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Ronald Frame novel portrays a younger Miss Havisham

Does Frame's prequel add anything new to the literary landscape, or is it merely a love letter to Great Expectations?


Ronald Frame

Faber and Faber


Early in his novel, Ronald Frame has his youthful Catherine Havisham and her friends entertaining guests at a party with a series of tableaux - a fashionable pastime of the leisured classes in early 18th-century England.

Catherine, dressed in "black satin and velvet, with a high white ruff", takes centre stage as the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, clasping crucifixes and a rosary, her head on the block, awaiting execution. The scene is given Mary's motto, "In the end is my beginning", an equally fitting maxim for Frame's Catherine.

She's the younger incarnation of Miss Havisham, one of Charles Dickens's most famous fictional creations; the one-time jilted bride-turned-madwoman who brings up her beautiful ward Estella to wreak vengeful havoc on the male species, from his 1861 novel Great Expectations.

By the time Dickens introduces his character, she has already been holed up in her decaying family home, Satis House, keeping watch over her rotting wedding breakfast for years. Readers are told that the now ghostly Miss Havisham, "the witch of the place", as Dickens has his young hero Pip describe her, was the wealthy daughter of a Kentish brewer, her current self-internment the result of being abandoned on her wedding day by a good-for-nothing conman. With only these meagre facts to go on, Frame has filled in the gaps, weaving together an enticingly rich backstory for the most famous of literature's spinsters.

Frame is following in the celebrated footsteps of the likes of Jean Rhys, who, with her 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea - the West Indian-based prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre that chronicles the early life of Mr Rochester's first wife, the madwoman hidden in Thornfield Hall's attic, set the bar high for this type of endeavour. And Victorian madwomen, it would appear, make for rich subjects, as Havisham is a worthy addition to the canon of Rhys's critically acclaimed work.

Frame's novel begins in Catherine Havisham's youth in the early 1800s. Her mother dies in childbirth, so it is Catherine's father who raises her, among "the heady atmosphere of fermentation and money being made". The Havisham name, "painted in green letters on the sooty brick of the brewhouse wall", is the first word she remembers seeing, and that which dictates her path in life. She is not beautiful, but she "doesn't need to be a beauty", as none except those "ignorant of her name" would consider her "less than handsome"; her entire appearance is "wrapped around with an aura of wealth". Her money is "provincial, not metropolitan", Frame reminds us, "but money is money", and Catherine's father uses his to buy her the "amity" of the Chadwycks, a respectable family with whom she passes the tail end of her adolescence, being "finished" in preparation for making a good marriage.

As a prelude to the Dickensian gothic of Miss Havisham's later years, her youth reads more like something out of Jane Austen, though Catherine, of course, possesses the wealth that the Bennett daughters so sorely lacked. Compared to the dark oppression of Satis House, whose rooms already "smelt old and stale" long before she draws the blinds against the sunlight and bolts the doors against the intrusion of the outside world, those at the Chadwycks' home, Durley Chase, are full of sunlight and the sweet smell of "beeswax polish and scented bulbs and flowers". Here she puts her father's "tradesman's ready money" to good use; dressing in the latest fashions, attending the right functions and parties, and practising the art of looking "languorous".

This outward polish, however, is no defence against her gullible naivety, and Catherine soon finds herself powerless in the face of a certain Mr Charles Compeyson's attentions. The briefest of their meetings leaves her with the sensation of "an aviary of tiny panicking birds" flitting around in her head; his hand accidentally brushing hers feels like "contact with sulphur", her skin "scorched" in the aftermath; and her face and neck are set alight with the telling "bright burnishing" of her desire. Their courtship is chaste and proper; their time together governed by the strict "rules" and "precepts" that thwart Catherine's baser urges, for Frame has made his Miss Havisham a young woman of sensual, lustful longings, the exact opposite of the cold, brittle, barren living ghost Dickens has her become.

Although Frame's story originally began life as a radio play, first broadcast back in 1998 on BBC Radio 3, its publication as a novel is well-timed, as Great Expectations is having something of a moment right now. Last Christmas saw a new adaptation on the BBC - with Gillian Anderson playing Dickens's spinster - and a new film, directed by Mike Newell, with Helena Bonham Carter in the role, is just about to be released. I mention these actresses by name precisely because with each new adaptation, the main focus is always on who's stepping into Miss Havisham's shoes; Frame clearly isn't the only one fascinated by this character.

Though undoubtedly a love letter to Dickens, Frame's novel is also further demonstration of the enduring attraction of the classics - cast your minds back to Andrew Motion's recent novel, Silver, a "return to Treasure Island" for example, or even PD James's highly successful Pride and Prejudice spin-off, Death Comes to Pemberley (also published, like Havisham, by Faber) - which raises interesting questions about the value of originality.

Frame is a skilled enough author to play with this idea, and in many ways, especially as it runs parallel to Dickens's novel in the closing sections, Havisham becomes a sort of study in intertextuality.

Frame's Pip acknowledges that although there was only "one story", there were "three viewpoints": "Estella's. His. The madwoman's." But so too Frame hints at three different Miss Havishams: Dickens's; Frame's youthful Catherine Havisham; and finally the old woman she becomes in this text. "I remembered what I'd felt, but not who had made me feel those things. I remembered what the experiences of knowing Charles Compeyson had done to a young woman called 'Catherine Havisham', so much less worldly than she'd liked to think she was."

The final sections, those that tread directly in Dickens's footsteps, with only the shift in perspective from Dickens's Pip to Frame's Miss Havisham to tell them apart, are somewhat less compelling than those that come before. His depiction of Miss Havisham's spiral into decay on hearing that Compeyson has deserted her has left her feeling as insubstantial as a "paper person", her "accumulated bitterness" converging in Satis House becoming a "laboratory" for rearing Estella as her benefactresses' avenging angel - is elegantly told, but ultimately not that elucidating.

One reads this novel to learn about Frame'sMiss Havisham, not Dickens's. As with all proficient prequels, the accomplishment lies more in the author's ability to make their predecessor's character his or her own - something Frame achieves with a seemingly ready ease - rather than merely mimicking what's already been written. Thus, when the two stories in question overlap, as needs they always must, fault lines can be found, perhaps if only because we already know the ending. Like a scene of a crime that must be returned to, the conclusion is already set in stone, however much we find ourselves rooting for something different.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

Updated: November 24, 2012 04:00 AM

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