A Gothic scholar I follow on Twitter mentioned Dragonwyck quite recently, which recalled giddy memories of swooning at the suspense and romance and delicious clothes as an early teenager, probably too young to be reading about abusive relationships shrouded (at least initially) in glamour. But then again, I read Jane Eyre then too. So I ordered cheap secondhand paperback off Awesomebooks, and read it in a night.
Miranda is a pretty farm girl with aristocratic aspirations, in Connecticut in the 1840s. A distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, a darkly handsome and enigmatic patroon on the Hudson River with his own mini-fiefdom, invites Miranda to his manor Dragonwyck to be a semi-governess to his daughter, the result of an arranged marriage with Johanna, a woman who has lost her figure and her looks. Nicholas’s first wife may be present in the drawing-room rather than hidden in the attic, but she’s described in monstrous, grotesque terms, clearly presented as an unfeeling obstacle to the true love of Nicholas and the slender Miranda. Dragonwyck is haunted by Mohican legend as well as the unhappiness of its first mistress (in the Red Drawing-Room, ‘Miranda shifted uneasily in her seat, and the formless discomfort mounted within her until between one second and the next, it ceased to be discomfort, and she knew it for blind unreasoning fear’ (44)).
And yet, despite her uneasiness, and the hostility from Johanna and the servants, Miranda contrives to enjoy herself–there are new dresses (‘there were two silk dresses, one green with black velvet trimming on the flounces, one a rose evening gown festooned with blonde lace’ (51)) to appeal to her vanity, and balls, and interests beyond her previous wildest dreams, and her growing hero-worship of Nicholas. Nicholas, however, is possessed by his pride in his lineage and his belief in his own absolute power over his possessions, including his land, his tenants, his wife, and his young cousin…
In her foreword, Seton notes that ‘There was, on the Hudson, a way of life such as this, and there was was a house not unlike Dragonwyck. All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time confined to English castles or Southern plantations!’ Indeed, there is an explicit attempt to invoke a Northern American Gothic heritage–Edgar Allan Poe appears, for instance, to introduce Nicholas to opium, and the tension between the wild landscapes of New York state and the sophistication of the wealthy contribute to atmosphere. Seton tries to ground her melodrama within the social and scientific developments of the day (steamboat racing up the Hudson, the invention of ether as an anaesthetic). Nicholas and his tenants are a throwback, an anachronism in the age of progress, an age of free (white) farmers in the New World; ultimately Miranda has to decide what world she wants to live in.
Things get resolved a little too neatly, I think, and Miranda’s character development is fairly formulaic (and infused with a sort of New England Christian work ethic versus Old World decadence subtext), though it’s easy to pity her predicament. Dragonwyck is beach-read-Gothic, if there is such a thing; it’s sweeping, melodramatic, and eerie, and a bit silly at times (there’s a random French count whose perspective we get for no apparent reason).
(CN: fatphobia, sexual assault, attitudes and language regarding race reflect the time in which the novel was written and the period in which it is set)