Anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” probably remembers Miss Havisham, if they don’t remember much else from the novel. While not a central character, Miss Havisham packs a hearty literary punch for the number of words devoted to her. She’s more a looming presence than a believable person. What with her yellowing wedding attire and moldering feast left to rot on the dining room table within a shuttered mansion, she’s gothic madness personified (at least, Dickens’ brand of it). In his book “Havisham, author Ronald Frame takes a stab at fashioning a backstory for Dickens’ great lady in white and succeeds on many accounts.
Catherine Havisham grows up as the only child of an upwardly mobile country brewer. Her mother dies in childbirth, and from that moment on, Catherine’s grieving father puts all his effort toward making lots of money and ensuring his daughter’s comfortable future. In Victorian England, money alone does not equal status, and Joseph Havisham, far from noble lineage, knows he must take pains to place his daughter into high society.
When she’s a young child, her father showers her with expensive gifts. As she grows older he invites children her age to come play with her at Satis House. Reflecting back on it, Catherine believes it was a way for her to feel her own superiority over the children, who had fewer material possessions than she. “Children, hand-picked, continued to come to Satis House. … I wondered what on earth was the point of it, unless my father liked to have reported back to him their envy for how I lived, wanting for nothing.”
One of the childhood visitors, Sally, becomes Catherine’s close friend. Though never equals — none of the children Joseph invites to Satis House are social equals to Catherine — Sally proves to be highly intelligent and perceptive. She and Catherine remain as close as they can be, considering their different stations in life and Joseph’s disapproval of their closeness. Still, while Catherine feels affection for Sally, she never sees her as a peer. “Then I felt impatient with her. Why couldn’t she just accept that these things are visited on us? We don’t have a choice, we truly don’t. I was a Havisham; she was Limping Johnnie’s daughter, never mind what airs her mother gave herself.”
Things become further complicated for Catherine when, shortly after her 13th birthday, she learns she has a half-brother from a marriage her father had kept secret. Arthur Havisham is the son of “Mrs. Bundy,” the Havisham’s cook, and Catherine’s father. The half-siblings’ relationship is problematic from the start, with Arthur feeling cheated out of opportunity and affection, being the child of the family’s cook, and Catherine feeling that Arthur is demanding things not owed to him. To diffuse tension and to start Catherine’s climb into more prestigious company, Joseph sends his daughter to stay with the Chadwyks, a noble family that has frittered away much of its old wealth.
There, Catherine falls into daily routines with the whimsical Mouse, Sheba, Moses and W’m, all charming children who pass their days by acting out classical plays, reciting poetry and attending dances. It’s at one such dance that Catherine meets Mr. Compeyson, a rakish young man who is also a bit of an outsider. Catherine falls head over heels for him, and they eventually get engaged. You can probably guess the rest.
Perhaps it is because the reader knows of her coming ruin that her romance with Mr. Compeyson seems so pitiful and doomed. The slowly, but not so subtly, unfolding plot between Arthur and Mr. Compeyson adds insult to injury. And to throw on another layer of misery, it’s discovered later that her fiancé leaves Catherine at the altar for none other than her best childhood friend, Sally.
It’s almost too bad to believe. But then again, Catherine is no ordinary spinster. She needs ample ammunition to propel her to the towering, iconic character she becomes later in the novel and in “Great Expectations.” Frame draws his parallels quite cleanly: Joseph’s spoiling of Catherine as a child to the adult Catherine spoiling Estella, a young girl she raises; Catherine’s betrayal at the hands of her would-be lover in her earlier years to her vicarious living through Estella, making the young girl untouchably desirable, always just out of reach of suitors.
Critics of the novel have mentioned that Frame makes Catherine too human for readers to respect. When we see the motives behind her actions, the traumas in her past, beyond simply being left at the altar, she’s cut down to size, and we fail to enjoy her as the literary monolith she’s become. I don’t agree. While his prose can be stilted at times, and the plot moves slowly through the middle section, I think that Frame has spun an intriguing yarn and a commendable prequel to Dickens’ epic novel, clearly no easy feat.