Charles Dickens’s Catherine Havisham, Virgin Queen of Satis House

[21 November 2013]

By Subashini Navaratnam

A wealthy old spinster who lives in a crumbling mansion named Satis House, jilted at the altar and still wearing her wedding dress, hell bent on revenge on all men. When Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations meets Miss Havisham, she has an entire reputation to live up to. The village gossip has made her larger than life; a witch of outsized proportions who is not just mad, but mad in a particularly female way.

All we know of Miss Havisham we see through Pip’s eyes—what hangs over her is the spectre of soured sexuality, ruined before its prime. No self-respecting nubile young girl would want to be her. Heterosexual manly-men, who should like their women soft, yielding, and accommodating, must run from her or gawk from afar. Dickens, being Dickens, was able to write a brutal yet tender representation of a scorned, damaged woman that seemed like both of an indictment of the patriarchal culture that made her that way while simultaneously indulging in the misogyny that sees her as aberrant, even abject.

Miss Havishams abound in a heterosexist culture. In our present lives, however, we might be hard-pressed to find a woman who stops all the clocks because she’s been hurt in love and betrayed by the man she trusted completely. Modern-day Miss Havishams would be given a stern talking to on television by Dr. Phil, encouraged to hit the gym again, work on their self-confidence, enjoy the finer things in life that their wealth is able to buy them, “lean in” and hang on to a career ladder—any ladder—for dear life. Dickens’s Miss Havisham kept her wedding feast rotting with maggots for all to see, wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life, and never let the sunlight in. In modern parlance, she “let herself go”, leaned so far back she disappeared from the public eye.

The madwoman, whether in the attic or the ancestral house, is always a spectacle. I find Miss Havisham to be a troubling enigma. I wanted to know more about her, but Dickens was content to let her manipulate her adoptive daughter Estella’s charms in order wreak havoc on men’s lives, but there is a price to pay for even that. Vengeful women find that anger is no way out, eventually.

The world finds a way to put Miss Havisham in place, and the same goes for Estella—who, trained to be a potent weapon against male power, finally finds herself susceptible to the charms of an abusive asshole and marries him. Scottish writer Ronald Frame, in Havisham, traces Miss Havisham’s back story in an elegant, stylised novel that gives us more of Catherine Havisham without giving us too much. The result is odd and alluring, imperfect and unforgettable.

Havisham takes us from Catherine Havisham’s younger days, just after her mother’s day, and her strange and silent upbringing in a brewer’s house. Her father secretly remarries the family cook, and Catherine learns of this marriage through a pared-down dialogue between father and daughter that occurs after this second wife dies. She also learns about her half-brother, Arthur, who will grow up to be a layabout who schemes with Charles Compeyson, the man Catherine loves and is about to marry, until Compeyson swindles her out of some money and leaves her stranded at the altar.

Catherine’s first love isn’t Compeyson, however, but her first (and only) female friend named Sally—who, being the daughter of an employee at the brewery, is below her in station. Frame’s careful drawing out of their young friendship hits a tender note with an undertone of menace, befitting a female friendship where one woman has all the power because of money and social position and the other does not. They play games with each other, games tinged with this imbalance; when Catherine playfully holds Sally’s wrists down and teases her, she thinks of Sally as “my captive”, prefiguring her future treatment of Estella.

Throughout Catherine’s growth, Frame presents a woman who is well-aware of her worth in terms of class position. He doesn’t sentimentalise Catherine by trying to make her insipidly likeable, or worse, cute. The Catherine of Havisham is proud and arrogant, and constantly thinking about the ways in which she must live up to it. She’s also sharp and intelligent and preternaturally self-aware:

But I’m not a face, or a body. I’m a Havisham. My appearance is wrapped around with an aura of wealth (provincial, not metropolitan; but money is money) and high living (vulgar rather than sophisticated; but time, between one generation and the next, is the best civiliser).

I don’t need to be a beauty. Yet no one, except some person ignorant of my name, would consider me less than handsome.

