Havisham

Ronald Frame

Havisham
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Havisham

Ronald Frame

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. It is a masterly tribute to one of Dickens' most celebrated and iconic characters.

Review

Prequels, sequels and spinoffs to classic novels inevitably inspire some sort of dread – how much really depends on your feelings about fan fiction. The Guardian’s Mark Lawson commented earlier this year that titles of this genre, with notable exceptions like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, rarely approach the same kind of literary excellence as their inspirations.

The authors that succeed are those who explore the omissions of the original. They highlight the gaps we missed and leave us shocked that we could ever have missed them. They unsettle and play with their source material; they give it new and unpredictable life.

On this basis, Ronald Frame’s Havisham is perhaps not groundbreakingly literary. An engaging backstory for one of Dickens’ most iconic and disturbing characters, it may run slightly predictably: a young girl, secretly romantic, with a wealthy, dysfunctional father who has a chip on his shoulder about being seen as a merchant, gets done over by a bit-of-a-smooth-talker. Her nascent urges of creativity, warmth and social brilliance are stifled, covered over by her useless wedding dress until it’s too late to thaw out. But Frame tells the story with fresh warmth and tenderness.

Sent from the family brewing empire to live with the glamorous Chadwyck family, Catherine is unable to see (unlike the reader, and everyone else) that she is out of her depth. With few friends and no guidance, she is no match for the ruthless social machinations of the nineteenth century. The hope, determination and loyalty of the young Catherine petrify tragically into the bitterness, nihilism and fear of the notorious Miss Havisham.

She terrified me as a child and fascinates me now. Though I feel Frame may have missed the subversive potential of her story, his sense of time and place bring her poignantly back to life.


imogen-dewey-pic Imogen Dewey is a bookseller at Readings Carlton. She reads chocolate and eats books. She has next to no general knowledge, but does have a diet quite high in fibre.

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