Dear Mr. Frame:
I recently read Havisham, your prequel and retelling of Charles Dickens Great Expectations, one of my favorite Victorian novels. Your choice to expand the back story of the minor character Miss Havisham, the most infamous misandry in literary history, was brilliant. Jilted at the altar she was humiliated and heartbroken, living the rest of her days in her tattered white wedding dress in the decaying family mansion, Satis House. Few female characters have left such a chilling impression on me. I was eager to discover your interpretation of how her early life formed her personality and set those tragic events into motion.
Dickens gave you a fabulous character to work with. (spoilers ahead) Born in Kent in the late eighteenth-century, Catherine’s mother died in childbirth leaving her father, a wealthy brewer, to dote upon his only child. Using his money to move her up the social ladder she is educated with aristocrats where she learns about literature, art, languages and the first disappointments of love. In London, she meets and is wooed by the charismatic Charles Compeyson. Family secrets surface in the form of her dissipated half-brother Arthur, the child of a hidden marriage of her father to their cook. Her ailing father knows his son has no interest in his prospering business and trains his clever young daughter. After his death, the inevitable clash occurs between the siblings over money and power. Challenged as a young woman running a business in a man’s world, Catherine struggles until Charles reappears charming his way into her service and her heart. About two-thirds of the way through the novel the events of Great Expectations surface. Charles abandons her on their wedding day and she sinks into depression.
I knew that the devastating jilting at the altar was coming! We all did. When it happened, I was anticipating a full-blown emotional Armageddon-like Jane Austen’s heroine Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility: bed-ridden crying jags, desperate letter writing to her lover, senseless walking in the rain, near-death illness, and miraculous survival. Some of that happened in Havisham, but not to the degree I anticipated. After all, we knew that Dickens’ Miss Havisham had taken this jilting business far beyond the depths of disappointed hopes that Marianne had plumbed. But why? Why did she choose not to move on—holding on to her anger and rage, becoming bitter and vengeful? It had to be something so startling that it would jar me to my core. I won’t reveal your choices, but when her tepid romance with Charles Compeyson and her reaction to his spurning were not what I expected, I was greatly disappointed. Readers had been waiting 150 years to know the story. Granted it was not Dickens’ narrative, but it could be the next best thing. You had gotten us to this point so admirably that I was inclined to close your book with an angry snap. If I had a white wedding dress, I would be wearing it right now in protest. You have jilted me at the altar of literature.
Do I regret reading your novel? No. Your prose was beautifully crafted and your characterizations entertaining. Would I like to give you some unsolicited advice on being brave enough to take your own narrative over the edge? Yes! After reading numerous Jane Austen-inspired sequels, you can’t play with classic archetypes and then not deliver the goods. While your plot slowly picked up momentum you missed the point. Catherine’s romance with Charles should have been the most compelling relationship in the book, yet I was constantly on guard by his questionable behavior and never liked him, let alone loved him. I never understood why she did. That desperate passion between them should have consumed the pages, like Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff, making his final choice so shocking, so devastating, so heartbreaking, that we understood why she locked herself away from the world and enacted revenge on Pip through her daughter Estella. So close, yet miles away from the masters of human emotion, Dickens, Bronte, and Austen. They would never have made that mistake.
I commend you for your attempt. It is a very tall order to write a prequel of a literary icon. Everyone who has read Great Expectations has their own great expectations for Miss Havisham. Your book exhibits many fine qualities, unfortunately, your choices lacked the fire, passion, and emotional depth required to make her psychological tragedy the literary jackpot that we have been waiting for.
3 out of 5 Stars
Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame
Hardcover (368) pages
Cover image courtesy of Picador (Macmillan Publishing) © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress, © 2014, Austenprose.com