“But, as every girl growing up understood, her wedding day was the most significant she would know: a woman’s crowning glory.”
– Havisham, Ronald Frame
A little while ago, I finished Ronald Frame’s novel Havisham, a prequel to Dickens’ much loved masterpiece Great Expectations and a book that I picked up on serious sale at my local Chapters. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I was particularly fascinated by Frame’s portrayal of the young Catherine Havisham. It is a novel that I would absolutely recommend to fans of Great Expectations because it offers just that little extra bit of history about a character whose background is shrouded in much mystery.
In that same line of thought, I believe that the one defining and extraordinary feature of Havisham is the narrative voice that Frame creates for the young Miss Havisham. Allowing Catherine to speak in first person was a masterful choice on Frame’s part, as it gives her an opportunity to speak distinctly, to take ownership of her personal story and the decisions she makes. Rather than being an intriguing character in a larger work, Catherine Havisham becomes the centre of her own world, the focal point of a plot that is replete with its own mysteries and misunderstandings. Miss Havisham is undoubtedly a character that is complex enough to warrant this sort of exploration, and I think that allowing Catherine to speak for herself adds many more layers to her already impressive personality. Catherine Havisham is an educated, strong and defiant woman with a mind for business and a steely resolve, and although as readers we know that her story has a heartbreaking ending, we are also offered a glimpse into her powerful mind, which is a lot healthier and more robust than we probably would’ve expected.
What is also wonderful about Catherine’s voice is that it is clearly her own; it is a narrative voice unlike any I’ve encountered in a contemporary novel in a very long time. Frame artfully mixes Victorian-style speech with references to classic poetry and imagery that are unique and vivid. His descriptions, through Catherine, of physical surroundings, other characters and feelings and emotions are detailed (in homage to Dickens, no doubt) and quite beautifully crafted.
“Did the trees droop by nature’s will, or because I told them what my feelings were?”
“I floated through the day, never so light or carefree, hopeful to the very tips of my fingers and toes.”
Catherine’s narration is also wonderfully cadenced: her lines, both spoken and internally narrated, take on a very poetic quality, which aligns well with her haunting and spectral quality. She is a narrator whose voice is at once bewitching and relaxing.
“But I was afraid every time he left me, not just unhappy.”
“My imagination threw a caul of gentle thoughts around him, to protect him…”
The one criticism of the novel I remember reading on Goodreads is that one reader said she could not connect fully with Catherine because she never found herself even remotely liking Catherine’s love interest, Charles Compeyson. Well, with that I must agree. However, unlike this reader, I think the fact that I disliked and was extremely suspicious of Charles from the start increased my sympathy with Catherine and my overall connection to her. I have been reading novels (such as Jack Caldwell’s The Three Colonels: Jane Austen’s Fighting Men) and watching television shows (such as ITV’s new series Victoria) recently that have presented me with models of wives and domestic life. As someone who is engaged and will be married next year, I must admit that the image of Miss Havisham, a not-quite-bride forever suspended in the moment of 9:20am on her wedding day, was not the model of bridal bliss I was eager to encounter. Having said that, I grew to love Catherine Havisham because I felt her heartache, I was outraged on her behalf, and I understood that the loss of the sort of love that leads to marriage (even if I didn’t like the man she had chosen) would be utterly devastating. I was wary of Charles from day one because I’ve read Great Expectations and I knew things weren’t going to end well on the romantic front for Miss Havisham, but I could still identify with Catherine’s loneliness, with her desire to find a partner, to have a bit of her burden unloaded on someone she could trust and feel close to. I didn’t believe that Charles ever properly respected or appreciated her, but I felt how solitary her existence was, and I knew that she craved support and attention, so I didn’t fault her naivety whatsoever. On the contrary, I felt closer to her because I wanted to protect her from the outcome that I knew was inevitable. I couldn’t do that, and so I found Frame’s novel so much more emotional and meaningful for the predictable ending it was required to provide. I would say that the fact that Charles was despicable only made me adore Catherine more.
“He evaded me now because, I realized, he always had. I had been in love with someone I had half-imagined to life, half-invented myself.”
And come to adore Catherine, I did. I didn’t expect to become so close to someone like Miss Havisham, who is portrayed as so cold and calculated in Dickens’ original text. I was drawn to the humanity in Catherine Havisham though, and I think that is testament to Frame’s remarkable knack for writing and mastering his narrator’s voice.
“I sometimes thought that I disappointed him. He would have liked me to be more of a ‘Miss Havisham’ than I was. Had he been directing me in a play, he would have heightened the effects.”
I was originally going to say that my one qualm with Frame’s novel is that it extended into the storyline of Great Expectations. Originally, I wasn’t pleased that Frame chose to explore the famous Miss Havisham of Dickens’ novel in the final hundred pages of his own. I wished, at first, that he had finished the story after Catherine’s fall into depression, after she remade herself into the ghost-like and miserable Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, before she invited Estella to her home. I felt that delving into the world of Great Expectations made Dickens’ spectre of a character too human, and this bothered me as I have always appreciated the mystique around Miss Havisham’s character. Now that I’ve had a chance to think about this more, though, I do like that I now have a new perspective on Miss Havisham. I know that there is humanity in there, that there is a woman inside the figure who walks endlessly around her breakfast table. There is feeling there, even if Miss Havisham tries to portray herself, especially to Pip, as frozen. She has sentiments and regrets and yearnings, and I believe that Frame is very respectful of Dickens’ invention by exploring what lies within Miss Havisham’s soul.
As I said, I am very happy that I stumbled upon this novel and gave it a read. It added yet another layer to my appreciation of a literary classic, and further informed my understanding of a character I thought I would never have answers about.
❥ ❥ ❥ ❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart