Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Havisham
I remember saying a mental ‘hurrah’ to myself when I started to read it with my first student and applauding the genius of Duffy for tackling the oflactory incongruity of the original Miss Havisham- Dickens apparently ‘failed’ to make Pip notice her ‘stink’. Such an incongruity provided Duffy with a fresh way into the old story. Any text that revises an old one must provide the reader with a reason for the revisitation or what is the point? Angela Carter was superb at rewriting fairy tales and the reader always found new insights and possibilities in the ashes of the old.
My affection for Dicken’s brilliant novel Great Expectations had always been partially built on fear. I had been terrified as a child by David Leans’ black and white encounter with graveyards, convicts and women who had sat in their yellowing wedding clothes for nearly twenty years. Carol Ann Duffy’s suggestively included ‘Havisham’ in her prize winning collection ‘Mean Time’ and what or who could be meaner or more out of time than Dickens’ Miss Havisham, one of fictions most enduring figures of the grotesque?
Looking over the poem again today, I am struck by the intensity of the telling. It is as if each word has waited for expression. Waited for YEARS! This waiting heightens the passion and cruelty of each utterance. And the words are as much directed at herself as outside herself, so we feel a self lacerating regard throughout the whole ‘mean time’ of the poem’s duration. Havisham is a decaying narcissist! The dramatic monoloue is the perfect vehicle for such a dispaly of the FALLEN WORD. What a word pool she uses, as she dredges up her lingering , festering hatred!!
Having a voice gives opportunity for a peculiar freedom of expression, yet Havisham, even though she has jettisoned her spinster title of ‘Miss’ , finds voice that imprisons as much as liberates. She can never escape physically or linguistically from the incarceration of her ‘room’. Her experiences own her. She has not shifted from her place of hurt as this place provides her with a relentless lexis of ‘mean time’ and there seems to be no possibility fo another lexis becoming available.
It is the lexis of the damned.
Janet Lewison 2011
Duffy’s poem ‘Havisham’ begins with a vehement outcry: ‘Beloved sweetheart bastard.’ This oxymoronic, explosive beginning embraces the doomed degeneration of many a love affair and of course Miss Havisham’s in particular. The very compression of these three terms suggests passionate intensity and longing. Duffy condenses time telescopically just as Dickens’s narrator Pip had done years before when he says: ‘the strangest lady I have ever seen or shall ever see.’ We only ever compress time so intensely when we are aware of the extreme significance of an event or feeling.
In Duffy’s poem, adulation has yielded to loathing and desolation. Duffy reignites the unstable relationship between love and hatred and allows her heroine to speak unambiguously of her (frustrated) desire. Havisham is speaking out of her self-imposed prison house of solitude and social isolation. She is no longer silenced by being Dickens’ ‘Miss’ Havisham, she is ‘Havisham’, a figure liberated from the humiliation of her unmarried state and free to speak in any way she likes about her ex-lover, or men in general.
Duffy’s concern to speak something ‘hard and truthful’ about a pre-existing text is helpful when we also bear in mind one of the most compelling and ambiguous scenes in the whole of Dickens’, indeed of Victorian Literature. This occurs after Pip has met Miss Havisham for the first time in Chapter Eight of the novel and has been fed like a dog in the ruined gardens of Satis House by Miss Havisham’s ward, the elusive Estella. .
‘It was in this place, and at this moment, that a strange thing happened to my fancy. I thought it a strange thing then, and I thought it a stranger thing long afterwards. I turned my eyes-a little dimmed by looking at the frosty light-towards a great wooden beam in a low nook of the building near me on my right hand, and I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white, with but one shoe to the feet, and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the f ace was Miss Havisham’s, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me.’
This curious sighting of Miss Havisham is never explained in the novel. It is highly ambiguous in its message to Pip and to the reader. However it is true to say that Pip’s hallucinationary glimpse of a near dead Miss Havisham is psychologically apt when we think of her cruel intentions towards him. There are good reasons for Pip wanting Miss Havisham dead, particularly with the benefit of hindsight or retrospect. But is this retrospect and is it just Pip’s retrospect?
Dickens through his narrator Pip, recreates a scene of execution, strangely involved with the elaborate details of dress: how pitiful and yet macabre is the recurrence of Pip’s earlier reference to the ‘one shoe’ perhaps? This detail reveals a very particular type of imaginative response to the bizarre. Pip has no conscious understanding of why he should see Miss Havisham being ‘executed’ and later in the novel he even sees her hanging again. Dickens himself found the spectacle of a hanging profoundly disturbing and haunting. He was amongst the thirty thousand witnesses who watched the public execution of the infamous murderess Maria Manning with her husband, at Horsemonger Gaol in 1849, something that gave him waking nightmares. In ‘Lying Awake’ he refers to a ‘fantasy of the mind’ where:
That, having beheld that execution, and having left those two forms dangling on the top of the entrance gateway-the man’s, a limp, loose suit of clothes as if the man had gone out of them; the woman’s, a fine shape, so elaborately corseted and artfully dressed, that it was quite unchanged in its trim appearance as it slowly swung from side to side…
Dickens’s imagination seems challenged here by both moral and aesthetic considerations. Whilst aware of the horror and nullity of so public an execution, Dickens clearly appreciates the elaborate artifice of Mrs Manning’s wardrobe, and her sexual presence is evident even in death. He eroticises her through the appreciative, lingering awareness of her dress. Miss Havisham by contrast is deprived of such an ‘earthy’ response; she seems a hideous cadaver, engendering only horror.
