There’s been a trend in my 2012 reading and my enjoyment of homage novels continues unabated. I may have a troubled relationship with Dickens but I wasn’t going to let that prevent me diving into two hot-off-the-presses homages during Dickens in December. Perhaps, you know, they might improve on the originals …..
I read Great Expectations as part of the BBC Big Read in 2005 and I hated it. I tired off the characters knocking psychological lumps out of each other and my contempt for Pip knew no bounds. Of course, that is the point, and, having in the meantime personally graduated from the school of hard knocks, I suspect I’d find much, much more to admire in its pages now. Not sure I will ever quite believe in Miss Havisham, a jilted woman, clad forever in her wedding dress and intent on destroying men through her proxy Estella. The vengefulness and bitterness, oh yes, I understand that perfectly but I have her down as one of Dickens’s finest grotesques. She’s not entirely flesh and blood.
Ronald Frame’s Havisham corrects that and renders her entirely human by narrating the story of her entire life. As you can see from the cover, Catherine Havisham was once a proud, good looking and vivacious young thing, with prospects. The apple of her father’s eye, a wealthy brewer, widowed at Catherine’s birth, a man who wanted more for his daughter than a solid working class husband. Clever. So it is that Frame weaves in many of Dickens’s original themes, sending Catherine off for an education beyond her class. Catherine becomes conversant with deceit and betrayal, long before she is jilted. We see Salis House in its prime, long before it falls into the disrepair so familiar in Great Expectations. We also get to know him, the mysterious bridegroom and his motivations. And the story is all the more poignant because Catherine is a young girl, head over heels in love and we know exactly how it is all going to end …..
There is an explanation of sorts. Both convoluted and obvious but I’m prepared to let that go because it’s entirely in keeping with a Dickensian plotline.
Once jilted, Catherine gradually transforms into the persona we know and hate/loathe/take perverse pleasure in but she doesn’t ever become a grotesque as in Dickens. That’s because she is narrating the story. Frame faithfully recounts the original from the moment Pip meets Estella in childhood but the story is new – we are inside Miss Havisham’s head and the view and her voice are fascinating – particularly her early fascination and identification with Dido of Carthage. Talk about literary foreshadowing …..
Mark Evans’s approach is an absolute juxtaposition of Frame’s. In Bleak Expectations, he concentrates entirely on exaggerating the grotesque. The book is, I believe, a condensing of 5 radio series, which had I listened to them would have had me roaring with laughter. (Note to self: get hold of the CD’s somehow.) Evans’s hero, Pip Bin (inventor of the dustbin in his adulthood) is an amalgam of all of Dicken’s heroes. The poor sod. He loses his father, his mother goes mad, his evil guardian sends him to the cruellest boarding school ever to exist in fiction. Adulthood seems an unlikely prospect. However, death would deny Pip Bin the opportunities of experiencing the workhouse au Oliver Twist or of becoming David Copperfield for a benign month or two as he experiences love with Miss-Flora-Dies-Early.
This is a roller-coaster of a read: a parody, a satire, a comedy. Full of creative comic genius, cruelty and a touch of insanity here and there. Look anyone who can carry the idea of someone believing herself to be a tablecloth for almost 400 pages must be insane. Evans takes the things that annoy me in Dickens and renders them hysterical. I hesitate to quote from the book because you know how jokes don’t carry when they lose their context but I must quote the best sentence in the book for me. The coincidence in a Dickensian plot drives me demented and so when Pip Bin receives a much needed gift from the convict he helped escape – it is a £312 bank note – he comments:
My prayers had been answered; in terms of the plot of my life this was less deus ex machina and more pecunia ex deo et fugiente malefactore.
Bleak Expectations is full of one-liners, auditory comedy (from its roots in radio), anachronisms and countless references to the originals. A Dickensian aficionado – provided they weren’t stuffy about their literary hero – would get so much pleasure out of this. It’s a keeper too for this less-than-aficionada in its role of instant pick-me-up for dark moments. Life could be worse. Pip Bin’s Bleak Expectations prove it.