Havisham: A Novel, by Ronald Frame – A Review

Havisham A Novel by Ronald Frame 2013 x 200Dear 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 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. Continue reading

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Image from The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Matthew Rhys as John Jasper

In 41 years of producing movie adaptations based on classic literature, Masterpiece Classic (formerly known as Master Theatre), has had a very productive relationship with author Charles Dickens. We have enjoyed two Bleak House’s, two David Copperfield’s, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, two Oliver Twist’s, Little Dorrit and The Old Curiosity Shop. Ten out of fifteen novels adapted is amazing. Many of them outstanding.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth, Masterpiece has added The Mystery of Edwin Drood to their long list. Written in 1870, it was Dickens’ final unfinished novel. He died before he completed it, sparking the literary debate of who murdered Edwin Drood. Other authors quickly wrote completions of the novel, notably one American who claimed he had ‘ghost-written’ the ending by channeling Dickens’ spirit! This new completion by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) does not claim any unearthly connections to the venerable author, but it does bring us a compelling and powerful story, so steeped in Gothic mystery that Jane Austen’s character Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey would be delighted. I was too!

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I adore a good mystery. I was immediately intrigued by the announcements online last year that the BBC and PBS would co-produce The Mystery of Edwin Drood. How would the story be completed? It was a mystery within a mystery. What a huge challenge for any screenwriter to finish a classic author’s work. Granted, their choice of Gwyneth Hughes seemed very fitting. Her bio-pic Miss Austen Regrets (2009) was great, capturing the historical details and spirit of my favorite author beautifully. Another plus was the choice of Diarmuid Lawrence (Emma, 1996, with Kate Beckinsale) as director. He always finds the dark side of characters and brings that forward. The list of all British cast was stellar too. With all of these factors lined up, it appeared to be the most interesting new adaptation of a Dickens novel in years.

Since it is a mystery, I do not want to reveal any spoilers. However, I will write a bit about the plot and my favorite characters. Set in the mythical town of Cloisterham, John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) is a choirmaster that detests his job. To escape, he frequents opium dens in London to fantasize about murdering his dissipated young nephew Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox) and then marry his nephew’s fiance, the beautiful Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) who he is obsessed with. When brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless arrive from Ceylon, their murky connections to the Drood family raises questions. Soon Neville is obsessed with Rosa too, causing a violent riff between him and Edwin. On the night of their mutual reconciliation, Drood mysteriously disappears. Because of his previous contentious relationship with Drood, Landless is pinned for his murder while uncle John is secretly convinced that he killed his nephew in opium induce rage.

Filled with both sinister and delightful characterizations that Dickens in known for, this dark tale is a creepy Gothic mystery unlike anything else that he had written. Many of the key scenes with Jaspers are in the dark, dank cathedral crypt, where stone mason Durdles (Ron Cook) has created monuments for the dead; holding secrets that will unravel the mysterious death of Edwin Drood.

Matthews Rhys gives a disturbing performance as the deranged choirmaster obsessed with a young, innocent girl whom he should have no designs on, but cannot stay away from. There is something that is compelling and hypnotic about watching an obsession. You feel like you are ease-dropping on the characters intimate failings. It makes you uneasy, but you just can’t stop. You must know why he is driven to the point of madness. It is a great plot devise that Dickens used several times: Miss Havisham in last week’s Great Expectations immediately comes to mind. Jasper’s other obsession, killing his nephew to make way for this true love, is the axis of the mystery. I can’t say that I had much sympathy for Edwin Drood when he disappeared. A dissipated and spoiled young gentleman with no redeeming qualities, actor Freddie Fox is so convincing in the part I just wanted to slap him, and, his fiancé Rosa, who should have nothing to do with him.

Dickens and Hughes’ prose blended seamlessly for me. Admittedly, I have not read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but I know Dickens’ style well from his more famous works. Her resolution of the whodunit was both surprising and satisfying. This new adaptation and completion will both shock and amaze; the true test of any good Gothic tale worthy of a peek behind the dreaded black veil.

Image courtesy of  Laurence Cendrowicz/BBC for MASTERPIECE

Great Expectations 2012: Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Review

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations has been adapted no less than fourteen times for the screen. Like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, every ten years or so it gets trotted out for a new interpretation; and, for good reason. The tale is a masterpiece of storytelling – compelling to read, and fabulous to experience filmed.

