Havisham: A Novel

Havisham: A Novel

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by Ronald Frame

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Before she became the immortal and haunting Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was Catherine, a young woman with all of her dreams ahead of her. Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the

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Before she became the immortal and haunting Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was Catherine, a young woman with all of her dreams ahead of her. Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—HAVISHAM—a reminder of all she owes to the family name and the family business.

Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family's new money. But for all her growing sophistication, Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable.In Havisham, Ronald Frame unfurls the psychological trauma that made young Catherine into Miss Havisham and cursed her to a life alone, roaming the halls of the mansion in the tatters of the dress she wore for the wedding she was never to have. A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This stylish but dour “prelude” to Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations comes from Glaswegian dramatist and author Frame (The Lantern Bearers). Catherine Havisham grows up in privilege and leisure at the imposing Satis House, courtesy of her affluent father, Joseph, who runs the most prosperous brewery in North Kent and ships her off to the aristocratic Chadwyck family to polish her social graces. Joseph, a widower, sparks his teenage daughter’s resentment by disclosing he has remarried, though his second wife has since died, and Catherine also comes to loathe her ne’er-do-well half-brother, Arthur, after he begins living with them. She falls in love with the dashing racetrack gambler Charles Compeyson, and Joseph dies, leaving her the brewery. She becomes engaged to Charles, who wants to manage the Havisham brewery. However, Charles jilts his would-be bride, and Catherine’s life descends into seclusion and a slow madness; she wears only her wedding dress while living in the decaying mansion. After adopting a young girl, Estella, Catherine ages into the cynical spinster depicted in Great Expectations. Frame offers a convincing recreation of the iconic Dickens character, but his tale suffers from centering on such an unappealing protagonist. Agent: Adrian Searle, Freight Books. (Nov.)
The Los Angeles Review of Books Owen King

Catherine's considerable ego is juxtaposed by more attractive qualities: following her father's death she is a tough, capable businesswoman during a period and at place when such a thing was unheard of; she has carnal desires that she acts on. It's an excruciatingly human rendering, flawed and frustrating. The nightmare crone of Great Expectations has been made animate. I don't know if Dickens would have been a fan, but I am.
The New Yorker

This literary prequel imagines the life of Catherine Havisham, from privileged childhood to the macabre death scene of Dickens's Great Expectations....Frame's book is a pleasurable read.
The Washington Post Louis Bayard

Delicate and closely observed....Frame has a nice feel for the epiphanic shudders of a young woman's heart and a watercolorist's eye for English landscapes....What a lark. What a plunge.
Entertainment Weekly

Charles Dickens never revealed Miss Havisham's backstory in Great Expectations, but Ronald Frame fills in the blanks with his illuminating prequel, Havisham. He spins his story slowly, tracing Catherine Havisham's journey from a young, unassuming heiress to the unhinged spinster so familiar to fans of Dickens' novel--tattered wedding dress, decrepit mansion, and all....Frame has brought a clean, modern sensibility to his rendering of the tale...Intensely entrancing plot. B+.
New Book Picks Good Housekeeping

Before she took to pacing about her cobwebbed London manse in a tattered wedding gown, literature's most famous jilted bride, Miss Havisham, ran the family brewery. Expectations are great for this engaging 'prequel' to Dickens' classic.
Vanity Fair's Hot Type Elissa Schappell

In Havisham, his prequel to Great Expectations, Ronald Frame colorfully imagines the traumas that doomed the tortured Miss Havisham.
Bookpage Elisabeth Atwood

An excellent example of a present-day writer taking on a classic, Havisham gives the reader food for thought while reviving one of the great characters of Victorian literature.
author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency seri Alexander McCall Smith

Ronald Frame is one of Scotland's finest writers and this new book will confirm his reputation as a writer whom it is simply a delight to read.
author of the New York Times bestselling Widow of Robert Hicks

Some 150 years after Dickens first breathed life into her, Miss Havisham remains one of his most memorable characters. Tragedy is the very essence of her life. Yet, as much as we think we know her backstory and all that guided her life of bitterness and sorrow, with Havisham, Ronald Frame eloquently tells her story anew....As one who has long loved Dickens, I never thought I would be describing a book as a 'companion' to one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. But here I am, doing just that. Havisham is well worth the read.
author of The Lantern Deborah Lawrenson

