Spinster Act: Why Miss Havisham Was Probably Scarily Young

I’ve seen some grumbling about the new Great Expectations film and the fact that Helena Bonham Carter is ‘too young’ to make a convincing Miss Havisham. To this I say: Stop getting Dickens Wrong!* Quite apart from the fact that this is the role she was BORN to play, with her fondness for tattered Victorian bloomers and bird’s nest hair (we at Pamflet love H B-C) but this accusation is quite inaccurate.

As far as my dim memories of studying Great Expectations in school go, I don’t think Miss H’s age was ever specified. She is a tragic, jilted, bitter and apparently mad spinster, living surrounded by her rotting wedding feast and in the tattered remnants of her bridal ensemble. Ok, fair enough. But that doesn’t mean she was ‘old’.

Given that in Victorian times to be unmarried at 25 meant you were over the hill, Miss Havisham could have been aged anywhere between 30 and 55 (Helena is 46). According to that trusted source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, in Dickens’ own notes he puts her as being in her mid fifties. When Gillian Anderson played her in the recent BBC adaptation she was 43.

When megababe Charlotte Rampling played her in yet another BBC adaptation in 1999, she was 53 and her beauty shone through the cobwebby clothes and whispy grey locks, because this is the point: Miss Havisham is not an old lady, she was a young woman who atrophied through heartbreak and it’s infinitely more moving and powerful to see glimpses of that original youth, vigour and hope through her tattered veils.

Here’s the description of Miss Havisham from Pip’s point of view when he first encounters her. Bear in mind he was a young boy and to children, anyone over the age of 18 can appear ancient. She has white hair and her youthful curves (ew) have shrivelled to skin and bone. Fine. But again, that doesn’t mean she’s an elderly lady!

I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly wax-work at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.

In the past Miss Havisham has been played by actresses in their 60s and 70s, but I think it’s far more powerful to have the role be played by a woman in middle age. This shows how at that time, and to a great extent, today, an unmarried woman is sadly too often percieved as invisible or useless. Why shouldn’t Miss Havisham hide herself away in her mansion after being jilted at the altar, when in her lifetime to be married and to produce children were a woman’s chief purposes in life and ones which she was not able to fulfil?

I’ve written before in Pamflet about how traditionally spinsters have occupied this strange space in society where they are pitied and ridiculed, yet also feared as subversive, threatening and somehow ‘other’. They are mocked as being hysterical, sexually frustrated shrews because they have not been able to fulfil woman’s ‘natural’ role as wife and mother, through choice or circumstance and that seems to freak the hell out of people.

Sometimes it seems that not a lot has changed sinced Tobias Smollett’s depiction of Tabitha Bramble, the ‘old maid’ in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, as “so intolerable, that I almost think she’s the devil incarnate”. Think of the treatment Australian PM Julia Gillard has recieved as an unmarried (gasp!), childless (gnash teeth)  atheist (howl with rage) woman! In 2007 Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan called Ms Gillard “deliberately barren” and unqualified for leadership, because she has no children. It makes you want to lock yourself up with some mouldy old wedding cake, doesn’t it? Or, y’know, do this.

*to be said in nerdy Alan Patridge voice

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Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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