Twisted jilted spin­ster a heart and soul

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

be­yond the facts of her aban­don­ment on her wed­ding day be­cause in a real sense that is all we need to know: in the uni­verse of the novel she is the still point, the ar­rested moment.

By con­trast Frame’s Miss Hav­isham — or Cather­ine — has a story of her own. Born the daugh­ter of a wealthy brewer she grows up priv­i­leged and proud, qual­i­ties that blind her to the re­al­ity of her sit­u­a­tion when, as a teenager, she is sent to be ed­u­cated with the chil­dren of lo­cal grandee, Lady Chad­wyck.

Un­aware that her place with Chad­wycks has been bought with her fa­ther’s money, Cather­ine falls in love with Lady Chad­wyck’s son, Wil­liam, be­fore fall­ing un­der the spell of the man who will be her down­fall, Mr Com­peyson.

Although Frame does not at­tempt to pas­tiche Dick­ens, th­ese early sec­tions of the novel are suf­fused with the strange, al­most fairy­tale air of re­gret that per­vades much of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, a qual­ity made more pro­nounced by Frame’s ele­gant, al­most weight­less prose and the echoes of the orig­i­nal in the re­la­tion­ships be­tween Cather­ine and the Chad­wycks and Cather­ine and her wil­ful, dis­si­pated half­brother, Arthur. Just like Pip, Cather­ine is blinded to the truth of what sur­rounds her by her fan­tasies, un­able to heed the warn­ings or see the dan­gers oth­ers per­ceive.

Yet de­spite the el­e­gance and in­tel­li­gence of th­ese early sec­tions, the novel really kicks into gear only two-thirds of the way through, with the ar­rival of ‘‘ the boy with the ab­surd name and clever eyes’’, Philip Pir­rip.

In a way this is un­sur­pris­ing: like all books of its sort Hav­isham draws en­ergy from its re­la­tion­ship to its par­ent text. Yet while there is lit­tle doubt the power of th­ese pages owes more than a lit­tle to the power of the orig­i­nal, Frame brings a clar­ity and di­rect­ness to them that is all his own.

More im­por­tant, though, it is at about this point that the true el­e­gance of Frame’s de­sign be­comes clear. For th­ese characters — Cath- er­ine, Estella, Pip — are not quite Dick­ens’s, or even, one sus­pects, Frame’s. For as Pip — re­vealed by this point as a bud­ding nov­el­ist, in a slide into metafic­tion rem­i­nis­cent of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (and in­deed Terry Pratch­ett’s re­cent riff on Oliver Twist, Dodger) — re­flects, ‘‘ There are dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the story . . . Estella’s. His. The mad­woman’s.’’

It is a moment sim­ple and pro­found, re­mind­ing us not just of the way the sto­ries we in­habit can come to con­trol us, blind­ing us to the world around us, but of the power of story — and more deeply the imag­i­na­tion — to re­deem and re­lease us. Or as Cather­ine puts it not long be­fore her death: Our lives are fic­tions. How oth­ers in­ter­pret us. What we al­low oth­ers to do with us. What we make of our­selves. What we fancy, make be­lieve, we might do.

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