Havisham is a vivid and moving novel. Ronald Frame's prose is full of visual delights as his elegiac portrait of a lady unfurls in baroque episodes and fragments that flare with fire rubies and bruises in candlelight.
author of The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. Carole DeSanti

An elegant revisiting of one of our most revered, and most enigmatic ghosts. Perhaps we all have a streak of Havisham in us--with our great expectations and our dreams of the past.
author of Theodora Stella Duffy

Frame makes Dickens' ghostly Miss Havisham a real woman of flesh, blood, pain and guilt. He gives us a hopeful girl, caught between loss and class, and in doing so he makes her demons all the more powerful. A rich, evocative and poignant work.
Sunday Express (London)

Havisham is delightful, and all the more so for sending you hungrily back to its source material.
The Independent (London)

To flesh out the back-story of one of the great characters in the English novel is an achievement which makes us return to the original with fresh eyes.
The Times (London

This re-imagining will delight readers...Frame has a talent for thrilling Victorian melodrama, and he tackles the controversial ending with superb assurance.
Kirkus Reviews
Frame (The Lantern Bearers, 2001, etc.) writes the story of Catherine Havisham, recluse of Satis House, in this prelude to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Despite her mother's death in childbirth, the Great Expectations of Miss Havisham come naturally. Her father, owner of a prosperous brewery, spoils her beyond measure. Then, as Catherine matures, he dispatches her to Durley Chase, home of Lady Chadwyck and her children Isabella, William, Marianna and cousin Frederick. The Chadwycks are to add the social polish necessary for Catherine to marry well. There, Catherine has eyes for William but soon learns that titled folk do not marry merchants' daughters. She then meets Charles Compeyson, charming, enigmatic, vaguely roguish. Class prejudices aside, the Chadwycks attempt to dissuade Catherine from Compeyson, but she is enthralled, even ignoring Chadwyck cousin Frederick, thinking him overly religious, awkward and unambitious despite his shy admiration for her. Then her father dies. Catherine allows Compeyson to run the brewery. He soon proposes then leaves her at the altar. Frame's chapters are short, written from Catherine's point of view, and laced with elements of classical poetry and song. Aeneas, Tom O'Bedlam and Henry Purcell deepen a narrative appealing to the modern ear yet suitably Dickensian. Subplots follow Sally, a village girl who becomes Catherine's childhood companion, and Arthur, Catherine's wastrel half brother. The book ripples with social commentary, an example being Catherine's attempt to manage the brewery only to be stymied by gender prejudice and her own obstinacy. Finally, she closes the brewery. Catherine then adopts Estella, intending revenge on the masculine world--"all of the genus who conceitedly, smugly supposed that they were indispensable to a woman's personal completeness, her felicity." Minor characters, Pip included, strengthen the story, and Frame's presentation of the era is substantial but not overdone. Young Catherine's character earns little empathy, and any sympathy for the recluse of Satis House certain that "true life is too awesome and terrifying to bear" can only be conjured up as her death looms. An intelligently imagined Dickens prequel.

