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.


It happened

Last night. The most awful thing. Well, not most awful. But pretty darn awful.

I could not read.

I got into bed, snuggled in for my usual read, opened a book and--gibberish. Couldn't focus on one sentence. Put that down and picked up another. Same thing. Another. Ditto. On and on it went through seven books of various weights, topics, genres.

Just too exhausted.


Let's see what happens tonight.


Who are The Dead?

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

I've been enjoying everyone's comments on this story, and plink-plink, here are my two cents:

The Dead is simply a superb short story, one of the best in the English language. Joyce realizes near perfection (though never strained) in integrating character, imagery, plot and theme. When the ending comes, so eloquently, these elements fuse together with the language for one of the most satisfying and poignant epiphanies ever written. This is what all short stories aim (or should aim) to achieve. I thought I would share insights from a critical text I have on Joyce’s The Dubliners, A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, William York Tindall. This passage also addresses, I think, Kate’s question: Who are the dead of the story?:

…The theme involves the sins of pride, envy, lust, wrath, and the virtue of charity. From conflicts of death and life, lust and love, taking and giving, past and present, self and selflessness knowledge emerges at last and with it the triumph of love. The dead and the living dead lie uncovered for our inspection, but promises renewal. (Gabriel's) New Year may be new indeed. Fixing this moral theme and its implications is important since character, structure, image, and the other elements work together in its service, and to know the many we must know the one. All the parts (even pictures on the wall or Mr. d’Arcy’s cold in the head) seem as functional as the parts of something by Mozart. Wholeness, harmony, and radiance, Stephen’s requirements for any work of art (from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), were never more evident. Like music, but not music, this radiant harmony is both absolute and referential. The Dead is a structure of references or meanings, which, like those of all great literature, are human—not all superhuman like those of Mozart.

He goes on to describe Gabriel's situation at the end of the story:

...His self destroyed, his identity gone, he becomes one with all the living and the dead. This dramatic extinction of personality could be another hopeful sign (of Gabriel's ability to change). No longer Gabriel alone but one with everyone, he may be redy to accept, give, and participate.

The essay goes on in length, and is quite illuminating. I recommend the book for James Joyce readers.


Final Turn of the Screw

In my last (thankfully) look at The Turn of the Screw, I wanted to review James’s device of word repetition. He repeats a number of words or phrases, and I wonder if the repetition adds layers to the meaning.

One example I tracked was the word “innocent,” (or a variation thereof) which appears at least 13 times in the novella, referring to children other than Miles and Flora, individually and together to Miles and Flora and even to the governess herself. Here are just a few of the uses:

The first reference appears during a conversation between the governess and Mrs. Grose concerning Miles’s expulsion from school and refers to other children:

I found myself, to meet my friend the better, offering it, on the spot, sarcastically. “To his poor little innocent mates!”

One, at the beginning of section IX, refers to both Miles and Flora:

Putting things at the worst, at all events, as in meditation I so often did, any clouding of their innocence could only be—blameless and foredoomed as they were—a reason the more for taking risks.

This refers to the governess herself, after seeing Quint peering into the house:

I could meet on this, without scruple, any innocence.

And, the last reference is to Miles:

I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?

Frankly, I am not sure what to make of all this, except that if James used a word 13 times in one novella, he must have had a good reason. Anyone else care to speculate on how James is using word repetition here?