Sunday, 22 June 2014


I always like revisionist takes on classic literature, and among various books I'm reading at present, I just read Ronald Frame's Havisham, which is a prequel and parallel text to Dickens' Great Expectations.

low-res cover scan reproduced
as fair use for review purposes
It's not wildly revisionist - the basic roles are unaltered - but it fills in the backstory of how Miss Havisham became the embittered eccentric that Pip encountered. Frame paints her upbringing sympathetically, making her a victim of 'great expectations' that parallels the theme of the Dickens novel.

Havisham expands the reference to a derelict brewery next to Statis House into a story of new money, Catherine Havisham is the favoured daughter of a brewer who pays for her upbringing in an aristocratic household. This brings her expectations of an inheritance and a good marriage, but she's not worldly-wise, and falls for the unscrupulous Compeyson - who she has installed as manager of the brewery after her father's death, but who jilts her on their wedding day. She actually gets well on the way to recovering from this shock, taking over management of the brewery. But this goes pear-shaped, partly through the workers' suspicion of a female manager, and partly her refusal to compromise in pay negotations. She takes her ball home, and shuts up the brewery, moving on to the track toward eccentricity that Dickens shows us.

This is very well-written; Frame has admirably caught the style and culture of the era. But I have to say that it didn't fully engage my interest until towards the end, when the story starts interacting with Great Expectations. It gives interesting hints as to why characters are as they are; Miss Havisham takes on Estella as a semi-feral child, and ascribes her difficult behaviour to gypsy blood, but it makes sense to the modern reader that Estella is already damaged by a traumatic early childhood. It's not giving too much away to say that Pip becomes the author of the text of Great Expectations, and that the novel takes a downbeat option similar to the original (later revised) ending by Dickens, in which Pip and Estella are not reconciled. Apparently opinion is divided on the matter - see Wikipedia / Great Expectations / Revised ending - but this seems far more believable psychologically; feelgood endings are satisfying, but it's hard to believe Estella would be able to overcome such deep-seated and long-standing 'programming'.

Ronald Frame has written about the origins of the novel on the Faber Blog (Falling for Miss Havisham), and there's also a video introduction.

I admit that it's difficult to think of Miss Havisham in the same light after reading Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' series, recommended to me a few years ago by the late, and still much-missed, Felix Grant. The books are set in an alternative universe in which literature impinges on reality; it's possible to travel into books, and very often they differ from what we, the readers, see. In Lost in a Good Book, the literary detective Thursday Next has Miss Havisham as a mentor; she lives in a far cleaner part of the house, and wears trainers when Dickens is not describing her.

- Ray

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