Havisham by Ronald Frame

Published by Faber and Faber, 1 November 2012.

Blurb:

There was a delicate tracery of gold foil on the back of the dress. How strange that such a consummately made garment should be worn for this one day only. But, as every girl growing up understood, her wedding day was the most significant she would know: a woman’s crowning glory.

Catherine Havisham was born into privilege. Handsome, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer, and lives in luxury in Satis House. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall – HAVISHAM. A reminder of all she owes to the family name and the family business.

Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers literature, music and masquerades – elegant pastimes to remove the taint of new money. But for all her growing sophistication Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything – her heart, her future, the very Havisham name – is vulnerable.

RFHL classifications

Heat Level 1 (not even that)

‘Prequel’

Victorian

REVIEW RATING: 4 STARS

Review by Caz

This is a highly plausible and sometimes heart-wrenching account of the life of Miss Havisham prior to and during the events of Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Through that novel, we know her as a woman unhinged, determined to wreak her revenge on the male sex through her adopted daughter, Estella. But in Havisham, Ronald Frame fleshes her out to show us different facets of her character, and through a very clever, first person narration, conveys much to the reader of the deceits which surround her and which are made all the more poignant because of her unawareness of them.

Catherine Havisham’s mother died when she was very young. Her father is wealthy and successful, but his money comes from trade (he is a brewer) and so despite his riches, he and his daughter are looked down on by the higher echelons of society to which he aspires. He is determined to enable her entrée to that world however, but in doing so, secures for her a very lonely childhood as he denies her any friendships with the children she encounters who are the offspring of brewery workers or servants because they are beneath her. In her teens, he sends her off to stay periodically with the Chadwycks, a clever elegant family of two girls and two boys, in order for her to gain some cachet and secure her entry into society.
While with the Chadwycks, Catherine falls in love with William, the handsome eldest son, but her feelings are unrequited. She also meets the fascinating Charles Compeyson, and gradually her affections transfer to him as she becomes more cognisant of William’s true nature and indifference.

Charles is, of course, not all he seems, but it is easy to understand why Catherine – handsome rather than beautiful, deprived of true affection since childhood – is taken in by him. He cheats her, not only in terms of the business she has inherited from her father, but in other, even more cruel ways.
From then on, we see how Catherine becomes the Miss Havisham created by Dickens and the events of the last third of the book run concurrently with those in Great Expectations. Catherine adopts Estella and we meet Pip; Catherine intends, she believes, to ensure that Estella never endures suffering and heartbreak at the hands of a man, but in doing so, only dooms Estella to a loveless future.

I confess that I found the first third of the book to be hard going. The prose is very detailed and there is a lot of extensive description of costume and place which I found rather dry. I also felt a prevailing sense of ‘emptiness’ – while the novel is written in the first person, there were times when Catherine as a character proved very elusive and it was hard to get a real sense of who she was.

But this lessened as the novel progressed, and I became more drawn into the story when Catherine fell in love. I felt her euphoria at the merest touch of a hand, and her disillusionment at the discovery that her first love had feet of clay.
The final part of the novel was gripping and hard to put down. Seeing Catherine’s downward spiral through her own eyes makes it seem even more terrible, and tears away the almost fairy-tale vision of the wronged, broken-hearted bride, instead showing us a monster born of thwarted desire; a destroyer of lives who has become that which she most hated.

Havisham is not always an easy book to read, but is well worth it for the light it sheds on the character and events in the original novel. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Great Expectations .

With thanks to Faber and Faber and NetGalley for the review copy.

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