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Poor Victorians: The marketplace seizes their novels and mines them for all they’re worth. A connection with a certified classic seems to guarantee attention. In all honesty, I chose to review this book largely because it promised a back-story for mad, bad Miss Havisham from Dickens’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Not knowing Ronald Frame’s previous work, I was happy to discover that this Scottish writer has serious literary chops (his book THE LANTERN BEARERS was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize). His bold ambition: to draw something dark, passionate and modern out of Dickens’s 1861 novel.

Unlike the serialized original, this is not a page-turner. Frame’s somewhat elliptical style is more Woolfian than Dickensian; he is less a storyteller, more an analyst, plunging us deep into Miss Havisham’s psyche. He is interested in character, not plot --- readers, after all, already know the what and who of her abortive wedding day; all that remains to be divulged is the how and why.

“I killed my mother.” These are the first words in Catherine Havisham’s account of her early life. What she means is that her mother died in childbirth; still, the sentence casts a pall. Already we feel that this girl will have a hard time being happy. The daughter of a wealthy brewer, Catherine grows up with every comfort, but her father wants more for her. To acquire education and social gloss, she is sent to live with the aristocratic Chadwycks. While there, she encounters one Charles Compeyson, a bounder who steals her heart --- and, later on, a chunk of the brewery’s profits. They become engaged, but on the very morning of the wedding, Charles writes her to break it off. Catherine becomes a recluse, shuttering her house and stopping the clocks at the hour of her betrayal. She lives only through her beautiful adopted daughter, Estella, raising the girl to scorn and manipulate men. But she fails to endow her with a capacity for love.

For three-quarters of HAVISHAM, the first-person narrative works splendidly. The brewery that made the family fortune is vividly evoked: “Heat, flames, steam, the dust clouds from the hops, the heady atmosphere of fermentation and money being made.” At first Catherine is taught to fear and disdain the down-and-dirtiness of industry. Later on, though, when her father, lacking a worthy son, begins to teach her the nuts and bolts of the business, she revels in the power of facts and numbers: “There was a pleasing harmony to be found in the sums and subtractions, in ordering the balance of surpluses and deficits.”

"Frame’s somewhat elliptical style is more Woolfian than Dickensian; he is less a storyteller, more an analyst, plunging us deep into Miss Havisham’s psyche."

Yet wealth is a two-edged sword. Catherine and her father aspire to the higher echelons of society, and to some extent their cash buys acceptance. But when Mr. Havisham dies, the local worthies refuse him “a resting-place inside the cathedral…. Born a commoner, he also died a commoner.” After his demise, Catherine discovers that the Chadwycks only pretended to befriend her; her father had paid them to take her into their stately home. “I concluded,” she says, “that money was capable of doing good and also terrible things.”

Catherine is interesting and unquiet; she fits none of the standard niches available to 19th-century women. She is too rich for true intimacy with her childhood friend Sally, the daughter of a brewery worker; too “common” to pass muster with the Chadwycks. Despite strong sexual feelings for Charles, she refuses to let her body have its way. And when she tries to run the brewery by herself after her father’s death, a woman in a man’s world, she must struggle for respect.

Although shrewd and unsentimental about some things, Catherine has a blind spot where Charles and Sally are concerned. It’s obvious they’re up to something, yet her need for love is such that she continues to trust them. Even though I knew from GREAT EXPECTATIONS that she was doomed, I was tempted to call out a warning: Give him up, you ninny, before it’s too late!

There is a terrible inevitability to the descriptions of her wedding day. Frame gives us the ritual of preparation in lush detail, from bouquet (“not yet dried of its dew, tied with white and yellow satin ribbons”) to coiffure (“pomading and setting with silver combs and netting”) and finally to the embroidered, lace-trimmed dress. The minutiae are important, since after she receives Charles’s letter (“In short, Catherine, I cannot be your husband”) and transforms herself into the bitter, ghostly Miss Havisham of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, that bridal gown will become her everyday attire.

Up to this point, Frame had me in his pocket. When the plot begins to intersect with Dickens’s, however, the book loses its savor. A lot of it is familiar stuff: Estella’s meeting with Pip (the protagonist of GREAT EXPECTATIONS) and Miss Havisham’s vendetta against the male sex (“Look at me, in my train and veil.… This is the awful damage that men do.”). Frame does alter the ending, but only to return to Dickens’s original version (in which Estella marries a country doctor) rather than replicate his later, more romantic finale (which holds out the possibility that Pip and Estella may marry after all).

Frame’s other major innovation is to turn Pip into an aspiring writer, a sort of Dickens doppelganger. “I sometimes think that I disappointed him,” Miss Havisham says, meaning that Pip wanted her crueler, crazier, more extreme for his own fictional purposes. At the end of HAVISHAM, Pip is glimpsed in a pub, scribbling in a notebook: “What he sees is what he remembers, or what he thinks he remembers. He has the shape of a story in his head, and trims his details to fit. There are different versions of the story, though. One story, with --- he believes --- three viewpoints. Estella’s. His. The madwoman’s.”

Does that mean Catherine’s account is the truth, and GREAT EXPECTATIONS merely Pip’s exaggerated autobiography? Or does it mean, Rashomon-like, that there is no truth, only a multiplicity of perspectives? Search me. This excursion into meta-fiction strikes me as a confusing digression in an otherwise effective novel. I began to long for Dickens’s warmer, more straightforward prose, his consistent humanity.

Frame might have avoided invidious comparisons by ending at the point that GREAT EXPECTATIONS begins. His Catherine is a wonderfully complex character, neither vain nor silly, and possessed of an intriguing voice. If HAVISHAM had stopped --- as she herself stopped --- on the day she was to have wed, I think it would have been a more powerful book, eminently worthy of the novel that inspired it.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 7, 2013

by Ronald Frame

  • Publication Date: November 5, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250037271
  • ISBN-13: 9781250037275