Whether you encounter the book first or one of the many film adaptations, the impression that Miss Havisham leaves on you remains with you forever. Everyone falls under the spell of Miss Havisham. As Ronald Frame publishes a prequel of sorts in Havisham – an imagined take on life before Great Expectations – he remembers his own first experience with Dickens’s iconic spinster, and the person he was then.
Helena Bonham Carter now reincarnates Miss Havisham, on the heels of Gillian Anderson (if she weren’t, as I recall, in stocking soles), on the heels of Charlotte Rampling and – shortly before her – Anne Bancroft in an updated version (more a case of kitten heels, surely). We’ve seen others tackle the role: Jean Simmons, Joan Hickson, Margaret Leighton.
The character, in performance terms, is inexhaustible. And, thankfully, there has been no – and there will be no – definitive version.
My new novel is Miss Havisham’s personal account of her life – chiefly her early life, when she was a very different person from the one we know from Great Expectations.
This is my take.
Perhaps I was making myself a hostage to fortune in appropriating a character who is, in common parlance, so ‘iconic’. Readers feel a closeness to her, and I might seem to be encroaching on that personal relationship.
In the course of the accompanying publicity, I’ve been asked several times about my first acquaintance with the book. Even if I could put a date on it, I can’t remember the exact details. Read the book I did, but before that I saw the film – David Lean’s compelling 1946 re-telling, considered a classic of its own medium.
When? Well, almost certainly one dreich Scottish Sunday afternoon, while confined indoors.
I know that I was about the same age as the boy playing Pip Pirrip on the screen. I seemed to be in his shoes as he approached Satis House, beckoned to follow by haughty Estella – then following a few steps behind him as he was ushered into the cavernous room where Miss Havisham [actress Martita Hunt, ageing up from her own mid-40s, playing the role as grande dame] waited, enthroned in state, wearing her tattered and moth-eaten wedding dress of years ago.
Readers, or watchers, become protective of what makes that first profound impression on them. They feel affection not just for the book, or the film, but for the person they were when they first made that initial encounter with the story and its cast of characters.
I was enchanted by the film, and later drawn to read my way through the book, without – I realise – fully understanding either. (That is the problem with classics: they’re thought-improving, and an education can never start early enough for the British). But I feel tenderness for that not-quite-prepared boy that I was.
So it is with everyone who had their introduction to Miss Havisham, and to the other less memorable characters of the Great Expectations, when their knowledge and experience lagged behind the novel’s richness of dark suggestion.
Books are also physical objects.
No subsequent editions ever matched the beloved Puffins I read first – E. Nesbit, Rosemary Sutcliff, Paul Berna, Arthur Ransome.
The story came first, of course, the narrative. But the books themselves contributed to the intensity of my pleasure. It wasn’t important that the covers were faded, that the pages had tanned and their corners turned up. What mattered was the familiarity of the typeface, the size of font – and the unexpected fall-out from between those pages, dune sand or a wild flower or a mundane bus ticket.
Another copy of the same edition might, technically, have stood in as a replacement, if mine had been lost. But it wasn’t lost, because I had increasingly kept tabs on it, and it alone had known the pressure of my fingers with concentration – which had turned the print pale in places and even thinned the paper. From multiple readings, it now contained – even at eleven or twelve years old – multiple recollections by myself of myself.
This applies to music too.
The first recording, the one we get to know, is the version which all others compete with. Never mind that those may be superior, in terms of artistry or recording quality – the original delivered the novelty of the piece to our receptive ears, it has become sanctified by the person-we-were, who sat listening (over and over, many times probably) and who was won over to an appreciation of it.
That will always be the echt-recording.
Miss Havisham cast a spell on me. Or rather, it was as if she had thrown a net – and tangled me in its mesh.
Essentially it was David Lean’s doing, through the screen performance of Martita Hunt – leaning forward to view the new arrival better, motioning Pip forward as flames from the hearth sent shadows scurrying up the walls, ‘Come closer, boy, let me see you …’
The passage of years has meant that the type is now too small for me in the existing editions of Great Expectations which I still have in the house, languishing near the bottom of different book stacks. There were always umpteen versions to be had – unlike The Treasure Seekers and One Hundred Million Francs in their precious Puffin printings, Great Expectations was such a well-known classic that you seemed to half-know it already even before you read the words on the page. In a rare case like that, the edition is almost a secondary issue.
Which might seem to be undermining my point. Not really.
As a boy, sinking into the pages of the novel I was more alone than when looking at a TV screen, where life carries on beyond the periphery. I was depending on my own mental resources. But, like Pip, I was caught off-guard: I found I had been dropped into a baroque puzzle (aka adult life), a series of riddles that interlinked in the most unexpected ways.
How was I ever going to make proper sense of it – life in Rochester and on the marsh flats, or life in this Glasgow suburb and in other locations to come?
Others will now fall for Helena Bonham Carter’s Miss Havisham, as I once fell for another actress’s.
They too will find their way to the book, and enter the pages of Dickens’s world just as I did. Very probably they will return, return yet again perhaps, and have the same frisson of self-recognition as myself. There, layers beneath …
Reading a text again which one read long ago, as that child or as an adolescent or a young adult, one is reading more than the book: in reliving the experience, one is also re-meeting and trying to read the person.
Ronald Frame on the Faber Podcast
Recorded in October 2012 in Edinburgh.