Published by Picador
Publication date: November 5th 2013
I felt I could hold on to more by staying here. If I’d gone off…I’m not sure I would have known who I was. I would have come apart perhaps.
Even if it doesn’t come to you right away, the name Havisham is likely to bring at least a flicker of recognition to a reading brain. It’s the surname of the epitome of love jilted at the altar, Catherine Havisham in Great Expectationsby Charles Dickens. In Havisham by Ronald Frame, Catherine is given her own voice and uses it to full effect. I found the book to be immensely enjoyable but if you are a Dickens scholar you may be too close to the original work to read this without drawing comparisons. For someone who read Great Expectations decades ago, I saw enough of Dickens in the characters of Havisham to recognize them but appreciated that what was secondary to Dickens is primary to Frame and wrought in its grand and flawed fullness.
Catherine Havisham is the only child of a wealthy businessman. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father indulges and spoils her. He is a man of great wealth, made from producing ale and cutting out the middleman by purchasing taverns and pubs. Enough to create a fortune but not enough to give his daughter the status he wants her to have. So, using his wealth he pays the expenses of an aristocratic but impoverished family and sends her to live with them. She knows nothing of this arrangement but discovers it after her father’s death, furthering her education about the effects of money.
It had brought comfort to Lady Chadwyck, but it had perverted relationships, making them seem what they weren’t—and what they had no right to be.
Catherine falls in love with a man considered inappropriate by some. He loves horses and gambling and thinks the classics are boring. More importantly, he is handsome, amusing, and makes her feel beautiful. She brings him into her father’s business and he proposes to her, only to disappear hours before their wedding. The most important event of a Victorian girl’s life ruined—what is left? For some it is suicide or spinsterhood but for Catherine Havisham it is the moment that determines the rest of her life.
All I knew, the only thing, was this: I had reached the end of the life I’d had. It was lost to me now.
At first she lay in her wedding dress, powdered and made-up, for weeks on end, in the vain hope that this was a mistake and her beloved will return. Nothing is touched—which is one of the iconic visuals of the Miss Havisham mythos—the heavily laden wedding feast table covered in cobwebs and surrounded by decay.
It is only as her rational mind returns (or does it?) that she takes up the reins of her father’s company and later, adopts a young girl to raise her as her own.
Frame gives us a portrait of a mind that, through one calamitous event, simultaneously shatters and hardens into a piece of amber, clear, unforgiving, with the past perfectly encapsulated inside. He inhabits her mind so completely that it is difficult to see another point of view—which is a wickedly wonderful gift to the reader. Is Catherine Havisham insane? Possibly. Or is she a woman with the means and the mind to exact revenge on not just one man but the entire gender? Frame parallels the plot of Great Expectations and the hapless Pip is mouse to Estella’s cruel cat.
This was what the Havisham name was for. Estella was its creation…All of it was done in your name, Estella Havisham, so that you will never have to know a future like my past.
Havisham is the kind of reading that will entertain and ensnare. If all one wants is a well-crafted, twisty plot then it excels. If one is looking for something more, greater themes of life, love, revenge, morality it provides riches there as well. A woman with the power to shape the future is always a fascinating subject, especially in Victorian times when women had little or no power, so how she chooses to do so is intriguing. I could not blame Catherine for her creation of Estella but when she has completed her mission and Estella has fallen to the one man who does not fall prey to her, it is a cruel twist of fate. One of the tragedies in Havisham is that Catherine cannot wreak her havoc alone and in turning Estella into a weapon of destruction she destroys the girl as well. On a larger scale, by the end of the novel, everyone has paid the price for love.