Miss Havisham is one of Charles Dickens’s most haunted and haunting characters. Even for those who haven’t read Great Expectations, there is a familiarity with the jilted bride in her tatty wedding gown and the dark and dilapidated mansion in which she lives with the remains of her wedding feast and a lot of cobwebs.
Every time I dip into the book or see another film or television version (and there have been a dozen or so, the latest with Helena Bonham-Carter in the role), I wonder again about how and why it all happened? What led Miss Havisham to marry the rogue in the first place? Why did she let bitterness and revenge take over her life and become, as Pip describes her, “a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress”?
Ronald Frame, in his novel Havisham, gives a very believable answer to these questions. He provides Miss Havisham with a voice (and a Christian name) and in her telling of her story we come to understand her humanity and intelligence.
When we meet her in the prologue, she is already the disappointed bride, adopting the young Estella. Frame then takes us back to the beginning, tracing her life from birth, fleshing out the brief facts Dickens gives us in Great Expectations. We know her mother dies in childbirth, for example, and that her father, a wealthy and social-climbing brewer, dies when she is a teenager, leaving her an orphan.
I enjoyed the novel immensely. I found myself excited at the prospect of meeting the main characters, places and events from Great Expectations, wondering who, what and when they would turn up. Frame also peoples the story with individuals Dickens mentions only briefly – her father, her half-brother Arthur, the villain Compeyson and the men of the brewery. To these, he adds a close friend and an upperclass family with whom the young Miss Havisham goes to stay. He also devises a wonderfully detailed Georgian education for her, dominated by music and literature, which enables her, in the depths of her anguish, to draw on the poetry of William Blake and John Milton as well as the story of Dido.
In the latter part of the novel, the fraught relationship between Havisham and Estella is centre stage and we witness the destructive effect of her behaviour on Estella and Pip, and perhaps more importantly on herself.
Even for non-Dickens fans, Havisham is a fascinating and rewarding read.
HAVISHAM, by Ronald Frame (Faber and Faber, $36.99).
Helen Moulder is an actor who regularly tours her solo play Playing Miss Havisham around New Zealand and Australia.