Havisham

Ronald Frame imagines the past of an iconic Dickens character – the jilted and vengeful Miss Havisham.

By , Monitor fiction critic

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    Havisham,
    by Ronald Frame,
    Picador,
    368 pp.
    View Caption

How did Miss Havisham end up in that wedding dress?

Charles Dickens never offered a backstory for his iconic character, the jilted bride who shut herself off from the world. We never even learn her first name in “Great Expectations.”

In his new novel, Havisham, Scottish author Ronald Frame examines how a brewer’s daughter might have come to don that tattered veil, with the remains of her wedding feast moldering perpetually on the dining table – her only aim in life to unleash her beautiful, cold-hearted ward, Estella, on men in revenge for the lover who jilted her.

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From Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” to Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea,” literature offers a number of examples of authors who have taken minor characters from great works of literature and given them their own lasting settings. In fact, Frame isn’t even the first author to pluck a character from “Great Expectations”: Booker Prize winner Peter Carey’s “Jack Maggs” brought the convict who secretly adopted Pip roaring to life in 1998.

“Havisham” is an intelligently written prequel, and, for the first two thirds of the novel, Frame succeeds admirably. Catherine Havisham is a bright, spoiled, lonely little girl – alternately indulged and ignored by her father. Her mother died giving birth and Catherine’s father is determined that his daughter will climb as high as his money can fling her, buying her jewelry and an upper-class education. “My father took advice where he could, but it wasn’t as straightforward as he might have envisaged, educating a daughter above her station,” Catherine says wryly.

Her only friend is Sally, the daughter of a worker who was injured in an accident in the brewery, and the inequality of the two girls’ positions makes real friendship an impossibility. Meanwhile, the cook is remarkably unservant-like in her behavior and the cook’s son seems to have developed an intense antipathy to Catherine. (Frame alerts readers to what is going on long before the little girl, who frequently finds herself the subject of plots – some kindly intended, some not – but all of them manipulative.)

As a teenager, Catherine, who is possessed of a highly attractive dowry, is sent off to be “finished” at the house of an aristocratic family, the Chadwycks. There, she studies Dido and Aeneas, though at first she is put off by the Carthaginian queen. A young clergyman, however, explains his fascination with Aeneas’s doomed lover, saying that he has a fondness “for tragic heroines.”

“Why them?” Catherine asks.

“Suffering and courageous women who deserve their own immortality,” he says.

Dido isn’t the only doomed heroine for whom Catherine develops an affinity. The Chadwycks love to put on tableaux vivants, and Catherine becomes famous for her portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots – right before the ax descends.

But her father’s planning is for naught. Instead of attracting an impecunious baronet’s son, Catherine falls in with Charles Compeyson, a charismatic adventurer against whom the Chadwycks warn her. At this point, Dickens’s plot starts to overlap with Frame’s and soon, Catherine finds herself stepping into the white gown.

Compeyson is no Aeneas, which becomes problematic, since it’s hard to imagine his loss unhinging anyone for longer than it would take to shrug and maybe eat a couple of chocolates. But in compensation, Frame prepares several betrayals that cut through layers of Catherine’s psyche.

Frame includes Miss Havisham’s adoption of Estella and her plan to unleash her on all men – "all of the genus who conceitedly, smugly supposed that they were indispensable to a woman’s personal completeness, her felicity."

Miss Havisham realizes too late the cost that exacting revenge on an entire gender will have on both the little girl and herself. While Estella never quite gets her own personality, Pip is a welcome and full-bodied presence.

Frame also tweaks Dickens’ plot near the end, with his heroine “disproving expectations.”

“I sometimes thought that I disappointed him. He would have liked me to be more of a ‘Miss Havisham’ than I was. Had he been directing me in a play, he would have heightened the effects. I should have laid the whole house waste, and not just the dining room,” Miss Havisham says of Pip, in a sly nod to the differences between Frame’s Satis House and Dickens’s. “There wouldn’t have been any retainers coming and going. He would have had chains on the front doors. Every room in the building would have been shuttered. I would have treated Estella as my prisoner and had her permanently under lock and key.”

As Pip thinks later on, there are different versions of the story.

Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor fiction critic.

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