Havisham by Ronald Frame
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 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.