Douglas Booth as Pip in Great Expectations (2012)

Since the 1970’s I have watched all of the new adaptations as they aired on television and re-watched the 1946 David Lean movie several times. Some were memorable, others, not so much. In the scheme of things, Masterpiece Classic’s new mini-series of Great Expectations that concluded last night on PBS was definitely a keeper.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Of all of Dickens’ cannon of incredible stories, Great Expectations is one of my favorites. Filled with amazing characterizations, we meet the incredibly good and the incredibly bad in human nature: innocent orphans, devious murders, slimy blackguards, unscrupulous lawyers, cold-hearted ingénues, and Miss Havisham. Yes. Since the book’s publication in the 1860’s, Miss Havisham has earned her own classification. If Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Heathcliff are literary romantic icons, then Miss Havisham is their polar opposite. To be trite, there is no fury like a woman scorned. Jilted at the altar, she is obsessive, manipulative and revengeful, sending shivers into the souls of rakes, libertines and bounders – and making young maidens wiser beyond their years. She is one of my favorite fictional characters and the benchmark for every new adaptation of Great Expectations. If Miss Havisham is spot-on twisted, then you know that the rest will follow. Happily, actress Gillian Anderson gave an unnerving performance as the eccentric, wacked-out, misandrist that was nails on chalkboard disturbing. Even though I knew the outcome of the story, I was compelled to watch as she weaves her revenge until her tragic end comes to pass.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

In my mind, screenwriter Sarah Phelps, director Brian Kirk and art director Katherine Law gave Miss H. an other-worldly quality that I had not experienced before in other productions. Dressed in her famous tattered white wedding dress, we truly believe that her world froze the moment she read her fiancé’s letter jilting her on her wedding day. Not only is she dead emotionally, she looks like a ghost haunting her crumbling manor house with the clocks stopped at 11:00, years of dust on every surface, cobwebs across every vertical object and the wedding banquet food rotting in the dining room. Eeek! The first time she literally floated down the massive staircase, I shuddered in horror. This was creepy. Anderson’s glazed over eyes, delayed reactions and hoarse voice only added to her ghostly apparition.  It was not quite Dickens’ original intention, but it worked for me.

Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (2012)

Everything about this new production was eclipsed by the great white lady after this point. It seemed quite fitting. A tribute to the grand dame of jilted lovers.

Images courtesy of © MASTERPIECE

Giveaway Winners Announced for The Charles Dickens Devotional

A Charles Dickens Devotional, by Jean Fisher (2012)22 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win one of three copies of The Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fisher. The winners drawn at random are:

  • June who left a comment on February 08, 2012
  • Julie who left a comment on February 08, 2012
  • Dawn Teresa who left a comment on February 17, 2012

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by February 29, 2011. Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments for the giveaway. Winners, I hope you enjoy your books.

© 2007 – 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Giveaway Winners Announced for The Solitary House

The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd (2012)24 of you left comments qualifying you for a chance to win one of three advanced readers copies of The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd. The winners drawn at random are:

  • Aurora who left a comment on February 07, 2012
  • Debra E. Marvin who left a comment on February 07, 2012
  • Melissa who left a comment on February 20, 2012

Congratulations ladies! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by February 29, 2011. Shipment is to US addresses only.

Thanks to all who left comments for the giveaway, and to author Lynn Shepherd for her great guest blog in celebration of Charles Dickens bicentenary birthday.

© 2007 – 2012 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer – A Review & Giveaway!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, by Jean Fischer (2012)Guest review by Br. Paul Byrd, OP

Hidden like gems among the pages of [Dickens’] novels are numerous religious images and biblical references: in Great Expectations, Pip praying for the Lord to be merciful to Abel Magwitch, a sinner and formidable criminal; in Bleak House, the image of Christ ‘stooped down, writing with his finger in the dust when they brought the sinful woman to him’; in Little Dorrit, adoration of wealth described as ‘the camel in the needle’s eye, (introduction).

As if A Jane Austen Devotional were not enough, fans of 19th century British Christian piety have a chance to sit and meditate on some of the most memorable and beloved stories of English literature with Jean Fischer’s A Charles Dickens Devotional, a collection of over one hundred vivid and engaging passages from nearly every fictional tale Dickens composed, including the ever popular David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations along with the important, but perhaps lesser read masterpieces Bleak House, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit. And just as with the Austen devotional, each Dickens passage is paired with a short reflection and scripture quote meant to inspire meditation on a particular moral principle or virtue.

As Fischer writes, “[Dickens] was recognized as a nineteenth-century advocate for the poor and the oppressed,” (210)—the result, of course, of Dickens’ own experiences of poverty and child labor. Indeed, he often supported the underdogs of society in his stories—children, women, the poor—and exposed the structures of society that oppressed the weak and allowed the greedy to exploit others even as they maintained a “Christian” front. Like Jane Austen before him, Dickens knew the power of the pen in exposing hypocrisy and upholding the virtuous. Through a keen observation of human nature—the good and the bad—and through his excellent descriptions, Dickens brings to life characters that are themselves parables; none more so, perhaps, than Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser turned saint and hero of A Christmas Carol.

