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Madwomen in the Attic

Lauren Hadden

Havisham, by Ronald Frame, Faber and Faber, 368 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0571288281

Meet Catherine Havisham – no, not that one, the wrath of a Fury propelling her around her the echoing mansion, bride’s lace trailing behind her. This Catherine Havisham is the proud young daughter of a wealthy brewer, growing up with the “rich aroma of hops” surrounding her as she sits in splendid isolation in her father’s mansion, Satis House. For right from day one Catherine is much alone – her mother died giving birth to her, her father works long hours and she is prevented by his ambitions for her from fraternising with much of the town she grows up in. This is the Miss Havisham we meet at the start of Ronald Frame’s telling of the back story of one of Dickens’s most famous broads.

In writing a prequel to a classic novel, Frame is writing into loaded territory – and the most obvious comparison, in that it is also an attempt to rewrite the story of a famous “mad woman” of nineteenth century literature, is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and its lonely, lost heroine Antoinette Cosway.

There is one major difference between the two books, however. Antoinette Cosway’s story is haunting; Catherine Havisham’s, as told by Ronald Frame, is not quite. Throughout a short but distinctively taut novel, Rhys creates a sense of constant foreboding. We know what happens to Antoinette, because we have read Jane Eyre. We know what happens to Miss Havisham because we have read Great Expectations. (Even if you want to play the literary game Humiliation from David Lodge’s novel Changing Places and admit to having not read one or the other, you know the story of these women and their fates the same way you know the story of the loaves and the fishes without being a student of the Bible.) Both women give themselves over to love, risking humiliation, and find their love unreturned or unadmitted. Both go mad. And, finally, both women meet a terrible, remarkably similar end, engulfed in flame ‑ immolated like Virgil’s Dido, with whom Frame’s Catherine is fascinated. And yet, reading Havisham, knowing what we do about the fate mapped out for this young girl, as she is presented when we first meet her, it is hard to feel that same sense of doom that overshadows every page of Wide Sargasso Sea. This seems to be a problem of style, for Catherine Havisham’s story is as doom-filled and sad a tale as Antoinette’s or Dido’s.

There are differences in their stories, of course. Miss Havisham chooses, as much as you can choose when already on the way to nervous breakdown, to lock herself away and nurse her madness. Her money allows it. Indeed, the first description of her in Havisham by another mentions not madness but “eccentricity” – the privilege of the wealthy that, and perhaps part of Catherine’s bad luck too. Conversely, Antoinette’s madness seems forced upon her – by family history (her mother went the same way), by rumour (Rochester believes what he hears and judges her harshly) and by the fact that, already troubled, her fate is sealed when she is sealed away at the top of Thornfield Hall.

Catherine’s outcast state as Frame tells it is partly the result of being a woman with the very modern problem of trying to run a business usually run by men. The best part of Havisham is the section which covered the years Catherine spends as successor to her father as head of the Havisham brewery. It is hard to imagine Frame didn’t intend contemporary women readers to identify with Catherine’s struggles to be respected (she doesn’t ever seek acceptance, just respect) in a thoroughly male world. Just as it seems she will manage to hold everything together, the betrayal by her fiancé leads to humiliation. Left at the altar by one man, she becomes the mockery of all men.

Catherine also suffers the more nineteenth century problem of class – as the wealthy brewer’s daughter she spends much of the first half of the book “in training”, though she doesn’t always realise it, to move into a higher society than the one into which she has been born. Her father’s plan is a failure, the more so not merely because she fails to “marry up” but because in setting her apart he creates a lonely child and a lonelier adult. Her parents are absent; her best friend, Sally, is at first not allowed beyond the scullery door and the class difference between them never resolves itself. Then her father betrays her by fathering another child and later, secretly, marrying again. She is removed from her own home. In the light of all this, it is not hard to see how she falls prey to a pretender. Her decision to lock herself away to nurse her madness also starts to make sense. A lonely child, she wants to be alone in her madness too.

In telling his story, Frame offers the reader some beautiful writing, particularly in the descriptions of Catherine’s betrayal and fall into temporary madness (the eccentricity lasts longer and seems chosen). Yet other sections feel overwrought and unnecessarily long. It is arguable that choosing to run on into the story told by Dickens was misjudged – Catherine’s tale might have been neater and more tragic if we had left her behind before Estella arrived on the scene.

Havisham is an admirable attempt to wrest its namesake back from the grotesque creation Dickens had such fun with, but it is not certain that Frame ever quite manages the task he has set himself. Antoninette Cosway, as written by Rhys, we can forgive anything. She fills in the background story of where Antoinette is from and who she is – a Creole from an old planter family on a just post-colonial Carribbean island, neither a formerly colonised black nor part of white English society – and therefore never sure who she is, where she is from. Rhys’s Antoinette becomes a victim of her circumstances and we read her behaviour in Jane Eyre in a new, forgiving light. Frame’s Miss Havisham is more complicated because it is difficult, even with the background history Frame has now given her, to forgive the damage she wreaks on Estella and, by extension, Pip. Her motivations – the desire to punish all men for the behaviour of one – feel false when we know her full story. The back story does sindeed explain her choice of dress and odd habits, but doesn’t do enough to explain her behaviour towards the children when Dickens gets hold of her. We can believe that Dickens’s Havisham would behave that way, but less so the Havisham that Frame has introduced.

Rhys succeeded in wresting Antoinette back from Brontë, recreating the gothic grotesque in the attic as a real, troubled human. It is impossible to read Jane Eyre now and not feel Rhys’s story breathing life into the woman hidden in the attic. Frame writes beautifully and has created a strong female character, but his prequel doesn’t quite bridge the gap between him and Dickens. There are now two Havishams, and Dickens’s still looms the larger.

Lauren Hadden is editor at We Love This Book, a quarterly print magazine and website (www.welovethisbook.com). Originally from Dublin, she currently lives and works in London.