Havisham by Ronald Frame

The Washington Post, December 16, 2013

Her life stops in the exact moment her fiance jilts her. Decades later, when a boy named Pip encounters her, every clock in her manor is frozen at 20 minutes to nine. The wedding cake, reduced to black fungus, still rests on the cobwebbed dining table, and the woman herself, shrunken and waxy, is robed in the mildewed remains of her bridal gown.

"What do I touch?" she asks, pointing toward her chest. "Your heart," answers Pip. "Broken!" she shrieks.

Even if she hadn't sprung from the pages of Dickens's most nearly perfect novel—even if she'd forsaken the rich garden of "Great Expectations" for the swampier vales of "Barnaby Rudge" or "Martin Chuzzlewit"—Miss Havisham would have been a tough act to follow. And it's possible she's a tougher act to precede. Nevertheless, in his delicate and closely observed novel "Havisham," Scottish writer Ronald Frame tries to create a persuasive origin story for a character who, through sheer life (and death) force, seems to have trumped whatever biography we can supply.

Miss Havisham had (who knew?) a first name: Catherine. She had a mother, dead in childbirth, and a father, a wealthy brewer. "I grew up," she recalls, "with the rich aroma of hops and the potent fumes from the fermenting rooms in my nostrils."

Her father, though, is anxious to elevate her standing in the world and bribes a family of local gentry to steep her in social graces. Young Catherine reads Latin and Greek. (She's particularly drawn to the tale of scorned Dido.) Though not exactly beautiful, she's reckoned to have "good bone structure" and proves herself a nimble dancer. She flirts with available men and, for fun, poses as various female martyrs in tableaux vivants. Her aim in life is "to do no more than glance, dance, along the placid surface of this present time."

By this point in the novel, her story is dancing a bit, too, because Frame has a nice feel for the epiphanic shudders of a young woman's heart and a watercolorist's eye for English landscapes. ("The drowned fields of spargrass. The fast secret tides running beneath the old slow river-water on top. . . . A pike, caught by its iced tail, fitfully thrashing.") And this being a prequel, he can give us preliminary sketches of inscrutable Mr. Jaggers and caddish Bentley Drummle, not to mention quick nods to Nemo from "Bleak House" and even Henry James's Miss Stackpole.

What Frame can't do, despite his best efforts, is override the prescience we bring to his enterprise. We know that no matter what happens from page to page, Catherine's destiny is fixed (and grim). She will give her heart away to a scoundrel named Compeyson, who will conspire with her half-brother to defraud and abandon her. In retaliation, she will adopt a young girl named Estella and raise her to exact revenge on the male sex. This future scenario is already so vividly present in our minds that young Catherine Havisham can't claim the natural autonomy of a fictional character.

And rather than ending his story where "Great Expectations" begins, Frame insists on playing—replaying—the original novel to its natural end. It's an exercise that leaves him not so much reinventing Dickens as trotting after him, over-elaborating what we already know and risking the very comparisons he has gone to such trouble to avoid. Frame's Havisham spends many pages itemizing her crimes against Estella; Dickens's Havisham does it in a single unimprovable sentence: "I stole her heart away and put ice in its place."

But Frame finds sonorous notes all his own. To pluck one at random, a lovely storm interlude: "Estella perched on the fireside fender. Her eyes widened as Satis House with its two centuries of history quaked around us. Fresh blasts of wind buffeted the walls and rattled the glass in the window frames. Unearthly moans issued from the brewhouse." And, earlier in the book, a memorable vignette of a young woman drowning herself in public view: "Her face had a curiously seraphic and peaceful expression, she seemed to be smiling—smiling quite inconsequentially—over at us. I was still supposing she was playing some queer game when her face disappeared beneath the water."

If that feels closer to Virginia Woolf than Dickens, then perhaps we've stumbled on both Frame's natural terrain and his next assignment: recreating the early years of Mrs. Dalloway. What a lark. What a plunge.