Miss Havisham

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Miss Havisham
Great Expectations character
Created by Charles Dickens
Gender Female
Family Arthur Havisham (half brother)
Significant other(s) Compeyson
Children Estella (adoptive daughter)
Relatives Pocket family (cousins)
Cousin Raymond
Bentley Drummle (son-in-law)
Nationality British

Miss Havisham is a significant character in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations (1861). She is a wealthy spinster who lives in her ruined mansion with her adopted daughter, Estella. Dickens describes her as looking like "the witch of the place."

Although she has often been portrayed in film versions as very elderly, Dickens's own notes indicate that she is only in her mid-fifties. However, it is also indicated that her long life away from the sunlight has in itself aged her, and she is said to look like a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton, with moving eyes.

Character history[edit]

Miss Havisham's mother died when she was a baby. Growing up, she was spoilt by her father, a wealthy brewer, as a result. He remarried in secret and conceived a son, Arthur, with the family cook.

As an adult, she inherited her father's fortune and fell in love with a man named Compeyson, who was only out to swindle her of her riches. Her cousin Matthew Pocket warned her to be careful, but she was too much in love to listen. On the wedding day, while she was dressing, Miss Havisham received a letter from Compeyson and realised he had defrauded her and she had been left at the altar.

Miss Havisham with Estella and Pip. Art by H. M. Brock.

Humiliated and heartbroken, from that day on, she remained alone in her decaying mansion Satis House – never removing her wedding dress, wearing only one shoe, leaving the wedding breakfast and cake uneaten on the table and allowing only a few people to see her. She even had all of the clocks in her mansion stopped at twenty minutes to nine – the exact time when she had received the letter.

Miss Havisham later had her lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, adopt a daughter for her.

I had been shut up in these rooms a long time (I don't know how long; you know what time the clocks keep here), when I told him that I wanted a little girl to rear and love, and save from my fate. I had first seen him when I sent for him to lay this place waste for me; having read of him in the newspapers, before I and the world parted. He told me that he would look about him for such an orphan child. One night he brought her here asleep, and I called her Estella.

From protection to revenge[edit]

While wishing Estella never to suffer as she had at the hands of a man was Miss Havisham's original goal, it changed as Estella grew older:

Believe this: when she first came, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.

While Estella was still a child, Miss Havisham began casting about for boys who could be a testing ground for Estella's education in breaking the hearts of men as vicarious revenge for Miss Havisham's pain. Pip, the narrator, is the eventual victim; and Miss Havisham readily dresses Estella in jewels to enhance her beauty and to exemplify all the more the vast social gulf between her and Pip. When, as a young adult, Estella leaves for France to receive education, Miss Havisham eagerly asks him, "Do you feel you have lost her?”

Repentance and death[edit]

Miss Havisham is begging Pip for his forgiveness. Art by F. A. Fraser.

Miss Havisham repents late in the novel when Estella leaves to marry Pip's rival, Bentley Drummle; and she realises that she has caused Pip’s heart to be broken in the same manner as her own; rather than achieving any kind of personal revenge, she has only caused more pain. Miss Havisham begs Pip for forgiveness.

Until you spoke to [Estella] the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done! What have I done!

After Pip leaves, Miss Havisham's dress catches on fire from her fireplace. Pip rushes back in and saves her. However, she has suffered severe burns to the front of her torso (she is laid on her back), up to the throat. The last words she speaks in the novel are (in a delirium) to Pip, referencing both Estella and a note she, Miss Havisham, has given him with her signature: "Take the pencil and write under my name, 'I forgive her!'"

A surgeon dresses her burns, and says that they are "far from hopeless". However, despite rallying for a time, she dies a few weeks later, leaving Estella as her chief beneficiary, and a considerable sum to Herbert Pocket's father, as a result of Pip's reference.

