Friday, 23 November 2012

I want diversion, and I have done with men and women. Play

Movies have an awful habit of ruining books. Whilst there is no way of predicting whether the impending production of Great Expectations will be monument or travesty, I thought I'd take this opportunity to revisit Dickens masterpiece, just to be on the safe side. Only the second novel in English to be written in first person, Great Expectations displays the wonder and horror of Victorian England from the perspective of an uneducated, yet lucid, child. 

Pip's reception of Miss Havisham is a moment of textual brilliance which will be hard to recreate in film form (I fear Helen Bonham Carter is going to ramp up the insane-factor). Dickens' characterisation of Havisham really is exquisite, and there is a much more complex and profound element to her character than people appreciate: she is not simply the 'mad jilted bride'. Havisham luxuriates in her misery; adorned in the dress that never served its purpose, smothered by air that has stagnated for decades,  bed-fellow with rats and spiders - living out her self-imposed incarceration. 

But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. 

Havisham is more uncanny curio than physical being. Like the body dug from the church she protrudes from Dickens' text: a thing of strange beauty, of a different landscape and time, inspiring marvel and revulsion. Like Heaney's bog men and women, Havisham is distinctly 'other', and like those creatures she bares the scars of violation and abuse. 

I lay waiting/ between turf-face and demesne wall,/ between heathery levels/ and glass-toothed stone./ My body was braille/ For the creeping influence:/ dawn suns groped over my head/and cooled at my feet,/ through my fabrics and skins/ the seeps of winter/ digested me,/ the illiterate roots/ pondered and died/ in the cavings/ of stomach and socket./ lay waiting/ on the gravel bottom,/ my brain darkening,/ a jar of spawn/ fermenting underground/ dreams of Baltic amber./ [...]
My skull hibernated/ in the wet nest of my hair./ Which they robbed./ I was barbered/ and stripped/ by a turfcutter’s spade/ [...]
The plait of my hair,/ a slimy birth-cord/ of bog, had been cut/ and I rose from the dark,/ hacked bone, skull-ware,/ frayed stitches, tufts,/ small gleams on the bank.

- From Seamus Heaney's Bog Queen.

In our modern era, where being unmarried is no crime or shame, it is hard to appreciate the life-altering consequences being jilted at the alter would cause for a women of Dickens' time. Yet Havisham conveys these consequences in every possible way: embodying devastation and evidencing of what would happen if one decided just to give up, on everyone and everything. The change in social climate simply heightens Havisham's 'otherness', meaning we must work harder as readers to imagine the position she is in. It also causes us to imagine how her living-death would be accommodated in our world, of social media, and helplines and police. In 2012, would Havisham be able to create such an isolated, secluded microcosm of sorrow, unheeded by modern support networks and intrusive institutions. 

For those who believe Dickens style is stuffy and his characters one-dimensional, Miss Havisham is your rebuffal. An obscure persona, strangely human and inhuman, for the most part unfathomable and in the literary world, unmatchable. Yes, Helena Bonham Carter -unmatchable. 

Although Havisham is stuck in time, her clocks eternally fixed at the moment of her destruction, she resurrects in a reading (or watching) of Great Expectations: a character for all time. 


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