In Havisham, Ronald Frame has taken inspiration from the Charles Dickens's classic novel Great Expectations and has recreated the supposed life of the ill fated spinster Catherine Havisham. There has always been much speculation into the mystery of Satis House and the portrayal of Miss Havisham left in her decaying mansion surrounded by the ghost of her wedding paraphernalia presents an iconic image of English literature.
Catherine Havisham is such a fascinating character that any story that can shed light on her troubled personality is one to be embraced with great interest. Overall, I think that the author has done an admirable job in fleshing out her character and whilst there are no great surprises to found within the story, it does make for an interesting and enjoyable read. I thought that the story starts off rather slowly and needs to be read with great care and attention and then once Catherine grows up the story really starts to become a fascinating account of a life mismanaged by tragedy.
The Dickens purists may not agree that Miss Havisham's story deserves to be told by anyone other than the great man himself, but as an enjoyable addition to the sub Dickens genre, Havisham works well.
Ronald Frame's 'Havisham' is the re-imagining of Miss Havisham's story from Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'. In his novel 'Great Expectations' Dickens provided his own brief back story for Miss Havisham, but Frame has used his own imagination to put some flesh on the bones of Dickens' story and to describe to his readers Catherine Havisham's history before the life-changing event which caused her to have all of the clocks in her home stopped at exactly the same time ...
Catherine Havisham, daughter of the very wealthy brewer, Joseph Havisham, has grown up motherless after her mother died giving birth to her. Catherine's father gives her all that money can buy, but when he confesses to her that she has a half-brother, she is shocked and hurt by her father's deception. Catherine meets her half-brother when he comes to the family home, Satis House, and from what she has discovered about him, she is not surprised to find him a difficult and uncouth person who is set on coming between herself and her father. In order to try to recompense his daughter and to provide her with some social polish, Catherine's father arranges for her to spend some time with the aristocratic Chadwyck family, and it is whilst she is living with the Chadwycks, discovering literature, music and art, that she meets the rather attractive Charles Compeyson - and if you have read 'Great Expectations' you will know what the eventual heartbreaking outcome of this meeting will be, and if you haven't read it, I won't spoil the story for you here.
Although Frame's novel is a prequel to 'Great Expectations' the author does not finish his story once he reaches Dickens' original, but travels alongside the original story fleshing out the character of Catherine Havisham and giving the reader an imagined insight into some of the characters' behaviours and motivations. Frame's writing is rather visual in style and I found his descriptions of situation and setting evocative and satisfying to read; I also found it interesting to read about Catherine Havisham's early adult life as a bright and enthusiastic young lady before she becomes an embittered and lonely older woman. By using a first person narrative for Catherine, the author enables the reader to see events from her perspective, which pulls us immediately into her world and, although this rather poignant story is stronger in some parts than others, overall I found this novel an entertaining and absorbing read. It seems unfair to compare this novel too closely to the original, so I won't, but I will say that reading this has made me want to return to 'Great Expectations' and, as I haven't read it since my teenage years, it's most probably not a moment too soon.
Taking the story of one of Dickens' most iconic characters - Miss Havisham from Great Expectations - this is a surprising and unexpected story.
The book doesn't `catch-up' with and meet Dickens' original until about three-quarters of the way through and while we know the gist of Catherine Havisham's story, I still found it less predictable and more interesting that I perhaps expected.
Frame doesn't attempt to write in a Dickensian style (thank heavens!) and makes Catherine Havisham his own. Even when the book does `meet' Dickens, there is a kind of (post) modern twist which isn't clever-clever or irritating, but does shift the story somewhat.
I don't want to say anything about the plot that will spoil this for other readers - suffice it to say that I'm not a great fan of prequels, sequels or other re-writings of classics, but this is a successful intervention into Dickens' text - and makes me eager to re-read the original.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher).
on 28 May 2013
It was interesting to read the background 'life' of Miss Haversham, but the style of writing was on occasion dull. The story was written in short chapters which jumped ahead and often left me feeling as though something was missing - like an abridged version of a story. While I wanted to finish nod see how it turned out, it was never a story that captured my imagination or enthralled me in any way. A little disappointed.
on 12 February 2016
Dickens never was much use with women. His own wife found out that their marriage was over because he hired workmen to build a partition down the middle of their bedroom. The women in his novels tend to be either idealised virginal women modelled on his dead sister-in-law (who he described frequently as his ideal woman) or else the monstrous mothers who abandon their children, let their houses run to ruin and lead their husbands to disaster and misery. I read Dickens for the stories, not for the positive feminist subtext. He had some quite impressive Mummy Issues dating back to his time in the blacking factory while his father was in debtors’ prison. The very embodiment of Dickens’ fear of female desire is Miss Havisham, the voice of scorned women everywhere. In this novel, Ronald Frame attempts to flesh her out, give her a back story – to explain what is unexplainable.
