FEW readers of Great Expectations are left unintrigued by Miss Havisham, a Dickens grotesque who almost overpowers the whole novel.
The image of that dusty house with the mouldy feast and the incomprehensible lady in the rotting wedding gown is so powerfully evocative, not least in film adaptations where recent age-appropriate casting (like Helena Bonham-Carter or Gillian Anderson) somehow comes as a surprise, so sure are we that Miss Havisham must be a ghostly old crone.
But then, Great Expectations portrays her through Pip’s confused eyes, leaving us bewildered even as we recognise the marvellous portrait of someone traumatised by a shattering event.
Ronald Frame’s lyrical new book gives us Catherine Havisham’s own perspective, beginning well before her wedding-day jilting, then retracing the events of Dickens’ novel (not all of which are shown exactly the same as Pip would have it).
The current fashion for sequels and prequels to classic stories might be seen as a symptom of modern greed: we must know all, have everything explained. But Havisham manages to retain much of the mystery, making this a companion novel rather than claiming to give the “true” story. Frame gives Catherine a convincing upbringing, as the daughter of a wealthy brewer. New characters float in and out: Sally, who is both maid and friend and, perhaps, Catherine’s real love; a corrupted half-brother; a well-connected family who introduce her to sophisticated company, sex and deceit.
And then there is the jilter himself, Compeyson. Here Frame keeps it vague: Compeyson is a shadowy figure and we can’t tell how much of her maddened response to abandonment is a perverse declaration of independence rather than genuine heartbreak.
When the book reaches the more familiar story, things become clearer, but Catherine’s account can’t really explain, only portray, her remaking of herself through the medium of Estella, her “experiment” with Pip and final self-awareness. In the end, Miss Havisham is still unknowable.
Havisham by Ronald Frame
Faber & Faber £16.99
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