Frame’s historical melodrama unfolds Miss Catherine Havisham’s thwarted love-story, explaining how she became the dour old woman who was as rich as a lord but as unhappy as one could ever be. Tunneling us into the necessary blind alleys and dark undercurrents that make up the battle of the sexes, Frame breathes new life into Dickens’ Great Expectations, exploring how Catherine’s heartbreaking abandonment led to her emotional manipulation of innocent Pip and cold yet beautiful Estella.
The elegant structure of the book connects to the stages in Catherine life, revealing the twisted subterranean parts of her psyche. The sensitive daughter of a successful brewer in Kent, Catherine is content to live in Satis House where the rich aroma of hops and the potent fumes from the fermenting rooms on the cobbled yard seem to place her in a state of perpetually mild intoxication--“A parlous place indeed for a little gir.,” Catherine grows older, forced to cope after the sudden, shocking end to her mother and a father who never completely recovers from his loss.
Frame constructs a portrait of an isolated girl, someone quite privileged, who never lacks in anything material but silently yearns for some trace of her mother‘s affection. Her brow perpetually furrowed in confrontation, “articulating a fear of solitude,” teenage Catherine is left alone to her own devices. Her only company is Mrs. Bundy the cook and maid Sally, Catherine’s unlikely best friend whose actions will come to haunt Catherine as Frame’s tale progresses.
The novel works best in these early sections as the many silent rooms of Satis House seduce us with their volume and “shadowy grandeur.” Blessed with the onus and “the millstone” of having the Havisham dignity to defend, Joseph Havisham packs his daughter off to the neighboring estate of Durley Chase and into the aristocratic arms of Lady Chadwyck and her three children. Here she acquires the “honed vowels and clipped delivery” long denied to her working-class father. In scenes that delicately come to life under Frame’s pen, sunlight swills about the Durley’s rooms where we first meet well-preserved Lady Chadwyck while Catherine herself succumbs to the “easy smiles and fine manners” of Sheba, Mouse and William (W’m).
Although the novel sometimes reads like a television script, Frame is able to hone the Victorian dialogue and atmosphere, creating an appearance that is wrapped around the Chadwyck’s aura of provincial wealth, Catherine’s frustrated sexual desires, and her devotion the more theatrical aspects of Durley life, where she learns to be a nymph and a goddess, a gothic abbess and a devout pilgrim. Constantly paired with W’m yet unsure how to deal with him, he becomes the first of her many idols and the only one to know her family’s private, secret shame.
Foreshadowing draws readers into the mystery that will be Catherine’s ultimate undoing. The arrival of Mr. Charles Compeyson sets Catherine on her well-known path to her dramatic encasement in Satis House. Catherine is at first amused by Charles’ contrariness and polite largesse, but she’s plagued by his “little games.” Charles’ love is the panacea that Catherine desperately needs, providing her with an escape from stale old Satis House and its history “stacked up on the rooms behind closed doors.” Later, the entrance of lawyer Mr. Jaggers, Pip and Estella are a sign that Catherine’s madness will come full circle, an extension of her isolation, rejection, and desperate need to protect herself from all of Charles’ bitterness and hurt.
Beside the fact that Catherine successfully runs her father‘s brewery, she is used and buffeted, never seeming to be in charge of her own life. She feels that, as a woman, she is an object, not a person. Frame slyly copies the beautiful symmetry of Great Expectations as events unfold in dream-like repetition. Unable to change Catherine’s ultimate destiny, Frame converges his heartbreaking story with Dickens’. Her soul undernourished in love, Catherine becomes a woman who scarcely recognizes herself in the mirror, “a carnival mask, sophisticated, experienced, and a little arch”--perhaps all the more ironic considering the things Catherine Havisham might have been if she hadn’t been so unlucky in love.