I was reminded by Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea here, the latter focuses on the early life of Bertha Rochester. But while Bertha’s story peeked from the sidelines, another stark warning against excessive sexuality, Miss Havisham’s story was never so subtle. I took part in FutureLearn’s Theory of the Mind course which discussed at what point a character comes to feel like a real person, when we can actually imagine what they will do next. Miss Havisham is not one of those characters. That is not to say that she is not memorable but rather that she is not a character that we are invited to identify with. Dickens’ success came from his talent in weaving in elements of the fairytale into the world around him – Miss Havisham is the ultimate bogeyman.
In this week’s Book Tube, I made a parallel with the prequel series of Star Wars‘ attempts to make sense of Darth Vader. In some ways this was unfair because instantly that gives the impression that Frame has created something comparable to the jaw-droppingly dull examination of inter-galactic trade law that is The Phantom Menace. Ronald Frame’s style is graceful, dream-like and often very beautiful. We are guided through in the voice of Catherine Havisham herself. Given that Miss Havisham was never given a forename in Great Expectations, it can be no coincidence that Frame chooses to name her after Dickens’ humiliated wife. Frame has a real sensitivity for his subject, allowing her far more dignity than the original. He starts with the stark opening line ‘I killed my mother’, disposing of his Catherine’s mother in childbirth. Catherine grows up in the shadow of her father’s brewery, learning to take pride in the Havisham name.
She befriends the young servant girl Sally, she is horrified by the arrival of her unknown half-brother. Frame’s prose passes through Catherine’s childhood in a dream-like haze. As a young woman, Catherine is sent to live with the impoverished aristocratic Chadwyck family to learn to be true lady. It is through them that she encounters the rogue Compeyson. It is difficult to read this section objectively since we all know what will come next. Still, it was intriguing to read of the youthful Miss Havisham’s physical desire for her fiance, her excitement on the morn of their wedding and then its juddering climax. The frustration of her hopes, her longings, her love is shattering to read but … something is lacking. The novel lacks the impact of its mighty forbear.
This Catherine is too rational – she meets with workers, she makes business plans, she deals with her lawyer. She goes out to track down her treacherous friends. The world does not stop for her. She is not the narcissist of Great Expectations, she is a flesh and blood woman reeling from a terrible betrayal. She has friends who visit her, she realises that a very good man truly loves her. There is much more in Catherine Havisham’s life than there ever was in the original model. It was understandable that Dickens’ Miss Havisham would adopt a child to fashion to her own requirements, but less so in this. Still, Havisham picks up its pace as we begin to move through the steps of Great Expectations. Its finale is predictably low key, with Frame following Dickens’ original ending rather than the infuriating question mark which was actually published. Pip and Estella end their lives apart and quietly unremarkable, the shade of Havisham lurking over them still.
Still, Catherine’s love for Compeyson lacked the weight that it ought to have had. As the impetus for her retreat into Satis House, this should have remained her burning obsession. She left their wedding breakfast out on the table for decades. She set the clock to when their wedding should have been. Her whole life was lived in grief at their frustrated marriage. She has become the symbol of female sexual hysteria – the madwoman outside the attic – the name is recognised even by those who have never read Great Expectations or even seen the film, she is known. Yet Frame’s novel describes a girl seriously smitten but not incapacitated. Compeyson is an indifferent suitor; their relationship is polite and very rarely passionate. Catherine is transfixed by the memory of seeing one of the Chadwycks in the act of sexual congress, awakening her sexual impulses but with no wedding, she is destined to a life-time of frustration.
As a culture, we are obsessed with weddings. In primary school, I remember weddings acted out in the playground and from adolescence onwards, the chase is truly on. Recently, I read The Engagements, the line that truly stood out to me was when one character tells another that if she is not picturing herself in a wedding gown when she thinks of her new partner, that it is a bad sign. Never mind that a wedding is only one day of your life, it is the day that is supposed to outshine all others. I know of one man who has spent five figures on his wedding twice and is preparing to do so again. There is a flip side however to all of this … the missed wedding, the jilt – this is held up to be every woman’s worst nightmare. The embodiment of this fear is Miss Havisham – the monstrous crone figure that is neither maid nor wife. Miss Havisham has become a punch line, a tease for any woman scorned in love.