Perhaps this is why, when she’s older, Catherine would assume that bestowing Estella with the wealth of Havisham money, and its attendant name, would work together with Estella’s beauty to produce the perfect female weapon: one who would not be in need of a man or desperate for one, but one who would use them and discard them. The heart, however, continues to beat—and wants what it does not want.

Or does it? Frame is astute in depicting a Catherine who snubs the attention of a young male acquaintance who lacks not intelligence or virtue, only physical charms, in favour of the brighter, strong-jawed, more conventionally-handsome son of Lady Chadwyck, whose family estate Catherine resides in for a period of time in order to acquire an education of aristocratic manners and polish. That Catherine is susceptible to male beauty and wants the best for herself sets her apart from other girls who are trained to know their place, but much of it has to do—as Catherine has already told us—with her name and aura of wealth (“money is money”). She wants the best because her class position allows her to imagine she can have it.

When Compeyson arrives at the scene, the reader is already aware that Catherine is ripe for the plucking because she is susceptible—she craves attention and beauty, and all her intelligence and self-knowledge can’t protect her from herself. What’s also particularly jarring is how alone Catherine really is in the world; both her gender and her class position prevents her from being able to know others well, and the one friend whom she thought was true, Sally, turns out to have had other thoughts about the friendship. Frame neither indicts nor supports Catherine or Sally; one feels for Catherine, certainly, but one also feels for Sally—who wants to be a friend to a woman who is rich enough to keep you captive?

This aloneness, Frame suggests, is dangerous. We only know who we are when amongst others. 

The tone of Frame’s writing recalls Jean Rhys’s in Wide Sargasso Sea, if more minimalist; both novels eschew the straightforward realism of the original novels in order to capture more vividly the psychic landscape and subsequent breakdown of its central characters. It works, for the most part, but the towards the last quarter of the book, when the timespan of Havisham merges with that of Great Expectations, Catherine starts becoming a caricature of herself.

At this point, having loved and lost and inherited her father’s brewery business, she does not morph into the kick-ass independent woman of liberal feminist dreams but wills herself into becoming a ghost. “Again and again I replayed my life, on a long continuum of time, where my future was nothing other than the past”, she says, after having asserted herself in front of our eyes: “Look at me, in my train and veil. Tell me what magic you see. This is awful damage that men do”.

Indeed, they do awful damage, but I’m also distressed about a retelling of Miss Havisham that only leaves her where she began—at the behest of men, be it powerful patriarchs or deceptive seducers. Perhaps there is no other outcome for Catherine, trapped as she is between one man’s desire and the next, between her father’s desire that she should be a proper young lady, and a potential husband’s desire for her name and money, and now, some might say, by a male novelist’s desire to tell her story. When Dickens wants you to think that Miss Havisham was a desperate, sad manipulator who was adept at pulling the strings of young people, trampling over the buds of young love like the loveless spinster everyone thinks she is, Frame shows us that she was not only acutely aware of Pip’s desire for her beloved Estella, but sensitive to it, slowly coming to regret and agonise over her actions.

What does it mean that a rich woman like Miss Havisham, used and abused by a man, enacts her revenge on a young boy from an impoverished background? What to make of these people, rich older women who think they can engineer whole lives—who ask, “Who am I to be kind?”—and bright-eyed young men, good-intentioned or not, who think female beauty is theirs for the taking?

Frame’s novel is an elegy for Miss Havisham and Estella, and also Pip, in a way, and it leaves us with no clear resolution. It shows us the implications of both the class and gender war: ruined lives and so many deferred dreams, circulating among the living as dread, guilt, and regret. Perhaps Catherine—Miss Havisham, in the end—was trying to do it right: when you’ve known love, even if it has killed you, it is still a thing worth commemorating. That’s the tragedy of Havisham; that the awful damage that men do is bound up with the love that women feel, and with every new (retold) story, you wonder if this is always to be a woman’s undoing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176267-havisham-by-ronald-frame/