Nobody who reads the novel ever forgets her first appearance in Chapter 8, in which her decrepitude is so richly and evocatively described.
To Pip’s childish eyes, she at first seems like a fairy-tale witch - half-waxwork, half-skeleton, garlanded with jewels but surrounded by stopped clocks, dust and mould: I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow.
‘Beggar him,’ Miss Havisham instructs Estella, when Pip plays cards with her for the first time, and she gets her wish inasmuch as Pip goes on to become hopelessly and miserably infatuated with someone who is emotionally cauterised and incapable of loving him back.
But Miss Havisham isn’t the ruthless creature that she has vowed to be, and as which Dickens perhaps at first conceived her.
Even in Dickens’ own lifetime, critics and readers were complaining that he didn’t understand women.
Yes, he could create magnificent grotesque caricatures such as Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit or meekly simpering virgins (invariably described as ‘dear’ and ‘little’) such as Esther Summerson in Bleak House. Dickens is not a novelist to whom one looks for ‘realistic’ representations of any sort of ‘ordinary’ human behaviour, male or female, but alongside his black grotesques and white virginals one can also point to some very acute characterisations of women painted in other strong colours: Nicholas Nickleby’s dippy mother, for example, or the bitter and frustrated Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield, or the blinkered philanthropist Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.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.“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her! You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets.I was better after I had cried, than before--more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” ― “Love her, love her, love her! You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with.Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.Once for all; I love her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me, than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.” ― “That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been.But for anything beyond monsters or paragons, for the grey areas of ordinary female psychology, explored in all their subtle shades by his contemporaries George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, Dickens had no feeling. Dickens may never have succeeded in portraying any woman with a depth equal to George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke or Trollope’s Glencora Palliser, let alone Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,.But who else could have imagined Flora Finching (Little Dorrit) or Miss Flite (Bleak House)?Estella’s coldness breaks Miss Havisham’s heart a second time.(This episode, incidentally, is very similar in tone and temperature to passages in Chapters 30 and 37 of Dombey and Son, written twelve years before Great Expectations, in which Mrs Skewton rails at her daughter Edith, whose cynical marriage to the wealthy widower Paul Dombey she has herself connived at.