Writing a prologue for Great Expectations is ambitious to say the least, but delving into the mysterious past of one of the most famous literary characters of all time is something that not many authors would be brave enough to do. Ronald Frame, however, gives it his best shot.
Havisham is a novel that gives us Miss Havisham’s story, attempting to explain how she became the cold hearted, bitterly crazy woman we find in Dickens’ text. Frame uses the small pieces of history given to us by Dickens, and expands on it; Catherine Havisham is a wealthy brewer’s daughter, who is sent off to an aristocratic house to be finished. Here she meets the dubious Mr Compeyson and falls head over heels; we all know how this will end.
Before reading the book, I had imagined that Frame would take us up to where Dickens begins, with the introduction of Pip, but in fact Havisham overlaps with the original. This turns out to be a blessing, as the first half of the book is quite slow- imagine Mansfield Park without the happy ending. Things pick up once the jilting is done and Estella comes on the scene, but it is almost impossible to build suspense. Everyone knows how Great Expectations pans out, so how could anyone be surprised?
Thankfully, Frame does not attempt to mimic Dickens’ style of writing – that could have been painful. Instead, Miss Havisham narrates her story in a dreamy, fragmented way which brings us even closer to her but at times doesn’t work.
A literary prologue really needs to give a new angle and Havisham only serves to humanise its lead, a neccessity that is questionable in regard to Great Expectations anyway. While it was nice to prolong my love of Dickens’ text, purists beware – his carefully constructed effects could be diminished in Frame’s giving the monster a heart.
Havisham is available now from Faber
words: Llio Maddocks