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.
Miss Havisham's mother died when her daughter was a baby. Her father, a wealthy brewer, spoiled their daughter as a result. When he died, he left most of his money as inheritance for her.
As an adult, she 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. At twenty minutes to nine on their wedding day, while she was dressing, Havisham received a letter from Compeyson and realized that he had defrauded her and she had been left at the altar.
Humiliated and heartbroken, Havisham had all the clocks stopped at the exact point in which she had learned of her betrayal. From that day on, she remained by herself in her decaying mansion, Satis House, never removing her wedding dress (as a result of being in the process of getting dressed when she receives the letter, she only has one shoe on), leaving the wedding cake uneaten on the table and only allowing a few people to see her.
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.
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 prettify her all the more, and to exemplify all the more the vast social gulf between her and Pip. It is this that drives Pip to ultimately agree to become a gentleman, and when, as a young adult, Estella leaves for France to receive education, Miss Havisham eagerly asks him, "Do you feel you have lost her?”
Miss Havisham is repentant 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, as a result of Pip's reference.