One of my favorite chapters in this devotional takes its passage from Dickens’ last and unfinished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Outside the New Testament, I do not think I have ever read a more scathing description of false philanthropy. How it cuts its subject to the quick and thus, as Fischer points out, challenges the reader to search his or her own conscience. Unfortunately, not all the meditations are equally strong, and I found one in particular that I thought was rather dangerous. In the chapter “Bad Company,” Fischer writes in her meditation “In this world, every day, we come in contact with both Christians and non-Christians. God does not forbid this, but rather He desires that we not get too close to unbelievers and risk being pulled into the enemy’s snare,” (77). I understand the best possible interpretation of that statement, but I still found it overly simplistic and unhelpful, especially in a time when it is becoming ever more important for Christians to dialogue with each other and non-Christians.

That said, this is a devotional, not a theological work, and so readers are expected to bring their own faith with them, using what they find in the book, if they can, and leaving what is unhelpful and uninspiring. If you are afraid that you will be lost in a sea of unfamiliar characters and plots, don’t be; Fischer’s book is designed for the Dickens expert and the lay reader alike. The Dickens framework is merely meant to spark contemplation. If it sparks your literary interest and leads you to read the novels, as well, so much the better. I am sure that fans of Austen and Dickens, will find much to enjoy in this helpful little book, so I give it four stars.

4 out of 5 Stars

A Grand Giveaway of A Charles Dickens Devotional

Publisher Thomas Nelson, Inc. has generously offered a giveaway contest of three copies of A Charles Dickens Devotional. To enter a chance to win one copy, leave a comment stating which quotes from Charles Dickens you think are inspiring, or which of  Charles Dickens’ characters would greatly benefit from this devotional, and why by 11:59pm PT, Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to the US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

A Charles Dickens Devotional, edited by Jean Fischer
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2012)
Hardcover (224) pages
ISBN: 978-1400319541
NOOK: ISBN: 978-1400319725
Kindle: ASIN: B005ENBBUQ

Br. Paul Byrd, OP is a solemnly professed friar of the Dominican Order of Preachers. Originally from Covington, KY, he earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Thomas More College and his master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology. He is in the writing and publishing graduate program at DePaul University. He is the author of the Dominican Cooperator Blog

© 2007 – 2012 Br. Paul Byrd, OP, Austenprose

In Celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday: From Jane Austen to Charles Dickens: Guest blog by Lynn Shepherd, & a Giveaway

Google Celebration of Charles Dickens 2012

We are basically a tried and true Janeite, but quietly confess to admiration of another nineteenth-century novelist also born in Hampshire; – Charles Dickens. His style is entirely different than the witty underpinnings of our beloved Miss Austen, but one cannot ignore his fabulous characterizations and amazing plot twists.

Charles DickensToday is the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth on February 7, 1812 at Landport, in Portsea, near Portsmouth, England. If Miss Austen is wholly a Regency author, then Dickens is her Victorian counterpart in popularity. He would become the most famous author of his day, writing sixteen major novels, traveling the world with his speaking tours and publishing other authors works like Mrs. Gaskell.

Like Jane Austen, Dickens has a huge following of admirers and sequelers. I was thrilled to learn last year that Murder at Mansfield Park author Lynn Shepherd was also a fan of Dickens and had written a novel inspired by one of his most popular works, Bleak House. Published last week as Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, Lynn’s new novel will also be released in the US in May by Random House as The Solitary House: A Novel.

Lynn is the perfect fellow Janeite to share her thoughts on Dickens’ bicentenary celebration with us on his special day. She has generously contributed a guest blog and a very special chance for readers to win one of three advance readers copies available of The Solitary House. Details of the giveaway are listed below. Welcome Lynn:  

Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd (2010)The last time I wrote a piece for Laurel Ann it was because I had just written Murder at Mansfield Park; I’m back now to help celebrate Dickens’ 200th birthday because I’m just about to publish a new murder mystery, inspired by his great masterpiece, Bleak House.

It’s a very long way from the elegant ambiance of Regency country houses, to the dark and dirty world of Victorian London, so why did I decide to make the move from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens? And having made that decision, what challenges did I face?

The first thing I realized was that I didn’t want The Solitary House to be the same sort of book as Murder at Mansfield Park. In the latter I had worked very hard to mimic Jane Austen’s beautiful prose style, rigorously checking my vocabulary to ensure it was in use at the time, and replicating the special rhythm of her sentences. But I knew at once that I didn’t want to do the same thing with Dickens. His style is almost as distinctive as hers, but I suspected any attempt to pastiche it would descend very quickly into parody.

