There are so few perfect novels in the canon that it's not surprising that Great Expectations should, like Pride and Prejudice, already have inspired two fine spin-offs in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs and Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip. Ronald Frame's account of Miss Havisham's life is, however, the first to imagine the back-story of one of the most famous characters in fiction. With a new film of Great Expectations featuring Helena Bonham Carter as the mad, jilted bride in her cobwebbed house, the timing of Havisham could not be better.
Frame takes the facts that Dickens's Pip discovers, and fleshes them out into a narrator with great expectations of her own. Proud, handsome Catherine Havisham is a brewer's daughter who has the brains to run her father's firm but who is the wrong sex. She is sent away to improve her knowledge of the world with the Chadwycks, a clever, elegant family with whose handsome, Cambridge-educated son W'm she predictably falls in love. Yet she is also drawn to Sally, a serving-girl, and encourages her to aspire beyond her class. Growing up with a father who believes that anything can be bought "with a tradesman's ready money", Catherine is doomed. Even though clever enough to understand both brewing and Goethe, her only future is to be a wife.
The fortune-hunting Compeyson, Miss Havisham's fiancée, is shown through her eyes as powerfully attractive, yet is clearly an oleaginous, philistine man. With a profligate step-brother and crooked manager, she is surrounded by treachery, yet the greatest comes from those she trusts most. Frame has imagined his heroine without the "passionate eagerness" which makes Dickens's original so pathetic and grotesque.
The novel quickens once the plot of Great Expectations gets underway, with Miss Havisham's seemingly inexplicable jilting, Estella's adoption and the introduction of Pip all providing pace and colour. Frame's sensitivity to outsiders plays to his strengths as he depicts the impotent torment of Pip at the hands of the two women, old and young.
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, though by making Miss Havisham more mundane, Frame tears away the intriguingly fairy-tale aspect of Dickens's character. We see the grasping monster, and the thwarted desire, but don't feel the agonised pathos of the original. But this is the problem of all modern dwarves riding on the shoulders of giants.