Twisted jilted spinster a heart and soul
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.