Thrills and Frissons, Gothic Style

dragonwyckDragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages

I kept the lights on till 3 a.m. yesterday (or should I say today?) to finish Dragonwyck by Anya Seton. I’ve written just a handful of reviews this year, though I started on quite a few, but it seems only the ones that get written spontaneously and completely off the cuff get to see the light of day, while those I set to write as ‘proper’ reviews seem to remain in draft limbo forever. I had a phone conversation today with my mum who lives in France, and when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, her request was for more regular blog posts (our family, such as it is, has never gone for Holiday Shopping Madness, as you can see) so I took the hint and decided I might as well start today. Though I don’t promise I’ll be posting every day, I will try my best to do so at the very least once a week or more. In any case, while there are those few other reviews I’ve written and posted on Library Thing recently which I will also post here very soon (not to mention those I really do want to write, or finish writing), here is the catch of the day:

This novel felt like a delightful guilty pleasure. To set the tone, it opens on the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, Alone:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

This is an unabashedly romantic, creepy story set in the 1840s with overblown characters who are almost parodies of themselves, including a Byronic male anti-hero in the form of Nicholas Van Ryn; a male paragon of dark good looks with disconcertingly piercing cerulean eyes; descendant of a long line of immensely wealthy Dutch landowners, who is the current ‘patroon’ of a large tract of land along the Hudson river and the developing city of New York. Nicholas, the archetypal control freak, fully occupies the role of domineering master and self-contained enigma who keeps all those around him in a state of fear and dread of his ever shifting moods. The innocent and unsophisticated Miranda is the submissive heroine who falls into her distant cousin Nicholas’ clutches when he invites the young maiden to Dragonwyck manor with a view to form the erstwhile farm girl into a proper society lady. She leaves her strictly devout father and hardworking mother and siblings to their small farm and poverty to fully embrace the kind of lifestyle she has so far only read about in novels. She eagerly takes to the life of splendour and luxury and doesn’t too much mind being a nanny to Nicholas’ little girl. She falls under his spell the moment she meets him, with his alluring combination of physical beauty, irreproachable courtly manner, and fabulous wealth, but there is also the not so small matter of keeping in the good favours of his wife, the morbidly obese Joanna, who insists on treating the girl like a servant. There are of course macabre secrets contained in this vast gothic mansion, though (tiny spoiler, which any observing reader will have figured out early on:) Nicholas himself is the novel’s dangerous enigma. Some of the core events which provide the framework for the novel are based on historical facts, such as the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre and a great steamboat race which is closely modelled on a competition undertook by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his eponymous steamship in 1847.

My edition contains an afterword by Philippa Gregory, who claims Anya Seton probably didn’t realize how strongly influenced by Jane Eyre she was in this, her second novel, but I beg to differ. Surely it can’t be an accident that her heroine, just as innocent and meek as Jane Eyre, comes to live in the capacity of governess in a great gothic house complete with what may be a haunted Red Room and a repulsive first wife . There are other parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s novel I cannot mention without revealing spoilers, but while I don’t mean to imply Dragonwyck is in the order of masterpieces such as Jane Eyre is, it definitely makes for a good helping of thrills and frissons, delivering a hearty dose of unabashedly Gothic horror and romance (not to mention a visit to Edgar Allan Poe and his dying wife’s impoverished household). For all these reasons, I count this novel among the most entertaining I’ve read this year.

3 thoughts on “Thrills and Frissons, Gothic Style

  1. Your review is excellent, and has convinced me not to read the book. It is not my style of reading and the characters would drive me up the wall, just as I could never finish Anna Karenina. Keep up the reviews. Sooner rather than later, you will write about a book I will want to read.

    • Peter, I’m glad I’m helping you steer clear of this one, as I have no doubt it’s not at all your cup of tea. Anna Karenina was for a long time one of my all-time favourites, but now there are many more. There’s bound to be at least one or two book reviews of mine to tempt you eventually considering the sheer numbers of books I read in a year (nearly 140 to date) and how varied my reading tastes are…

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