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*   *   *
My father draped the public rooms of Satis House in dust sheets. The chandeliers were left in situ, but wrapped in calico bags. The shutters were closed completely across some windows, and part-drawn at others.
My first days were lived out in a hush of respectfully lowered voices as a procession of folk came to offer their condolences.
My eyes became accustomed to the half-light.
*   *   *
One evening several new candles were set in one of the chandeliers. My mother’s clavecin was uncovered, and someone played it again – notwithstanding that it was out of tune – and that was the point at which the house stopped being a sepulchre and was slowly brought back to life.
*   *   *
It was the first word I remember seeing.
Painted in green letters on the sooty brick of the brewhouse wall.
Fat letters. Each one had its own character.
Comfortable spreading ‘H’. Angular, proud ‘A’. Welcoming, open ‘V’. The unforthcoming sentinel ‘I’. ‘S’, a show-off, not altogether to be trusted. The squat and briefly indecisive, then reassuring ‘M’.
The name was up there even in the dark. In the morning it was the first thing I would look for from the house windows, to check that the wind hadn’t made off with our identity in the night or the slanting estuary rain washed the brickwork clean.
*   *   *
Jehosophat Havisham, otherwise known as Joseph Havisham, son of Matthias.
Havisham’s was the largest of several brewers in the town. Over the years we had bought out a number of smaller breweries and their outlets, but my father had preferred to concentrate production in our own (extended) works. He continued his father’s programme of tying in the vending sites, acquiring ownership outright or making loans to the publicans who stocked our beer.
Everyone in North Kent knew who we were. Approaching the town on the London road, the eye was drawn first to the tower of the cathedral and then, some moments later, to the name HAVISHAM so boldly stated on the old brick.
We were to be found on Crow Lane.
The brewery was on one side of the big cobbled yard, and our home on the other.
Satis House was Elizabethan, and took the shape of an E, with later addings-on. The maids would play a game, counting in their heads the rooms they had to clean, and never agreeing on a total: between twenty-five and thirty.
Once the famous Pepys had strolled by, and ventured into the Cherry Garden. There he came upon a doltish shopkeeper and his pretty daughter, and the great man ‘did kiss her’.
My father slept in the King’s Room, which was the chamber provided for Charles II following his sojourn in France, in 1660. The staircase had been made broader to accommodate the Merry Monarch as his manservants manoeuvred him upstairs and down. A second, steeper flight was built behind for the servants.
*   *   *
I grew up with the rich aroma of hops and the potent fumes from the fermenting rooms in my nostrils, filling my head until I failed to notice. I must have been in a state of perpetual mild intoxication.
I heard, but came not to hear, the din of the place. Casks being rolled across the cobbles, chaff-cutting, bottle-washing, racking, wood being tossed into the kiln fires. Carts rumbled in and out all day long.
The labourers had Herculean muscles. Unloading the sacks of malt and raising them on creaky pulleys; mashing the ground malt; slopping out the containers and vats; drawing into butts; pounding the extraneous yeast; always rolling those barrels from the brewhouse to the storehouse, and loading them on to the drays.
Heat, flames, steam, the dust clouds from the hops, the heady atmosphere of fermentation and money being made.
*   *   *
I was told by my father that the brewery was a parlous place for a little girl, and I should keep my distance. The hoists, the traps, those carts passing in and out; the horses were chosen for their strength, not their sensitivity, but every now and then one would be overcome with equine despair and make a bid for freedom, endangering itself and anyone in its path.
The brewhouse was only silent at night, and even then I heard the watchmen whistling to keep up their spirits in that gaunt and eerily echoing edifice, and the dogs for want of adventure barking at phantom intruders. The first brew-hands were there by five in the morning, sun-up, and the last left seventeen hours later, a couple of hours short of midnight.
I woke, and fell asleep, to the clopping of shod hooves, the whinnying of overworked carthorses.
*   *   *
‘It’s a dangerous place, miss,’ my nursemaids would repeat.
My father insisted. ‘Too many hazards for you to go running about.’
But should I ever complain about the noise, or the smell of hops or dropped dung, his response was immediate: this was our livelihood/if it was good enough for my grandfather/you’ll simply have to put up with it, won’t you, missy. So I learned not to comment, and if I was distracted from my lessons or my handiwork or my day-dreaming, I moved across to the garden side of the house. Out of doors, in the garden, the sounds would follow me, but there were flowers and trees to look at, and the wide Medway sky to traverse with my thoughts.
*   *   *
Sometimes I would see a man or a woman reeling drunk out of a pub, or I’d hear the singing and cursing of regulars deep in their cups.
That, too, was a part of who we Havishams were. But I would be hurried past by whoever was holding my hand, as if they had been issued with orders: the child isn’t to linger thereabouts, d’you understand. So we negotiated those obstacles double-quick, taking to side alleys if need be, to remove ourselves to somewhere more salubrious, while the rollicking voices sounded after us – but not their owners, thankfully grounded in a stupor.

Copyright © 2012 by Ronald Frame

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