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Updating the literary west

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MISS HAVISHAM UP TOWN Early on, the book’s narrator Pip says of her, “I had heard of Miss Havisham up town—everybody for miles round, had heard of Miss Havisham up town…” And it’s true, everybody for miles round has heard of Miss Havisham. The wedding dress she wears may be yellowed, but it’s made of “satins, and lace, and silks.” Jewels are spread on her dressing table. She rarely allows visitors, but she has a fancy to see a child play. The room he’s brought to that fateful morning is lit by candles. Miss Havisham’s watch and a clock on the wall are both stopped at twenty minutes to nine.She presides over like a great, ill-willed fairy queen. In the darkened mansion; in the old wedding dress, with one shoe on and one shoe off. An orphan from the village, he lives with his sister and her kindly blacksmith husband. An interesting side note: In Victorian times, if a household was in mourning, the clocks of the house might be stopped at the time the death occurred and, while the body remained in the house, all the curtains drawn.She is “such a foolish, senseless, fantastical, impossible humbug,” it continues, as to be “an unworthy subject for such a pen.” (I picture this one as having been written by a human-sized pepper mill decked out in Victorian costume.) It goes on: “Supposing Miss Havisham possible and real, Miss Havisham would very soon have been removed from her deserted brewery to a madhouse, as Mr.Dickens has committed the indiscretion of providing her with male relatives who are not mad.” .

So am I, for that matter—old enough now to play Miss Havisham on the screen (that I get to keep the dress would be my one contract stipulation).In her biography of Dickens, Claire Tomalin alludes—lightly but persuasively—to what it might have been like for John to grow up in the Crewe home, without a father and perhaps wondering if any of the men he saw around the place—eloquent, rich, well mannered, genteelly promiscuous—were in fact his father, rather than the elderly butler whom he had never known.(There’s a curious emotional resemblance here to the orphan Pip’s sense that he knows the identity of his mysterious benefactor even though he’s not allowed to speak the name.) Impossible to know from this vantage whether the supposition was true or even plausible: it’s mostly important as an emotional piece of the man.This is floated as a ludicrous proposition, yet within weeks of the book’s publication, another reviewer would observe that “living types have already been pointed out that claim resemblance” to the character.Here seems like a fitting jumping-off point for exploring how Miss Havisham came to be in the world: as a fantastical, impossible creature…clearly based on real-life people.And this tale begins, as so many good stories and therapy sessions do, with parents.