I first thought about writing a novel about Miss Havisham more years ago than I care to remember. Of course, Dickens has already given us the bones of her back-story in Great Expectations. But I wanted to flesh that out and to find out why and how she ended up as she did.
I’d seen the film before I read the book – the superlative 1946 David Lean version in black and white (incidentally, glowing beautifully in its remastered form). Who is going to forget their first sighting of Miss Havisham, clad in tattered wedding dress and enthroned in her chair, instructing the boy Pip to step forward, into that creepy dimensionless room of firelight shadows and cobwebs?
Martita Hunt played the part as if a woman in her fifties – which is at least two decades too many. That doesn’t really matter – I was cast under her spell from that first introduction as a boy, watching her on TV probably on a dreich Sunday afternoon. Somehow she seemed more alive to me on screen than she was to do on the page.
That might seem an odd confession for a writer to make but I don’t think it is. I write novels because I can’t make films. They’re surrogates. My books have all been quite visual: writers like me who grew up on film and TV discovered ways of editing which earlier book-bound generations didn’t. We valued fluidity of story, and found the flashback quite natural.
Dickens loosely based Miss Havisham on two eccentric women previously written up in the journal he edited, Household Words. I wanted her to tell her story in the first person, bringing us all the way up to the point where we meet her in Great Expectations, and then in the last quarter or so of my novel viewing the Great Expectations narrative wholly from her point of view.
What I knew I didn’t want to do was put my cast into crinolines and breeches, so to speak: I didn’t want them to be like modern people dressed funnily. I wanted to imagine what it might have felt like to be living your life then, two centuries ago or a little longer – living inside your body, inside your head.
We know from Dickens that Mr Havisham was a Kent brewer, and that his daughter (I call her Catherine) had a reputation for being proud. I did some research into brewing in the late 18th century and beyond and soon realised that brewers in those days were very much the aristocrats of trade – they made a great deal of money, especially (those in Kent anyway) during the Napoleonic Wars, when the navy had to be kept in beer and ale.
So I figured that Joseph Havisham, a well set-up brewer with a daughter (a not very biddable one) on his hands, would have wanted to give the young woman some social polish, to “finish” her before sending her out into Society – with the purpose of making a glittering marriage, either to the heir to new money or to the eldest son of a blueblood family. In that regard, I felt I could arrange things so that the Dickensian milieu is brought up against the Jane Austen one.
Although I wasn’t writing a social history, I still had to ensure that it was authentic. So I wasn’t just researching the history of brewing – there were so many more things – clothes, horse-racing, carriages, dances, food, poetry, pub names, even doggerel.
As I mentioned, this is a project I began a long time ago. For various reasons it lay in my laptop, a series of obsolescent laptops, gathering cyberdust. Every so often I would return to it and read through a chapter or two. I felt detached about it, yes, but in a useful way. When I did return to the manuscript, with figurative red pen in hand (more a case of the delete button), as the year of Dickens’s bicentenary approached – I was better able to be objective about the text.
I’m not trying to improve on Dickens (how could I?), but to write in a way that – more lyrical and baroque than I usually write – stays true to his spirit. I might, for example, have moved further away from Great Expectations and turned it into a widescreen epic, or else into a more contemporary-feeling rom-dram, complete with neat psychological rationale and with characters easier for readers to “identify with”.
But that wasn’t for me – nor, I felt, for Catherine Havisham or for Compeyson, the lover who (we already know) jilts her on the morning of their wedding, as the excited Catherine is dressing, at twenty minutes to nine – the time which will show on all the clocks in the house once she has them stopped.
My novel is free-standing, but it probably acquires an extra dimension if it’s read as a homage. Most people will have heard of Miss Havisham – even if they haven’t ever opened a copy of the original, even if they’re more likely to spell the surname “Haversham”.
What I hope readers take away from my own prequel isn’t necessarily overt sympathy for Catherine, but at least a sense of the grown-upness – the contradictoriness – of this cast of characters. Adult human affairs are complex, as are our motives for behaving as we do. I don’t account for all of the sly and astute “Miss Havisham”: some of the riddle, the enigma, of the woman is left intact.
I hope I’ve given back to Catherine Havisham her youth, her sparkle, her curiosity, and her joie de vivre – before the best part of her was betrayed. As tends to happen in life, she is the victim of others’ … not so much their callousness or malevolence, but of their self-centredness and casual indifference.
The Havisham heiress is a much-loved “icon” of our literature, and I realise that some readers at least will feel extra-protective towards her. I didn’t want to alienate them and don’t think I have – but that must be for them to judge.
• Havisham by Ronald Frame is published on November by Faber, priced £16.99 – meet the author at 6.30pm at Waterstone’s, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow.
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