Duffy in ‘Havisham’ reanimates Dickens’ imaginative predilection for murder and indeed for murder as an erotic act, through her protagonist’s vengeful fantasies.
…I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.
Duffy’s Havisham is thus ‘a hard and truthful’ resurrection of Dickens’ competing imaginative energies. She allows her Havisham the cathartic release of murderous fantasy, the sensory experience of a physical rather than spectral self. Duffy’s Havisham utters Dickens’ unutterable knowledge: ‘Spinster. I stink and remember.’ Gone is Pip’s sensory amnesia, in its place is Havisham, a woman as intent upon murder as Maria Manning herself, a woman who quite defiantly merges recollection with bodily secretions!
To return to the Pip’s sighting of Miss Havisham hanging from the beam, it is important to notice that once again time is telescopically compressed in this anecdote: ‘I thought it a strange thing then, and I thought it a strange thing long afterwards.’ Pip doesn’t know, or represses what he knows, so that the scene of this hanging is left to speak (or not to speak) for itself. It literally hangs there ambiguously waiting to be interpreted and translated. Miss Havisham is trying to call to him, but we never hear in the novel what this strange message might be. Duffy takes this ambiguity surrounding Miss Havisham’s voice and creates her own response. This I will come to shortly.
In the above scene with the hanging Miss Havisham, I think Pip’s vision is an intuitive reaction to the repression of his first meeting with her. In his original meeting he bypasses his instinctive understanding of her due to her wealth and status in the village community. Instinct in the hanging passage however overwhelms his earlier version of her in her room. When he sees her hanging, he is significantly outside the world of Miss Havisham’s room. In his natural relief to be outside the sterility of Satis House, we ‘see’ (through Pip’s eyes ironically ‘a little dimmed’) the death-driven ambiguity of Pip’s hostess. Like Coleridge’s famous idea of an ‘underconsciousness,’ this scene may hint at ‘something’ that Pip cannot quite bring to conscious acknowledgement or admission. But Pip cannot afford to ‘hear’ Miss Havisham as she is such a very destructive figure in his life. Thus he hallucinates a truth that remains unspoken and beyond cognition.
Duffy picks up upon this desire to translate Miss Havisham’s unheard voice in her poem ‘Havisham.’ In doing so, she apparently abjects Pip from her protagonist’s monologue. Instead Havisham ruminates to herself, attempting to address the lover who deserted her. Pip has no voice anymore in Duffy’s poem. He is banished from Havisham’s consciousness. Or is he? For it is quite tempting to try to seek out Pip in ‘Havisham’ as the poem (like Great Expectations itself) is so much concerned with revenge and surrogacy. And of all human behaviours, perhaps sexual fantasy above all others, lends itself to infinite substitutions.
‘Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till I suddenly bite awake.’
Duffy’s Havisham finds release in sexual fantasy. She finds an intimacy and catharsis that escaped Pip’s Miss Havisham. The endless mourning for her fiancé is temporarily relieved through eroticism. The ‘lost’ object of love is returned in explicit sexual fantasy and dream, places where human beings often allow themselves uncensored access to desire. The suggestiveness of ‘down’ is palpable and dangerously taboo. Havisham is exploring her own sexual Netherworld; orgasm and castration are elided in this scene. She literally ‘comes’ alive.
Havisham’s tongue is ‘fluent.’ Her actions give voice to her feelings and her sexual needs. Havisham’s fluency is also interesting as it ironises Pip’s inarticulacy surrounding Miss Havisham; his silencing of her ‘hard and truthful’ voice in Great Expectations. In Duffy’s poem, by contrast, she is powerful and capable of near castration. The depersonalisation of the ‘lost body’ through reference to ‘its’ mouth and ear, reveals the hatred/love tension exhibited in the poem’s opening phrase. It may also revel in the indeterminacy of her sexual fantasy. For in Dickens’s novel Miss Havisham’s betrayal of Pip amounts to emotional castration at the very least and she ‘courts’ Pip’s attachment to her in order to ruin him. Why should she not in Duffy’s poem, experiment or ‘play’ with Pip in another way?
I stated earlier that Great Expectations is a virgin’s story. Pip fails to convince his love object Estella that they can be romantically happy together; even with the famous revised ending of Dickens’ novel, the tone of the narrative is unmistakeably autumnal and melancholy. Estella remains as unlikely an object for marital and conjugal happiness as any character in literature. Pip’s continued attachment to the cold, elusive and damaged Estella seems deeply masochistic. In response to Pip’s proclivities, Duffy’s poem offers us a version of Miss Havisham whose sexual sadism can easily fulfil such tendencies and more!
‘ Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it,s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.’
Pip’s thwarted desire in Dickens’ novel mirrors the socially enforced impotence of Miss Havisham too. Pip allows himself to be ‘castrated’ figuratively in the novel by both Miss Havisham and Estella. Miss Havisham renders herself impotent through unresolved mourning. In Duffy’s poem, both are brought together in this final meeting, their ‘long slow honeymoon’ where physical violence ruptures sexual stasis in a fantasy of necrophilia. The ‘stiffness’ of the male corpse makes Havisham’s final ‘victim’ easier to break off !As Havisham’s voice ‘breaks’ orgasmically in this ecstasy of revenge, so the poem ends in consummation and unfettered desire.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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