In Ronald Frame’s Havisham, foreboding assumes a special darkness. In an early example, a brewer’s daughter regards the spinsters at their Kentish church: “Those who had failed in love were left with a kind of purposeless animation: restless hands fidgeting with gloves and prayerbooks, tremulous mouths and little lambs’ tongues, eyes that flitted about the congregation—as if vaguely searching out someone who was never present,” writes Frame. As determined by her creator, this observant girl will become literature’s most fearsome lady scorned.
Frame cannot be blamed for the character’s fate. She is, of course, Dickens’s own Miss Havisham, the bitter spinster of Satis House, who trained her ward Estella to break men’s hearts, avenging her own wedding-day indignity. In Frame’s skillful prequel, she is reintroduced as a child. “I wanted just to give Miss Havisham her youth,” Frame says. “Here was somebody who seemed to have everything going for her in life, so much promise, and we know that she had a degree of charisma,” adds Frame, who notes that Dickens atypically laid clues to her origins in Great Expectations.
Frame is the Oxford-educated author of The Lantern Bearers, winner of Scotland’s prestigious Saltire Award for Scottish Book of the Year 2000, among dozens of other novels, television scripts and radio plays. As exhibited by its strong and spirited dialogue, Havisham was adapted from a radio play. “I learned a lot from writing for radio. If you lose listeners after two minutes, you’ve lost them for good. I find all that teaches you a lot about narrative and holding people’s attention. You have to make people turn the page,” he says.
Through Dickens’s lens, Frame sees Catherine’s early life as a relatively enviable one. Her mother has died in childbirth; her father is a successful brewer, bolstered by the demands for ale and beer by the British soldiers and sailors fighting Napoleonic wars. She receives every toy and bauble and, soon, a proper education at the home of Lady Chadwyck, whose children, Isabella, William and Marianna, and nephew Frederick become Catherine’s schoolmates and confidants, attending parties and practicing tableaux vivants for the delight of the titled neighbors. It is at one such exhibition where she encounters Charles Compeyson and falls in love, but neither the Chadwycks nor readers may rejoice in her affections. The man is of questionable origins, and a cobwebbed cake is clearly in her future. The clocks will stop at twenty to nine. The wedding dress will become a straightjacket.
The author blends research and imagination to achieve his desired result—a narrative “out of time,” no Victorian impersonation. The method led to several practical reconsiderations. “One of the problems is, if she survives for all these years wearing one wedding dress, they aren’t going to be able to get near her. Is she washing? That’s kind of beastly, I’m afraid,” he says. “There are necessary concessions to be made.” He skirts the issue by having Havisham reorder the dress. “Just as before, I told the modiste’s niece, it will be very fine work ... Silk, Lyons silk, in that same old-fashioned style. Sprigged and trimmed with Bath lace, as used to be favoured; and—on the back, as delicately done as gossamer—gold foil, which was the taste at that time too,” he writes.
Dickens purists may carp at Frame’s alterations, but the author believes that the man himself wouldn’t bother. “I don’t feel I’ve done anything that Dickens would have objected to. I don’t think he’s going to be spinning in his grave,” he says. “She’s a wonderful character, with her compulsions and obsessions and tics...and Dickens has generously given the mere bones of her story. I was rather surprised, I have to say, that nobody else had expanded her story....A book only comes alive when somebody reads it. It has no life when it just sits on a shelf, and if I can reach a few more people to go back to Great Expectations—that’s what you do hope for with your writing,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.