At last we came to the door of a room, and she said, “Go in.”
I answered, more in shyness than politeness, “After you, miss.”
To this, she returned: “Don’t be ridiculous, boy; I am not going in.” And scornfully walked away, and – what was worse – took the candle with her.
This was very uncomfortable, and I was half afraid. However, the only thing to be done being to knock at the door, I knocked, and was told from within to enter. I entered, therefore, and found myself in a pretty large room, well lighted with wax candles. No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it. It was a dressing-room, as I supposed from the furniture, though much of it was of forms and uses then quite unknown to me. But prominent in it was a draped table with a gilded looking-glass, and that I made out at first sight to be a fine lady’s dressing-table.
Whether I should have made out this object so soon, if there had been no fine lady sitting at it, I cannot say. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.
She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand – her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.
‘What becomes of the broken hearted?’
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham deals with her broken heart through an active refusal to acknowledge the passage of time. Jilted at the altar by the despicable Compeyson, Miss Havisham carries on wearing her wedding dress surrounded by the decaying remnants of the original wedding feast and party. She becomes a parody of the ‘mad’ spinster; rich, bitter and not a little vampiric in her desire to destroy others, especially the vulnerable figure of Pip who is summoned in this scene to Havisham’s Satis House in order to ‘play’ Pip’s perceptual bewilderment is brilliantly evoked in one of Dickens’ finest and most memorable scenes.
He has no easy context for this bizarre woman whose wealth and status deprive him of his instinctive, self protective desire to repulse her. Thus his reaction is to rewrite or re-frame Miss Havisham rendering her his fairy god mother, a woman whose intentions are benevolent and nurturing rather than a reflection of his own sister’s rejection so keenly felt at home where he is ironically brought up ‘by hand.’. In a world so deprived of daily tenderness and kindness Pip’s growth is stunted and distorted: little wonder that his ‘great expectations’ dissolve into hubris and despair.
Dickens’ imagination is so utterly compelling and full in this encounter between the small sensitive Pip and the greedy neediness of Miss Havisham that the throwaway detail of the ‘she had but one shoe on’ lingers on as casual testimony to the rightness of the description. The imaginative ‘truth’ is in the inexplicable nature of the detail.
The pressure on Pip to return home with news of his special day with the rich lady of the town makes him edit out the pathetic insane ‘reality’ of the grotesque woman and replace the insanity with something magical and healing. Doesn’t desperation make authors of us all?
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