Claimed prototypes[edit]

Eliza Emily Donnithorne (1827–1886) of Camperdown, Sydney, was jilted by her groom on her wedding day and spent the rest of her life in a darkened house, her rotting wedding cake left as it was on the table, and with her front door kept permanently ajar in case her groom ever returned. She was widely considered at the time to be Dickens' model for Miss Havisham, although this cannot be proven. Although Charles Dickens had a deep-seated interest in Australia, saw it as a place of opportunity and encouraged two of his sons to emigrate there, the writer never visited it himself, but it features in detail in many of his works, notably Great Expectations itself. He obtained his information on colonial life in New South Wales from two Sydney researchers. He also had numerous friends and acquaintances who settled in Australia who sent him letters detailing curious aspects of life in the colonies, knowing he could use it as source material for future novels. They could easily have conveyed the Donnithorne story to him. Australia features prominently in Great Expectations, and New South Wales is where Pip’s benefactor Abel Magwitch made his fortune.

In the 1965 Penguin edition, Angus Calder notes at Chapter 8 that "James Payn, a minor novelist, claimed to have given Dickens the idea for Miss Havisham – from a living original of his acquaintance. He declared that Dickens's account was 'not one whit exaggerated'." Although it is documented Dickens encountered a wealthy recluse called Elizabeth Parker on whom it is widely believed he based the character, whilst staying in Newport, Shropshire at the aptly named Havisham Court.

Madame Jumel of New York City was known by Charles Dickens and impressed him enough to come up with the basis for Great Expectations; there are many parallels. Madame Jumel received Mr. Dickens at the Jumel Mansion in Harlem, and while visiting she showed him her cobwebbed dining room left just as it was after a night of entertaining Joseph Bonaparte, with petrified leftover food still on the plates. She was eccentric and a dowager with an adopted niece by the name of Eliza, who is a perfect model for Estella. Madame Jumel inherited her wealth from her first husband, a wealthy French liquor importer in NYC (and not a brewer). Her first love was Aaron Burr but, as he was just after her money, he left her when his political career started to gain momentum. She would later marry Burr after the death of her first husband, and Mr. Burr would work his way through much of her estate until their divorce. Madame Jumel spent much time in France and was known in the royal court there. In 1854, she introduced her 17-year-old granddaughter to the Court of Louis Philippe. On her own she created great wealth and was the wealthiest woman in America upon her death in 1865.

Alternate versions[edit]

Miss Havisham's Fire (1979, revised 2001) is an opera composed by Dominick Argento with a libretto by John Olon-Scrymgeour, based on Dickens' character. The entire story is told in flashback during an inquiry into Miss Havisham’s death. The opera gives her first name as "Aurelia".

Miss Havisham is a major character in the comic detective/mystery series of novels featuring Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde. The stories are set in a fantasy/alternate universe milieu, in which characters borrowed from classic literature play a prominent role.

In film and television[edit]

In film adaptations of Great Expectations, Miss Havisham has been played by a number of distinguished actresses, including:

Characters inspired by Miss Havisham[edit]

Both Sunset Boulevard and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? were inspired by David Lean's adaptation of Great Expectations, as were, by extension, the characters of Norma Desmond and Baby Jane Hudson and their homes.[4] In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis compared Norma Desmond to Havisham during his narration.

A character in the animated series Chowder, Endive, has had a similar event to Havisham when her fiancé never showed up on the wedding day. She also has an apprentice, Panini, whom she teaches to avoid men.

In science[edit]

The condition of "The Miss Havisham effect" has been coined by scientists to describe a person who suffers a painful longing for lost love, which can become a physically addictive pleasure by activation of reward and pleasure centres in the brain, which have been identified to regulate addictive behaviour – regions commonly known to be responsible for craving and drug, alcohol and gambling addiction.[5][6][7]


  1. ^ "BBC One – Great Expectations – Miss Havisham". Bbc.co.uk. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 14 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Osborn, Michael (24 December 2011). "BBC News – Great Expectations: Miss Havisham given 'youthful' air". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 14 August 2012. 
  3. ^ Gillian Anderson. "TV blog: Great Expectations: Falling in love with Miss Havisham". BBC. Retrieved 14 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "Sunset Bouulevard". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 14 August 2012. 
  5. ^ Craving love? Enduring grief activates brain's reward center" Mary-Frances O'Connor, et al., 2008 NeuroImage http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811908006101
  6. ^ Perry, Keith (2008-06-28). "Pining for lost love can be physically addictive". Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  7. ^ Selway, Jennifer (2012-12-01). "Charles Dickens' greatest heroine | Jennifer Selway | Columnists | Comment | Daily Express". Express.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-03-25.