Likewise I made the conscious decision not to even attempt to cram in everything Dickens does – his books are astonishingly broad in their scope, with comedy and satire at one extreme, and drama and psychological insight at the other. I’ve always been more interested in the latter than the former, and I confess I do find his caricatures rather tiresome in some of the novels.  So by now I was clear: I wanted to write a book inspired by Dickens, but ‘darker than Dickens’, with no comedy, no caricatures, and in a voice of my own.

The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd (2012)The result is a book that runs in parallel with the events of Bleak House, with some of Dickens’ characters appearing in mine, and the two stories coming together and intersecting at crucial moments.  Bleak House is, of course, the very first detective story in English, with the first fictional detective, Inspector Bucket. He appears in my story too – my young detective, Charles Maddox, was once fired from the Metropolitan Police at Bucket’s insistence, and their paths cross again as Charles’ investigation deepens.

Anyone who’s read Murder at Mansfield Park, will recognize the name ‘Charles Maddox’ at once, but we’re now in 1850, not 1811, and this new Charles Maddox is actually the great-nephew of my original Regency thief taker. Old Maddox appears in the book as well, but he’s now an elderly man, and suffering from a disease that we recognize at once as Alzheimer’s, but which was unknown at the time. But when Maddox has lucid periods he is still one of the sharpest minds in London, and Charles will need all his help if he’s to unravel the terrible secret at the heart of this sinister case.

One of the great delights – and challenges – of writing The Solitary House was to go back and re-create Dickens’ London. As many people have said, London is not just a setting in Dickens’ novels, but a character in its own right, and I had the opportunity to be even more forthright about the realities of life in the city than Dickens was able to be. We know far more, in some ways, that Dickens’ middle class contemporaries did, and I’ve tried to bring the 19th-century city to life in all its splendor, all its sin, and all its stink.

Great Expectations (2011) UKOf course many of us owe our mental pictures of Victorian London to the screen adaptations of Dickens’ works, and he does translate particularly well to film and TV. The BBC aired a new – and I think excellent – version of Great Expectations this Christmas, with Gillian Anderson as a chillingly beautiful and aloof Miss Havisham. There was also a new adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with a new ending, and some wonderfully atmospheric scenes. There are many other excellent BBC adaptations of the books, and I’m also a great fan of the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, which has a marvelously intense Bradley Headstone, as played by David Morrissey, but my favorite – perhaps unsurprisingly – is the 2005 Bleak House.

Once again Gillian Anderson is utterly convincing and impressive as Lady Dedlock, and she’s supported by a wonderful cast of British character acting at its best. My only quibble is the choice of actor to play Tulkinghorn, as Charles Dance (in my view) is far too young, attractive, and just plain tall, to play the wizened old lawyer I have in my own imagination.

Bleak House (2005) BBCThe other fascinating thing about that Bleak House adaptation was that it was deliberately constructed in half-hour episodes, thereby mimicking the ‘serial publication’ of the original novel. It was a brilliant coup to screen it that way, since it helps us understand how Dickens structured his story with cliff-hangers at the end of each ‘number’, to keep people coming back for more.

And, of course, they did. And they still do, even 200 years after he was born, whether as readers, viewers, or – in my case – writers inspired by his great genius to create something new of their own.

Author Bio:

Lynn Shepherd studied English at Oxford, and later went on to do a doctorate on Samuel Richardson, which has now been published by Oxford University Press. She’s also a passionate Jane Austen fan, writing the award winning Murder at Mansfield Park in (2010), and just released another murder mystery Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, inspired by Charles Dickens Bleak House. Retitled The Solitary House, it will be released in the US by Random House in May. You can visit Lynn at her  website, on Facebook as Lynn Shepherd, and follow her on Twitter as @Lynn_Shepherd.

A Grand Giveaway of The Solitary House: A Novel

Enter a chance to win one of three advance reading copies available of The Solitary House: A Novel, by Lynn Shepherd by leaving a question asking Lynn about her inspiration to write a Dickens sequel, her research process, or if you have read Bleak House or seen any of the many film adaptations, which your favorite character is by 11:59 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012. Winners to be announced on Thursday, February 23, 2012. Shipment to US addresses only. Good luck!

Thanks for joining us today Lynn in celebration of one of literature’s most revered and cherished novelist of all time on his special day. Best of luck with your new mystery novel The Solitary House. I am so looking forward to reading it. 

© 2007 – 2012 Lynn Shepherd, Austenprose