Nobody wants to fall in love anymore. We’re a generation of hardened souls. Unconventional relationships. Loveless sex. We look before we leap. We judge popular icons based on who can act like they care the least. Whoever can acquire wealth and fame in the most effortless fashion is who we aspire to be. Whoever can remain indifferent to the attention and praise that surrounds them the longest is who receives it. We would never take the chance of opening ourselves up to emotions and possibly experiencing any sort of real rejection. We wouldn’t dare risk being vulnerable enough to admit something so shameful as adoration.
But lacking emotions isn’t what makes people memorable. Staying lost in love for all of eternity, swept up in its treason and being made a fool for trying is far more interesting. That’s why over one hundred and fifty years later, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations remains one of the most read novels of all time, and the character of Miss Havisham is still held as the standard for the ultimate vengeful bitch.
Miss Havisham was a woman voluntarily trapped in time. Jilted at the altar by the love of her life, Lady Havisham learned of the news that her groom-to-be had left her at precisely 9:20 A.M. She then promptly stopped all of the clocks in her home, retired to her room, and remained there, in her yellowing wedding dress, for all the rest of her days. Absent of sunlight or any connection to the outside world, her only sense of happiness came from her adopted daughter Estella. However, it wasn’t joy and jubilation that the lady in yellow sought, but rather, vicarious vengeance. Estella was a little girl who was raised to be a soldier, trained from the start to do one thing and do it well -- break boys’ hearts and show no mercy.
Estella was raised in the shadows -- her entire upbringing taking place within the frigid confines of Miss Havisham’s Satis House, away from sunshine and away from joy. Taught from the time she could crawl to be cold and unforgiving, Estella lived her whole existence like an asura, spending her whole life carrying out Miss Havisham’s vendetta. Estella was not raised to be happy, she was raised to do Miss Havisham’s bidding, which meant making as many men fall in love with her as possible, entrapping them, and making them completely miserable. Through her child, Miss Havisham punished her old lover. Estella became the blade by which Havisham cut men down, and made them all rue the day they kissed a woman and left her lonely.
When a common boy named Pip arrives at the Satis House, Havisham claims she’ll pay the boy to do little chores and amuse her, but it soon becomes clear what her real intentions are. As she wickedly smiles and eagerly urges Pip to love Estella, asking him repeatedly “Does she grow lovelier and lovelier Pip?” while simultaneously encouraging Stella to “Break their hearts, my pride and hope, break their hearts and show no mercy!”, it appears that there is some kind of strange tradition occurring within the walls of this house, and Pip just happens to be caught in the middle of it. Estella slaps the boy and calls him names, insults him for being raised by a blacksmith, allows him to kiss her and then continues to taunt and tease him, all the while laughing mischievously at the little tears that fall from his eyes. Pip eventually confesses his love for Estella, but his admittance is only met with confusion, for she has been reared by candlelight, near an ashy fireplace, filled with cold hate, and unleashed upon the outside world only as a weapon to make men suffer on Miss Havisham’s behalf. She literally has no idea how to love Pip in return. Estella stares at Pip blankly, telling him plainly, “It seems that there are sentiments, fancies – I don’t know how to call them – which I am not able to comprehend. When you say you love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more. You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there”.
There’s something about Pip’s love for Estella that brushes the cobwebs from Miss Havisham’s eyes and allows her to see clearly for the first time in years. Perhaps it’s because unlike all the other self-proclaimed gentlemen courting her young daughter, Pip doesn’t want to own Estella, he just wants to love her. His love burns like the fire that lights Havisham’s sheltered world, and awakens in her something she hasn’t felt in years, back when her compassion outweighed her self-pity and rage. Upon realizing what she has done, Havisham begs Pip for forgiveness, but by then it is far too late -- Estella is already married off to Bentley Drummle, a man so beneath Estella that Pip actually grows less interested in her because he is so disgusted with her choice of a lover: “To the present moment, I believe it to have been referable to some pure fire of generosity and disinterestedness in my love for her….No doubt I should have been miserable whosoever she had favoured; but a worthier object would have caused me a different kind of degree of distress”.
What she did may have been wrong, but through Pip, Miss Havisham learns the error of her ways. Truly, Miss Havisham was just a victim herself. She died the day her husband left her alone with a church full of guests and a veil that would never be lifted, and every moment thereafter was a struggle. Her heart stomped on, his crimes unavenged, she had no choice but to find someone younger and more capable of carrying out the damage she could no longer commit, and to bring justice to not only herself, but to every woman who has ever been lied to, cheated on, thrown out with the trash, disposed of, and forgotten. Miss Havisham still resonates so profoundly today with readers because she did what we could not. She made men pay for their crimes.
Today, we’re lucky enough to be alive in a time when The Beguiled, My Cousin Rachel, and Lady Macbeth, three period piece films with female predators, are all coming out within weeks of one another. However, we still owe credit to the original inspiration behind the woman seeking vengeance in her fancy brooch and lacy frills. Dickens’ lady of the damned has made an eternal impression on storytellers worldwide, and even in today’s fast-paced, consumer-driven, less emotionally involved world, we’re still just using these stories to try to reclaim something that originated in his nineteenth century text – the ability to romanticize infatuation to the point of losing oneself in oblivion. To be so consumed with passion that we’d do anything to retrieve it, to earn it, or to punish it – we’d even render a man so heartbroken that he can actually experience the same amount of destruction that he wields.
Miss Havisham remains one of the most iconic characters ever written for several reasons, but perhaps the most important and most misunderstood trait of the maddening woman withering away in her wedding dress is actually what she represents – romance – or rather, the day that romance died. In a world of instant gratification, news updates via notifications that beep at us from our cell phones, fake friendships forged through social media, and dating sites based on appearances alone, it’s somewhat gratifying to think of a time when a woman could fall in love with a man, be let down by him, and spend the rest of her days bathing in her own tears, drowning in her sorrow, and exacting revenge on his entire sex as reparation. There’s something soothing about the sadness that Miss Havisham allows herself to feel. There’s something human in it. Something we could use more of in today’s hardened world.