on me every time we meet.

She was an only child who had lost her mother and grown up alone. Her father, a self-made man, had fallen out with his family, and they had given up visiting. So Catherine learned from her father to be proud of who she was, and she learned that as a woman she could not succeed him but that it would be her role to marry well and advance her family in society. She learned all of that, but with no women folk to guide her she missed so much.

All of this was fascinating to read. The psychology was absolutely perfect.

Her father’s defiance, and many of the things he did, were a trial to Catherine but she tried to rise above it.

And then her father sent her away, to stay with a good family. they would be her entrée into society. It worked well, and at first Catherine was happy to be part of a family. But in time, of course she would realise that she wasn’t; she was part of an arrangement.

All of that made Catherine so very susceptible to a charming rogue. I know, of course, because his name was oh so familiar, but she didn’t. And she was proud, she wanted a prize, and marriage was the only prize in her grasp.

This part of the story dragged a little. I think that to some degree it pointed me towards the story I already knew, and I was impatient to get there.

And I must say, to his great credit, Ronald Frame resisted any temptation to draw in more strands from Dickens than were naturally part of his story. No coincidences here. Just a friend who Catherine unknowingly patronised who would be lost to her, or maybe worse. A troublesome, illegitimate brother who would be a trial in more ways than one. And everything brought together beautifully, by a well thought out plot.

The inevitable happened. Catherine’s mind snapped. And I could see that her downfall was the consequence of her nature, her background, the society she lived in and the terrible thing that happened.

She had pulled me into her world and I felt for her, I really did. Her life could have been so different, she has so much potential, and it was all wasted.

She tried to rally, but there would be another blow. A small deviation from Dickens maybe, but it was effective. And it was that second blow that made Catherine turn away from the world.

The great fortune that Miss Havisham had inherited from her rather made her untouchable, and she turned Satis House into a mausoleum.

The narrative was utterly gripping, and I noticed some lovely touches. Dressmakers and cobblers remaking the same wedding dress, the same wedding slippers. A sequence of events that would herald the  arrival of an ambitious young lawyer with a significant part to play.

I wish Ronald Frame had found an ending here. But Miss Havisham told her story to the very end. It wasn’t that he did anything wrong – indeed he did a lot right – but this account of events can’t match up to the original telling. Of course it can’t.

But as a whole the story works. It’s a nice tribute to a great novel. No more and no less.

2 responses

  1. I just finished this a couple of days ago. Great Expectations is one of my favourite novels so I was keen to see how he would approach the back story of Miss Havisham. I agree he did a good job of what must have been a daunting job. She has fascinated me since I first encountered her when I was 14 and the young woman he described fitted my “expectations” of her.

  2. Great Expectations is one of my favourite books from amongst the classics and I am also wary about any book that takes up a classic and alters or uses characters from it in some way. It sounds like this one is well done though. Thanks for a lovely review, you’ve made me want to give this one a try.

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