Havisham by Ronald Frame
Dickens’ Miss Havisham, his eternal bride from Great Expectations, has to be one of the most notorious female figures in literary fiction. Jilted by her lover on her wedding day, she spends the rest of her life entombed within the darkened Satis House, her wedding feast rotting on the dining-room table, the wedding dress she refuses to remove slowly disintegrating. Dickens has long been considered incapable of writing a rounded female character – children and monsters are largely what his women are, and there are few more monstrous than Miss Havisham. She is an interesting study in female masochism – her pain at her faithless lover is not turned outward against him, but inward against herself. True emotional complexity is hinted at in Dickens but without a proper back story, how do we compare what she was before with the monster she became? How can we truly understand her?
Ronald Frame, best known perhaps for his Booker-longlisted novel, The Lantern Bearers, has imagined that back story for her beautifully, and with both style and sensitivity. Eschewing any attempt to mimic Dickens’ style, he opts for a contemporary voice with curtailed sentences, truncated dialogue, short paragraphs. Dickens’ wordiness is pared back as if to let us see more clearly a young woman, brought up next to the brewery her father owns, the smell of hops forever in her nose and hair, the tint of ‘trade’ always about her. Betrayal begins early in Catherine Havisham’s life, and is naturally always committed by those closest to her. Her mother dies giving birth to her, which means a closeness to her father which he betrays when he secretly marries the cook, Mrs Bundy, and has a child by her, Arthur. He sends them both away, but eventually brings Arthur back into the house, a move that horrifies and shames Catherine. She has pride, and we all know what that leads to. As she grows up, her father conspires with Lady Chadwyck, to whom he sends his daughter to become accustomed to more genteel ways and manners. Catherine falls for William Chadwyck but her love for him is betrayed when she spies him making love to a married woman. But the greatest betrayal is one of female friendship. Early on, Catherine befriends Sally, the daughter of one of her father’s workers. They are extremely close, Catherine gives her her clothes, teaches her the manners and lessons she learns, loves her. She cannot, however, make her equal, and in residence at the Chadwycks, she invites Sally to attend an important dance with her, but as her servant. The alluring Charles Compeyson has already made himself known to her, charming her and making her laugh. He is handsome and witty, and distracts her from her disappointment in William.
We know, from the Dickens novel, that Compeyson will be the man to jilt her. But Frame gives us a twist: certainly, Catherine is devastated when she receives a note on her wedding day from him, telling her he cannot marry her. She falls into a fever, but recovers – there are no darkened rooms, no decrepit wedding dresses. She refuses to let her servants remove the wedding feast – there is still hope, however faint, that he will return – but she carries on looking after her deceased father’s brewery business. She is not the mad grotesque Dickens has painted.
At least, not yet. For a greater betrayal is to come, and one that will tip her over the edge. The tragedy of Dido runs through Frame’s novel, as Catherine attempts to elevate her suffering to epic proportions. Catherine is a tricky character to like in many ways – she is self-centered, proud, blinkered. But she is also brave, vulnerable and deserving of love. Dickens’ Miss Havisham will never be quite the same again.
Faber, rrp £16•99, 368pp