Minutes after Tom took fright on his wedding day in The Archers last month, memes sprung up on Twitter casting the spurned Kirsty as Miss Havisham. My personal favourite of all of the many adaptations of Great Expectations was the David Lean film, which gives the story its most satisfying ending. The final scenes sees John Mills’ Pip visiting Satis House to find Valerie Hobson’s Estella ready to lapse into the same state as Miss Havisham. In horror, Pip breaks down the shutters to reclaim Estella for the sunlight. Still, if women are conditioned to fear the harpy in the tattered wedding dress, that complicates Frame’s mission in this novel. Miss Havisham is not a character – she is a state of mind.
Humanising a manner of thought is impossible. Frame’s Miss Havisham orders replacement wedding dresses as the old ones wear out, she explicitly states that she removes the dress to bathe – all of these answer questions that never needed to be asked. Miss Havisham is the woman in the wedding dress who gave up on her life, who sought revenge through Estella and who died a deservedly dreadful death. Ronald Frame reveals himself as a talented writer in this novel, but the task he has set himself is an impossible one. Miss Havisham is both too large a character and too thinly written to be contained in this novel; any attempt to give her a back story is doomed to shrivel. In many ways, Miss Havisham is the male nightmare of the psychotic ex-girlfriend, the hysterical woman, the angry virgin but yet she has become a threat for women – we fear her, we pity her, we shudder at her, we are grateful for her creation because in her very excess, we know that things will always be worse for her than us. Miss Havisham is known best for the passion of her despair and that passion is absent from this novel.
on 16 April 2013
The book is easy to read and rollicks along at a steady pace, keeping the reader engaged at all times. However... it's just a bit bland. I felt there was no depth of character, and I really didn't sympathise with the character at all, even when she was abandoned and bereft on her wedding morning. The other characters drifted in and out of the story without making any real impact - the half-brother could have made things a lot spicier, if he had been given more time in the story. And I am afraid the introduction of Pip towards the end seems wholly superfluous - I had thought that it being the story before the story, it would have ended before we reached that point.
All in all - I would recommend this book as a harmless story - but I felt no closer to understanding the elusive Miss Havisham, and in some ways, wished I'd left her previous life to my own imagination.
on 22 October 2013
Obviously not a patch on Great Expectations but it was enjoyable. I thought her life before being jilted was told erratically and could have done with more richness of narrative to properly engage the reader. Miss H is hard to like and of course one knows it will end in disappointment for Miss H but at the end a neat form of justice is delivered on her lover. When Estella enters the story then it improves probably because of one remembering Great Expectations.
The name of Miss Havisham is well known to many, certainly anyone who has read Dickens’ Great Expectations. The figure of a woman in her wedding dress, her wedding breakfast shrouded in cobwebs, the house darkened and gloomy, the child Estella living with her – it’s all familiar to those who know Dickens’ story. This book seeks to offer a new perspective on Catherine Havisham, and tells her story as she lived it – from her own perspective, and on her own terms.
Catherine Havisham lost her mother at her birth, and is raised by her father, a successful brewer. He seeks to have Catherine raised to a status above that of brewer’s daughter; he could supply money, so he places her with a family with whom she can acquire polish and position, to set her in good stead for life as … what? A society lady, a wife and mother? Catherine has her own ideas about what her life should mean for her, and sets out to make her own way. Where that ultimately leads her, we who know Dickens’ story know only too well, but it’s the journey, and the aftermath that makes up this story.
Generally this is a good book, but I did think that it went on to the end of Miss Havisham’s life to its detriment. Rather, it would have been a more appropriate ending to have finished the tale at some point where it blended into Great Expectations – perhaps when Estella has reached the age of a young woman. I felt that this book drifted off target somewhat when Miss Havisham seemed to lose her purpose; the whole key to her life is, after all her failed attempt at marriage – why, who, how and what happened after. But the latter part of her life is so successfully told by Dickens that it did not need to be retold here, and not so well. A good read, but not great.
on 12 November 2012
This is a highly plausible and sometimes heart-wrenching account of the life of Miss Havisham prior to and during the events of Dickens' "Great Expectations".
Through that novel, we know her as a woman unhinged, determined to wreak her revenge on the male sex through her adopted daughter, Estella. But in "Havisham", Ronald Frame fleshes her out to show us different facets of her character, and through a very clever, first person narration, conveys much to the reader of the deceits which surround her and which are made all the more poignant because of her unawareness of them.
