A New Miss Havisham: The Jasper Fforde novels

JAN / FEB 2012: BY TRYNTSJE CUPERUS

havisham

 “What is beauty?”

“A destroyer.”

“What is happiness?”

“Deception.”

“What is love?”

“Death.”

Dickens was a master at creating characters. We can easily identify with many of them and know some of his more eccentric figures by name, such as Mr. Pecksniff, Miss Trotwood or Edmund Sparkler. One of the most remarkable of his many creations is Miss Havisham, a central character in the novel Great Expectations.

A wealthy spinster, Miss Havisham leads a sheltered life. Abandoned at the altar on her wedding day she has never since left her mansion and is still wearing her bridal gown. We come to know her as a woman with one goal in life: taking revenge for her heartbreak on men. Her adopted daughter Estella is the instrument for her plan and the local blacksmith’s son Pip is the chosen target.

The eerie Miss Havisham has inspired multiple modern writers and filmmakers, among others British writer Jasper Fforde. He has written a book series about a literary detective named Thursday Next, two of which (Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots) feature Miss Havisham. Thursday Next has an ability to make any bookworm jealous: she is able to enter BookWorld, the place where characters live and narratives are played out. Due to her experience as a detective she is recruited to join the BookWorld police force, Jurisfiction. There she is apprenticed to none other than Miss Havisham. The housebound eccentric as an experienced police officer seems a far cry from the Dickens character we know.

One of the clever tricks Fforde uses in his novels is to give famous characters a twist of their own. As Miss Havisham says to Thursday, “We usually try to keep our book personalities separate from our Jurisfiction ones. Think yourself lucky I don’t carry over any of my personality from Great Expectations—if I did I’d be pretty intolerable!”

In that light, let’s explore Jasper Fforde’s version of Miss Havisham. The first time Thursday meets her is inside Great Expectations. Young Pip has been playing cards with Estella and Miss Havisham sends them both downstairs to eat something. As the narrative moves away from her, Miss Havisham changes her bridal shoes for trainers and settles down to relax with a Sony Walkman and a stack of National Geographic. During their first assignment, Thursday remarks that her eyes “sparkled brightly and she was not nearly as old as I first supposed.”

In order to work together, Miss Havisham has given Thursday two important rules; to do exactly as she says and not to patronize or pity her. Her strong dislike of men compels her to often warn Thursday and others of their “deceitful” nature; when Thursday tells her she is married and loves her husband, the older woman dismisses this as “stuff and nonsense,” but is secretly impressed by her definition of love and asks to use it for her literary role. And she does, for we can easily find their shared conversation in the novel: “Love is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter sub-mission, trust and believe, giving up your whole heart and sole to the smiter.”

In contrast to her view of men, Miss Havisham keeps friendly relations with many of her male Jurisfiction co-workers. She also has a great liking for fast vehicles and often scares Thursday out of her wits with her driving and sailing. She tells her young apprentice that she is angry with Estella because she hoped to obtain Estella’s role in the novel herself when she was a book character in training. But above all we get to know Miss Havisham in these novels as a real detective, solving cases with insight and courage.

As you can see, Jasper Fforde has created a Miss Havisham out of his own imagination while still keeping her recognizable as the character we know from Dickens’ book. Reading the Thursday Next novels as a fan of Dickens, the question of what he would think of this use of his character did not fail to enter my mind. I believe there are two possible answers to this question. First, you can say that Miss Havisham is a creation of Dickens’ clever mind alone and he would not like to see his character altered or used simply for the fame of her name. But personally, I rather believe Dickens would smile at Jasper Fforde’s novels. Dickens was a great author and I think he would like the way Fforde invented a world behind the pages of books, a world where stories are created and beloved characters encounter new adventures. Besides, it might make readers curious for the original works of fiction they get to know characters from and read or rediscover these as well.

Therefore, I can heartily recommend the Thursday Next series for every fan of Miss Havisham, Dickens or just books in general. They are filled with literary allusion and in-jokes for literary fanatics and you might just get the answers to other pressing Dickensian questions, for example why there is no character called Mr. Quaverly in Martin Chuzzlewit, how Uriah Heep got his name and what archaeologists are doing in the first chapter of Great Expectations. ♥

janfeb2012

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