A very long engagement

Havisham, by Ronald Frame, Faber, RRP£16.99, 368 pages

Writers have always been cannibals, feeding off tasty morsels sliced from the works of others. It is a tradition that embraces Shakespeare, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, some 70 variations on Pride and Prejudice and Jean Rhys’s Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea. Ronald Frame has been gnawing on Dickens’s Great Expectations and its choicest gobbet, Miss Havisham.

Dickens gave Miss Havisham a brief but potent backstory: jilted on her wedding day by her fiancé Compeyson, in shock and humiliation she kept on her wedding dress, battened down her home, left the wedding feast to rot and raised her ward Estella to break men’s hearts just as hers had been broken.

Frame turns back to Catherine’s childhood (Dickens didn’t reveal her first name) and her upbringing as the daughter of a Rochester brewer who wants to raise her as a gentlewoman. He sends her to live with the Chadwycks, a gentry family straight out of Jane Austen. There she gains a sentimental education and attends balls and masques.

Her own great expectations centre on Charles Compeyson, a Willoughby/Wickham dasher who insinuates himself into her heart. Naturally she is blind to the fact that her beau borrows money from her and disappears for long unexplained periods. She is set on the course that leads to her wedding morning, and a letter telling her there will be no groom at the church.

Frame does not stop there, but retells the story of Great Expectations as a parallel narrative, seen from Miss Havisham’s perspective. He recounts it in a style that might be termed “novelist’s antique”, a confection of cadences and picturesque details that overlays a modern sensibility. It is occasionally clumsy, as when Catherine describes her awakening sexual desire (“I’m feeling ... an urgency between my legs, but not to relieve myself of water”) but as the psychology of Miss Havisham becomes more knotted it becomes invisible.

If Frame has done a fine job of suggesting how Miss Havisham became the “ghastly waxwork” of Pip’s first encounter, he has also done a thorough piece of retrieval with Compeyson, to whom Dickens devoted only a couple of paragraphs. Above all, he manages not only to keep the reader interested when the outcome of the story is already known, but to describe both the pathology and the horror of Miss Havisham’s ailment: “The broken heart. You think you will die, but you just keep living, day after day after terrible day.”

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