Gothic: The original chick-lit? - RIP Challenge #4 - Dragonwyck, Anya Seton

Atmosphere: Romantic

Chill factor: Definitely pelerine weather

Is gothic the original chick-lit?

This speculation occurred to me after finishing Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck. The whole RIP Challenge has awakened an interest in gothic literature: how the genre started, what constitutes gothic, the genre’s history. I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon a whole new area of literary study (for me).

I’ve learned, for example, that Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, is considered the first gothic story, and that Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, from 1794, first combined gothic and romance. Apparently, from these books spawned gothics of various stripes, from Jane Austen’s spoof in Northanger Abbey to the Bronte sisters’ psychological gothics, straight on through to Anne Rice’s vampire stories, which (I presume) combine horror and gothic elements.

In between all of that came Dragonwyck. First published in 1944, Dragonwyck is considered a classic gothic romance. While I admittedly am not quite sure what that means, I would guess that, once Ann Radcliffe, in the throes of the Romantic period, merged gothic and romance, the genre pretty much belonged to female authors and readers. And maybe gothic-for-men became crime/detective/horror fiction. Certainly a gross generalization, and I’d really be interested in other views on this.

For some reason, the whole question of what constitutes genre is piquing my interest as of late. (Perhaps it was BikeProf’s discussions of pulp over at The Hobgoblin of Little Minds. ) Why do literary genres form? For reader convenience? From social trends? Both? Do genres hurt or help fiction in the long-run (i.e. do they inhibit creativity or do they in fact inspire new developments)? Wish I could speculate further (and with much more pep)…well, when I’m not as harried, I will do more research and further posts.

As for my enjoyment of Dragonwyck—ultimately, I did enjoy the book. I found it difficult to accept the book within its conventions (I’m not a fan of romance or historical fiction), especially the overt descriptions of character motivations and emotions. As a reader, I’d prefer to discover these things through action and dialogue. And despite my pronouncements on the ambiguity of Henry James, I don’t enjoy the neatly wrapped-up ending, as Seton employs here. But, around about the 160-page mark, the story hauled me in, and as the novel neared its end, I found myself unable to put the book down. Seton certainly captured the essence of the period (1840s) and place (Hudson River environs), and she did evoke the whole something’s-not-quite-right-here atmosphere requisite for a gothic novel.

Now, ever the fussy kitty, I have to say that I can’t understand why on earth the heroine Miranda fell for Nicholas. So he was rich and handsome. Big deal. He was a jerk. I was immediately rooting for Dr. Jeff Turner, the doctor-cum-humanitarian. I realize that’s a convention of a gothic romance (heroine falls for rich unattainable jackass until she comes to her senses and runs off with the nice Everyman, conveniently with the jackass’s money), but if I could have slapped Miranda through the pages, I would have.

Update on yesterday’s freak-out: Last night I read one of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Yes, I had to reread several pages a few times, but I did it. The whole episode really pissed me off. Because I feel myself slipping away. I want my zippy, smart voice to come back. I want to have lunch. I want to be able to appreciate a cultural event higher than who wins Project Runway. Something will change soon, by gum, or my name isn’t The Literate Kitten. Gerrrowwwwlllll.


Jessica said...

Sometimes everybody needs a vacation. Switch things up...read a little mindless drivel for a couple days. I suggest The Truth About Diamonds by Nicole Ritchie. If that doesn't find you running back into the arms of literary giants, I don't know what will.

BikeProf said...

Good questions about Gothic and Chick lit. There is some significant overlap, for a number of reasons. My answer will be so long, though, that I think I should write a post about this.

Carl V. said...

Oh I think gothic is definitely the original chick lit, for sure.

CourtneyGrace said...

Great post, and interesting to think of gothic as the 'first' chick lit. Maybe because it explored traditionally forbidden themes? Hmm. You definately have me itnerested in reading Seton, which is saying something after a long week!

Courtney said...

Opps, through in my middle name there...I.Am.So.Tired. Sorry!

LK said...

Courtney, great comment about forbidden themes. I have to do more research, but I think you are onto something. (And, hey, you can throw in any ole name you want...)