By Owen KingJanuary 1, 2014
Havisham by Ronald Frame
AS YOU MIGHT HAVE READ elsewhere, 50 Shades of Grey, E. L. James’s runaway smash novel of romance, spanking, and charisma-free email conversations began its life as a work of Twilight fan fiction, or fanfic. (James’s pseudonym, annoyingly, was “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”; annoyingly, because, on the amateur ice sculpting circuit, Snowqueen’s Icedragon was my alias. Looks like I’m back to the old standby: “Chester Chisellington.”) In its fanfic stage the novel was titled Master of the Universe and starred Edward and Bella from Stephanie Meyer’s supernatural trilogy. One’s personal tastes notwithstanding, James’s desire to extend, reshape, or somehow reset the narrative of a beloved character (or characters) is instantly relatable. We have all found ourselves, especially as young readers, imagining continued or altogether different adventures for beloved characters, whether they be Tom Sawyer or Wonder Woman. With this in mind, the disparaging viewpoint, which says that fanfic is weird or dumb or, really, anything less than a totally excellent pastime, has always struck me as, well, pretty weird and dumb. Obviously there are other considerations when a piece of fanfic involves characters with extant copyrights or when the author of such a piece seeks for-profit publication, but the same impulse that Twilight actuated in E.L. James is one that writers as varied as Michael Chabon (in his Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution), Jean Rhys (in The Wide Sargasso Sea, which expands on Jane Eyre), Kingsley Amis (who wrote Colonel Sun, a James Bond novel), and now Ronald Frame, author of Havisham, have also felt.
What does it take to successfully expand the life of another writer’s creation? A gift for mimicry will only get you so far. Everyone is already familiar with Sherlock Holmes’s unorthodox methods and aloof manner. To take up his deerstalker cap at this late date requires a project of unusual urgency. I would argue that there needs to either be something innovative about the situation, or the descendant work should shine light on previously unobserved subtext from its parent text. A crucial contrast has to be made — across every artistic medium — between a work that simply mirrors an influential source, and one that smashes the reflection in the glass and uses the broken pieces to create a truly new thing. Ronald Frame’s Havisham is extraordinary in that it not only provides a fresh perspective on its titular protagonist, it could theoretically be enjoyed without prior familiarity with its parent, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Of course, the idea that one would forgo reading the original is purely academic: Great Expectations is a seminal English language novel and a home library without a copy is impoverished. If you haven’t read it, please do. All of Dickens’s hallmarks are present, all brilliantly delivered: unforgettable settings (Pip’s marshes and Miss Havisham’s mausoleum), hilariously eccentric minor characters (the epic blowhard Pumblechook; Wemmick and his distinctly separated personalities; the Aged P and his “Stinger”), and an immensely satisfying narrative web of crisscrossing histories, coincidences, hopes, schemes, and conspiracies. Above everything else, it is a very moving story about the mysteriousness of childhood, and the inevitable, though no less bracing disappointments of adulthood.
Early in the novel, Young Pip, the common stepson of a common blacksmith, finds himself in possession of a grave secret: an escaped convict is loose on the moors, and Pip has been pressed, upon price of death, to assist the criminal:
I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an an awful promise had been extracted […] I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.
Pip’s abrupt and painful dawning of self-awareness is at the heart of the novel and is perhaps the secret to its longevity. The narrative that follows is the chronicle of Pip’s effort, largely failed, to find security in status and in love.
Which brings us to Miss Havisham. Abandoned on her wedding day and still haunting her decaying manor in the rags of her wedding gown, this infamous and wealthy spinster hires Pip to serve as a playmate/sacrificial lamb for her daughter Estella, who becomes the object of Pip’s adoration. To the misfortune of the impressionable blacksmith’s boy, Miss Havisham, in her affluence, and Estella, in her exquisiteness, appear at just the right moment to represent both status and love, and his hopeless attempts to win their approval is a rough education.
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is at once a figure of fairy-tale ghoulishness (“I saw that the [wedding] dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone”) and, in her final pleas and lamentations, pitiful sadness. These last moments give the character a dose of humanity, but her presence is, overall, a profoundly ghostly one. She seems almost to have sprung from Pip’s childhood nightmares; and, indeed Miss Havisham haunts us like a nightmare, fantastic and unforgettable, but not quite real.
In Havisham Ronald Frame substantiates her immediately, giving Catherine Havisham a curt and decidedly un-Dickensian voice that grounds us in the hard details of her isolated upbringing as the sole (for a time) child of a widowed brewer:
I heard, but came not to hear, the din of the place. Casks being rolled across the cobbles, chaff-cutting, bottle-washing, racking, wood being tossed into the kiln fires. Carts rumbled in and out all day long.
Heat, flames, steam, the dust clouds from the hops, the heady atmosphere of fermentation and money being made.
If Catherine isn’t exactly loveable, the odd shape of her loneliness demands our empathy and our interest. Besides being an only child, her family’s wealth, derived from commerce as opposed to titles, sets them apart from both the common folk and the aristocracy. In church, Catherine stares at a picture on a tomb until she can see “the trembling of a finger where the hands were closed in zealous prayer.” The fine portrait that emerges is one of considerable intelligence, but of lingering unease. Even more than Pip, Frame’s Catherine is uniquely alone. Her mountaintop position is further accentuated by the emergence of a malicious sibling, Arthur, heretofore secret, now abruptly recognized by Catherine’s father. Is it little wonder that such a person — motherless, with no peers, a workaholic father, and an adversarial brother — might eventually find herself vulnerable to almost any generous attention, let alone the focus of the gigolo Charles Compeyson with his “[s]ummer-blue eyes” and his lips’ “sensual amplitude”?
The establishment of these psychological underpinnings, simultaneously prepares the reader for Catherine’s downfall, and deftly negotiates the lines of the fairly specific blueprint that Dickens sets down in Great Expectations. (Herbert Pocket, Pip’s roommate, relates the sad story to Pip soon after they are acquainted in volume 11.) A master of the historical milieu, Frame seamlessly works in episodes involving tableaux, explains the beer-making process of the time, and closely details the fine fashions worn by a young woman of prospects. (There is also a faux hermitage inhabited by a faux hermit. Apparently, this was a thing.)
The novel’s focus tightens as Catherine grows into womanhood, and her point-of-view is threaded with snippets of poetry, in particular of the Aeneid. This self-mythologizing tendency is Frame’s most ingenious addition. The overwhelming spectacle of Miss Havisham in her rags and jewels, with her hellish infested wedding cake and her stopped clocks, turns out to be a thoroughly conscious — albeit still exquisitely nutty — performance. To wit, Frame’s answer to my own longstanding question of how the wedding dress holds up for so many years is telling: Miss Havisham occasionally arranges to have copies made of the original, even as it drifts farther and farther out of style.
Catherine’s considerable ego is juxtaposed by more attractive qualities: following her father’s death she is a tough, capable businesswoman during a period and at place when such a thing was unheard of; she has carnal desires that she acts on. It’s an excruciatingly human rendering, flawed and frustrating. The nightmare crone of Great Expectations has been made animate. I don’t know if Dickens would have been a fan, but I am.
Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Boston Globe, Grantland, One Story, and Prairie Schooner.
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