Before she was the witch of the place, before the wedding dress turned to ash, Miss Havisham was a young girl with privilege and opportunity. In his novel Havisham, Ronald Frame pulls back the veil on Charles Dickens’ famous character and sheds light on who she was before her greatest expectations were shattered.
Zola: In Havisham, you flesh out the backstory of Miss Havisham—the jilted bride from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. What about her original character inspired you to write more?
Ronald Frame: I was struck by a contradiction: she is considered a madwoman, yet at the same time maintains social contact with family dependents (who fear her sharp tongue and acute appraisals) and with old friends.
I wondered, just what do we know about her?
Life had shriveled and shrunk about her, or she had allowed it to do so, but at one time she had been young, an heiress with a wealthy father (her mother was dead, she was the lady of the house), who’d had privileges and opportunities galore. Who was that Miss Havisham?
Zola: What were some of the challenges you faced when working in a universe and with characters that are known, established, and were created over a hundred years ago? Were you intimidated by taking on such a classic work?
RF: I didn’t believe that Dickens, most pragmatic of writers himself, would have objected to my presumptuousness, in hijacking one of his greatest characters.
I didn’t want to write a cod-Victorian novel. Dickens provides an enticing backstory for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and I felt that while taking that as my starting point I could explore the fabric of English (high) society at that time by introducing fresh characters and settings of my own, by taking a guess at how a provincial family in trade like the Havishams plotted its own ascent (if that was actually feasible or not).
However, this makes the book sound like a treatise. It’s not. My function is to try to tell an involving story, to—somehow—make readers want to continue turning the pages. (I too am pragmatic.)
Zola: Where did you draw the line between emulating Dickens’s original style and intention and creating a unique voice of your own?
RF: I love film – the movies of decades ago. I grew up with the moving image. I took my notions of editing from that – cuts, flashbacks, trackings and zooms, and so on – dramatic movement, in other words. I’ve written a great deal for radio, where you tend to use fewer words to do more work and where dialogue can also be pared down and quite cryptic. My ‘style’ – of which, of course, I’m unconscious – comes from those. I simply applied it to the Dickens material.
Or perhaps not so simply, because one has to be careful about anachronisms. I wanted my Havisham to read like a translation of a Victorian novel. While there are certain constants in human belief and behaviour (etiquette will change, inevitably), I didn’t want to write about modern people got up in fancy dress. Grandiose as it might sound, I tried very hard to imagine how people in the early 19th century might have thought in the course of every day.
Zola: Many members of your family have worked in journalism. How much has that affected your writing? Did that history influence your decision to become a writer?
RF: My mother’s father was the journalist – a financial editor – although my mother also worked in the press world, as secretary to the general editor of a daily newspaper. My father was a Scottish MadMan – he had his own agency – so I have inky newsprint in the blood, I suppose. (My first short stories were published in a newspaper when I was 17. But then, as now, I was writing off my own bat – with a wholly free rein as to what I might wish to do with my life.)
As a boy I used to read some of the advertising trade journals. Individual agents like Scotsman-in-New York David Ogilvie were great talents. While his ads were known for the amount of copy they carried, advertising tends to teach economy: less is more (although the original German for that expression literally translates as ‘almost nothing’).
Zola: You have mentioned that you wanted to be an architect. What made you decide not to follow that path? Does your knowledge of the discipline ever sneak into your work?
RF: Two requirements for architecture – for the training and the job, I mean – were art and mathematics. While I used to fill notebooks with face-on line illustrations of buildings of my own invention, I had little ability for perspective in art as it was ‘taught’ at school. I was considered just as inept at maths, even though I’m supposed to be descended from the deviser of logarithms (ha ha). As a boy I had a fondness for Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and could see the beauty of concrete. (The subtleties of Mies came later.) I grew up in Glasgow, a city which also had – and still has, despite past vandalism by the City Fathers – some glorious Victorian and Art Nouveau buildings.
I’m told I have a visual ‘eye’ when I write – but I think I also try to catch the atmosphere of places (late in life I understand that I’m hopelessly urban), and we are necessarily defined in some measure by the buildings we live in and among. (In this suburb many properties have house-names on gates and pillars, another subject to fascinate.)
Zola: Are there any other characters in literature who you’d like to write more about or would hope that another author would take the time to flesh out?
RF: Well, naturally, I wouldn’t dream of telling you – for the simple reason that I am very superstitious about discussing work in hand (in case it then becomes jinxed), and because I would selfishly prefer to have a crack at any literary character myself first (however unsuited to the task). I do have one historical character in mind, but not from literature. Some of the best book characters have been attended to already, e.g. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (I do wish I had thought of her.) All suggestions would be very gratefully received, and in the strictest confidence!
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.