Describing a Memorable Character: Miss Havisham

Well, is later than I planned, but it is still the 30th of October, (PST), so I’m going to finish my posts for “Characters in Costume.” And next blogfest, I won’t arrange a birthday party for one of the days of the event. 🙂

We looked at the minimalist and medium approaches to describing s character, and today I wanted to clever the detailed option, where you give enough info for a casti director to either love you or hate you forever. We find just such an example in “Great Expectations,” where Dickens describes Miss Havisham.

Pip has just been shown into a room where he spies a lady’s changing table…and at it, a most unique lady.

file5271263166456 by gwaddell

“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.

“It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre 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 waxwork 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, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me.”

Here, we have all the physical details we could possibly want. Armed with these paragraphs, we could draw the character and know that we’re getting it right, based on the author. We have the hair color, the eye color, and all the particulars about the costume, which get further elaborated later in the chapter.

“It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

“So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust.”

Now, this doesn’t leave the reader with a lot to imagine on their own; everything’s already there, so there’s no creative collaboration. It’s a bit more like watching a film, and while some readers will relish such details, others will just glaze over or skip it. Yet I do think that Dickens handles this method as well as he can. It’s clear, using concrete details instead of generalities and it includes a number of poignant metaphors (comparing Miss Havisham to a waxwork, a skeleton, and a corpse), which makes it stay with the reader, yet it is a lot of page time spent just on one image. However, because Miss Havisham is such a main character in “Great Expectations,” this is time-well-wasted, but it could easily be overwhelming in a different sort of book or with a less pivotal character.

This is my third contribution to the “Characters in Costume” blogfest. You can find the rest of them here, on the recaps for the first,  second, and third day.

Thanks everyone for participating! I greatly enjoyed it.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by gwaddell, Creative Commons

6 thoughts on “Describing a Memorable Character: Miss Havisham

  1. I think I usually do glaze over physical descriptions, though I have to admit that Dickens does it in such a riveting fashion in this case – no wonder it feels like all the films one sees are a bit of a letdown in comparison.

    I wonder if directors prefer less detail in a book they are adapting?

    Do you have a preferred style when reading a book? The minimal, the middle? I used to think I preferred the minimal, but after reading you series of posts, I’ve realized that perhaps it depends on the book. Perhaps if I’m glazing over a physical description, it’s not because I don’t like the method so much as it was badly done. 🙂

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  2. I often complain about too much detail in a book, but I love Dickens’ writing so much he could burble on forever and I’d still be hooked. This is a great description, though despite its length it always leaves me with questions – did she undress at night? Did she never have her clothes laundered?? What about her underwear??? And would that silk stocking really have survived all these years to just be a bit ragged? I think perhaps I’m overthinking… 😉

    I’ve enjoyed your comparisons – I’m sure I’ll be paying more attention to see how authors do it in the next few books I read.

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    1. I think those are great questions; I think maybe Miss Havisham just slept at the changing table. 🙂 And if she doesn’t go anywhere, her silk stocking might’ve survived, but one would think her hair and bodily smells would be overwhelming. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t go into that kind of detail. 🙂

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