‘Havisham’ offers a glimpse of this decaying wedding veil
The enigmatic Miss Havisham has haunted the popular imagination for over 150 years. She appeared in Great expectations, one of Charles Dickens the most loved novels: it has been widely read since its publication and has been made into several hugely popular films.
Havisham is a dreadful aging bride in a tattered dress and veil: cruelly abandoned on her wedding day years ago, she still presides over her wedding feast, now rotten and covered in cobwebs. The protagonist of Dickens, Pip, is fascinated by Miss Havisham and, in particular, by her charming pupil Estella.
But author Ronald Frame is less interested in Pip’s adventures and more intrigued by the story of the prematurely old woman behind that veil. His new book, Havisham, is something between an autobiography and a novel. In it, Havisham gets a first name – Catherine – and a fully realized story of her own.
Frame tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer about the practicalities of wearing the same dress for decades, Havisham’s unique relationship with Pip, and the influence of classic literature on her character.
How Frame first met Miss Havisham
I was introduced a long time ago, not through the book but … through the film: the wonderful black and white creation of this world by David Lean in 1946. Many years later, probably, I came to the novel. And Dickens had put in his story something that, oddly enough, many people forget, which is a backstory for Miss Havisham. And he seemed to have a sort of richness and uniqueness, which suggested that Dickens had thought about it very carefully.
On a scene in the book, straight from Dickens, in which Miss Havisham tells Pip to walk her into the room
It’s just a certain degree of physical intimacy between the two of them as they walk around the dining table, which contains the leftovers of the breakfast feast … which has not been touched. for many years, so spiders and mice are scurrying over the table, and it’s covered in cobwebs.
It’s a complicated picture in the book because, like I said, we know she’s a recluse – on the other hand, the house seems to be filled with relatives, people she knows who come. see her, usually ask her for money, and she has a kind of Brahmin behavior with them – she snaps her fingers and they all jump. And yet, it’s a whole different kind of relationship, and it’s a relationship she doesn’t have with Estella either. It’s a lot trickier with her pupil, whereas with Pip she’s able to say things that we find out that she can’t say to anyone else.
On the education of Catherine Havisham and her references to literature
I think if you study people on the streets today, sometimes you feel like they borrowed their behavior and language from things they saw rather than readings, soap operas, movies, etc. And I was also aware that things, well, were probably different and they weren’t that different in Miss Havisham’s day. And this idea of ââhow do you get your inspiration, how do you know how to behave … it seemed to me that it came from studying classics, music, song lyrics, poetry. And you’re struck by the fact that while they did without all the kind of internet accessibility that we have and time-saving gadgets, in fact how full their lives were, and how much reading they made, and the extent – but also the depth – of allusion of which they were capable, which they drew from their education. It’s humiliating.
Why he asked Miss Havisham to replace her wedding dress three times
I think there were two reasons. One is just a matter of personal hygiene, and it was a basic question you were asking yourself – you know, if that was the only dress she had, how far away could you physically approach her? ‘she ? The other thing that I really liked was that I wanted to show a woman whose intelligence was rather underestimated. I think she has a very ironic appreciation of her own position, and she sees quite clearly what others think of her. And all these petitioners that come to the house, very few of them leave satisfied, and then she realizes it, and yet she kind of holds them on a rope and has fun with them.
If he felt affection for Miss Havisham
If not affection, understanding of the character, yes. Well, like [Gustave] Flaubert said of Madame Bovary: “It’s me” – I think it’s so much a part of you. You have lived with this person for days, weeks and months and, in this case, years. I was sorry to leave her, let’s put it that way.