Havisham by Ronald Frame

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havisham

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  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (November 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250037271
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250037275

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Who was Miss Havisham before she became Estella’s guardian – and Pip’s foil – in Great Expectations? Ronald Frame creates a thoroughly imagined past for Dickens’s iconic character best known as the mentally unbalanced, reclusive and vindictive elderly woman jilted at the altar as a young woman, wearing an ancient, tattered wedding dress gone to rags, her untouched bridal feast left rotting on the dining room table for decades. It’s through her that Pip must pass, if he is to have the heart and hand of the coldly beautiful Estella but never has one woman so thoroughly reviled men as Catherine Havisham. Frame had his work more than cut out for him.

Heir to a beer brewery fortune, the young Miss Catherine Havisham is a wealthy heiress of unexceptional attractiveness, lower in social rank due to her lack of hereditary title and her father’s working class background. Though monied, Catherine is not the most desirable of matches for a promising, up and coming man of good family. Her father, realizing the obstacles she faces, sends her to live with the Chadwycks, a titled family who, though less wealthy, has the connections and knowledge of social graces to help boost his daughter’s reputation, thus her desirability as the potential wife of a high-profile husband. They can introduce Catherine to the right people and teach her the skills every young woman of good breeding must have in order to make a good match.

For a while, Catherine is happy enough living with the family and the children who are near her own age, though it isn’t long before she senses the family doesn’t hold her in high esteem. Rather, they look down upon her status as the daughter of a tradesman, someone unsuited to traveling in their same circles, despite having the fore-knowledge she needs them if she’s to be transformed. Overhearing them speaking ill of her, just before they begin pulling away and shutting her out, she still desperately wants to belong, so much so she’s willing to overlook their rudeness.

While living with the Chadwycks, she meets and falls in love with a man disdained by the family, exactly the sort her father had hoped to avoid. They are concerned enough, or anxious to point out her lack of taste, that they try to warn her against the man. Yet, Catherine is obdurate, stubbornly defending him in the face of their criticisms. Ignoring them, she falls more deeply in love, despite the fact the man in question is obviously hiding something the reader sees, though she apparently doesn’t. Worse, something the Chadwycks know, that he is no desirable match, a man capable of ruining reputations.

Ultimately, Catherine decides to return to Satis House, the home she shares with her father. Still nursing hope the Chadwycks had cared for her, she continues writing them until their negligence in keeping up their end of correspondence proves their apathy beyond a doubt. But no matter, her lover still visits – though infrequently – keeping her dreams of romance and happiness alive.

Catherine’s father, getting older and sickly, begins to decline from consumption. He’s reached the point in his life he must look to the future of Havisham’s Brewery. His final decision on the running of the business shocks Catherine, injecting a major plot twist, one I had a little difficulty swallowing but which would fit in a Victorian tale. Improbability never stopped a Victorian writer. Her whole life is thrown into upheaval. From here on out it’s too dangerous I’ll spoil the plot, and there’s a lot I’ve already left out, so it’s up to you if you’d like to read the book and find out what secrets lie therein…

That was dramatic.

I’ll admit I was dubious Ronald Frame, or any author, could pull off a worthy prequel to Dickens’s masterpiece. As a great fan of the Victorian writer, who has also read ‘Great Expectations’ multiple times, I presumed disappointment. I had yet to read a prequel or sequel which has come anywhere near the quality of the original, of this or any other classic work. Indeed, I despise the notion iconic books must be expanded upon, beyond the point the author left them. Presuming to have an inkling what the original author had in mind is a great leap, an act of hubris. In short, I do not like these books. They cross the line into the same territory as those ghastly books about Austen characters and vampires or zombies or whatever. Not quite as bad, but close. You don’t mess with perfection.

In the case of this novel, I would never confuse the writing with Dickens’s but Frame did a good job imagining the sort of traumatic past capable of pushing Catherine Havisham over the edge. Unfortunately, not all his suppositions are created equal and I found the writing somewhat uneven in spots. I wouldn’t consider this as serious a lapse had he not been aiming at Dickens, truth be told, but as such he’s opened himself up for the inevitable comparison. He had very big shoes to fill but this is no excuse, it was his job to hit the mark. Making it partway is admirable, though it convinces me all over again it’s nearly impossible for a modern writer to seamlessly insert his own work into that of an iconic writer.

Those less in love with the original, and Victorian literature as a whole, will have better luck with the book. The quality of the writing is very high and the story has enough gripping, gothic characteristics to keep the reader going. For me, Frame did an above average job but didn’t quite manage to change my opinion toward the prequel. Much as I expected, I’m left not quite comfortable with the writer’s attempt but impressed with his prose stylings. A fine effort in pursuit of an impossible task.

Well played, Mr. Frame. Well played.

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Thanks to NetGalley for my free review ebook of this novel.

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2 thoughts on “Havisham by Ronald Frame

  1. I was thinking of you, of course, as I read it, what with the subject matter and all. Interesting to hear your experience. Now that you mention it, I can see the choppy nature. I was picking it up and putting it down a lot, so maybe it bothered me less because my reading of it was choppy. 😉 I’m not sure if NetGalley has swooped in and taken my ebook of it yet. If not, I’ll go back and take a look.

    Like

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