Book Reviews

Book Review: Havisham

This one is long overdue–I finished the book about 3 weeks ago while on vacation, so some of the details might escape me.

This is the story of Miss Havisham, of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Arguably one of the most intriguing ancillary characters of all time. This novel dives into her childhood, upbringing, and why she became the crazy old lady who roams the halls of a mansion in a wedding dress. And of course trains Estella exactly how to destroy men, particularly poor Pip.

I have to start off with a confession. The only Charles Dickens story I’ve read from cover to cover is A Tale of Two Cities. And while it was beautiful and tragic and extraordinarily well written, it also took me three months to read. Do Dickens intimidates me–I just don’t have the time to devote to such stories with 100% focus and no interruptions these days. I’ve started Great Expectations probably 4-5 different times, but the most of my knowledge of the story comes from the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ethan Hawke movie version. I know. I’m sorry for that, but it is what it is. One day, I’ll right the wrong.

But as far as this particular novel goes, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I’ll read it again. I enjoyed everything up to the point of Catherine being abandoned at the altar, but after that it kind of fizzled. And I really didn’t enjoy the end that crossed over with Dickens’ story–it’s like trying to sing Journey at a karaoke bar, you don’t mess with perfection.

I enjoyed that Catherine was the daughter of a beer maker–it was money, but not society money. Her father paid her way into society and those people always made sure she was second class because of it. Her mother died giving birth to her, so as any father would in that time, he showered her with gifts, never said no, and made sure she was impossible for any man in her appropriate class, but not good enough for a man where he wanted his daughter to be.

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she had few real friends. There was one girl, Sarah, who was the daughter of one of the house workers–she fawned on her, confided in her, and of course it bit her in the ass. Catherine’s naivety was tragic–furthered by her father who completely concealed a second marriage and a half-brother until years after his second wife died.

So in a way, the love of her father also sealed her fate. She had no way to question motives of admirers. She had no defenses against someone who showed devout interest in her. She never considered ulterior motives of poor friends, high society families who had status but no actual wealth. The poor girl didn’t even understand her own feelings of lust. She was doomed before she ever achieved consciousness.

In that regard, the complexity of the character feels diminished. Especially when the reader gets to the part of the story after Catherine being dumped. She’s clearly a little bit crazy, but instead of not being able to handle being rejected so publicly and unexpectedly, it’s more about intentionally becoming a martyr for something few people care about to begin with. She runs her father’s business for a while. She has additional wedding gowns made to match the original when the original gets too tattered to wear. She creates this alternative reality where she’s somehow continuing to show what love really means, instead of being destroyed by it and finding revenge in grooming another young girl.

It was an interesting take, but not one I’m sure Dickens would approve of. It took away the mystery a bit. It made her insanity seem more sane. And when a character has inspired so many things when she wasn’t even the central character, I’m just not convinced it’s something you should give a concrete back story to. Everyone would otherwise have their own interpretation and that makes it more personal. We’ve all dealt with disappointment and heart ache on some level and that’s what a reader brings to Miss Havisham’s back story. It’s what makes her irritating as well as sympathetic at the same time.

This all being said, I again admit, my take on the character may be completely flawed. I might be full of sh*t. So there’s that.

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