Catherine Havisham's mother died when she was very young. Her father is wealthy and successful, but his money comes from trade (he is a brewer) and so despite his riches, he and his daughter are looked down on by the higher echelons of society to which he aspires. He is determined to enable her entrée to that world however, but in doing so, secures for her a very lonely childhood as he denies her any friendships with the children she encounters who are the offspring of brewery workers or servants because they are beneath her. In her teens, he sends her off to stay periodically with the Chadwycks, a clever elegant family of two girls and two boys, in order for her to gain some cachet and secure her entry into society.
While with the Chadwycks, Catherine falls in love with William, the handsome eldest son, but her feelings are unrequited. She also meets the fascinating Charles Compeyson, and gradually her affections transfer to him as she becomes more cognisant of William's true nature and indifference.
Charles is, of course, not all he seems, but it is easy to understand why Catherine - handsome rather than beautiful, deprived of true affection since childhood - is taken in by him. He cheats her, not only in terms of the business she has inherited from her father, but in other, even more cruel ways.
From then on, we see how Catherine becomes the Miss Havisham created by Dickens and the events of the last third of the book run concurrently with those in "Great Expectations". Catherine adopts Estella and we meet Pip; Catherine intends, she believes, to ensure that Estella never endures suffering and heartbreak at the hands of a man, but in doing so, only dooms Estella to a loveless future.
I confess that I found the first third of the book to be hard going. The prose is very detailed and there is a lot of extensive description of costume and place which I found rather dry. I also felt a prevailing sense of `emptiness' - while the novel is written in the first person, there were times when Catherine as a character proved very elusive and it was hard to get a real sense of who she was.
But this lessened as the novel progressed, and I became more drawn into the story when Catherine fell in love. I felt her euphoria at the merest touch of a hand, and her disillusionment at the discovery that her first love had feet of clay.
The final part of the novel was gripping and hard to put down. Seeing Catherine's downward spiral through her own eyes makes it seem even more terrible, and tears away the almost fairy-tale vision of the wronged, broken-hearted bride, instead showing us a monster born of thwarted desire; a destroyer of lives who has become that which she most hated.
"Havisham" is not always an easy book to read, but is well worth it for the light it sheds on the character and events in the original novel. I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of "Great Expectations" .
With thanks to Faber and Faber and NetGalley for the review copy.
This review contains SPOILERS.
As its title suggests, this is a spin off novel about the life of one of Dickens's most memorable fictional creations from Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, the aged spinster who was jilted on her wedding day and shut herself off from the world in all her decaying wedding finery. As she is the most intriguing character in what is my favourite Dickens novel, I expected this to be a captivating read. So it was, but only in parts; it contained some flaws that let it down for me and prevented it from being the gem it could have been. It was certainly a slow starter, not necessarily a criticism, but the first 40% or so could almost have been lifted from an early 19th century novel (with the clashing exception of a sex scene), focusing on Miss Havisham's relationship with her brewer father and her growing up and entering polite society. She is jilted by Compeyson just over half way through the novel and this chapter (30) is very moving and dramatic. However, this is where a major flaw begins. It is clear from Dickens's novel that, when she is jilted, she immediately cuts herself off from society and enters her world of gloom and decay. In Mr Frame's novel, though, after a few days grieving (wearing her wedding dress) she picks herself up partially and returns to run her brewing business, uncovering growing signs of Compeyson's siphoning of funds to support her own half brother Arthur's gambling debts. She goes in search of her ex-fiance and tracks him down in Norwich, only to find that he has now enveigled into marriage her only real childhood friend, Sally. It is this betrayal that causes her to return to Satis House and shut herself off, abandoning the brewery and never again looking on the light of the sun. (She actually has duplicate wedding dresses made here, so it isn't the original she is wearing when she meets Pip). Pip comes into the novel and we see from Miss Havisham's point of view how she educates Estella to do to other men what Compeyson did to her, having become a machine for exacting revenge against the entire male species. Finally, she dies of burns from the accidental fire, but survives a little longer to regret how she has perverted her life and become like her former tormentor.
I am glad I read this. It is well written and clearly the author has considerable literary talent (although he gets a bit carried away at times). We learn a lot about Miss Havisham's family history and especially about her father and half brother Arthur (offspring of her father's secret relationship with their housekeeper), though oddly the Pockets are hardly mentioned. I was rather annoyed by the inconsistencies, so this gets a somewhat ambiguous rating of 3.5/5 (rounded down to 3 here on Amazon)