Back story gives Dickens’s
IBy Ronald Frame Faber & Faber, 419pp, $29.99 RECENTLY heard somebody describe Paradise Lost as Bible fan fiction. They were being mischievous, of course, but it was mischief with a purpose, not merely because it reminds us there’s nothing new about the fad for reinterpreting and reworking the classics but because it underlines how certain stories continue to resonate, tempting us to revisit their ambiguities and elisions.
The impulse behind this process varies. Sometimes — as in Lev Grossman’s inspired reworking of the Narnia series, The Magicians, or Jean Rhys’s brilliant reimagining of the back story of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea — it is revisionist. At other times it is parodic or playful in the spirit of recent reworkings of Jane Austen such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Pride and Predator and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
Yet sometimes it seems to embody something more basic, a desire to recapture the spell of the original by expanding or extending it in some way. At least outwardly Scottish author Ronald Frame’s Havisham sits squarely in this last category, taking the events of Great Expectations — arguably Charles Dickens’s greatest and certainly his most perfect novel —- and using them as the basis for an extended exploration of the life of one of literature’s most enduring characters, the jilted spinster Miss Havisham.
It is, in some ways, a curious undertaking: as her spectral appearance suggests, the Miss Havisham we encounter in Great Expectations is less a character than an archetype, an expression of the energies that give the novel its extraordinary power. We learn little of her