This 1944 American Gothic novel is in the same category as Annemarie Selinko’s Desiree for me: I’m glad I got round to reading it but I wish I’d got to it sooner, because I would have enjoyed it a lot more in my teens.
Dragonwyck follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre and Rebecca as far as plot and tone are concerned. Farm girl Miranda is catapulted into high society when her wealthy cousin Nicholas van Ryn employs her as a governess. Like Seton’s later, historical heroine, Katherine Swynford, Miranda finds herself attracted to a man who married for convenience and whose wife is portrayed as deeply unattractive. Nicholas is desperate for a son and heir and when it seems he will never get one from his wife, his eye falls on Miranda. Has she scooped the jackpot or drawn the short straw?
Anya Seton has constructed a powerful story with a fascinating background – the final overthrow of the patriarchal and paternalistic manorial system imported by Dutch settlers – but she occasionally allows detail to overwhelm the action and introduces too many minor characters who have little to do other than observe the drama unfold. The narrative is powered by the strong chemistry between her two central characters. Nicholas is pretty clearly a sociopath in a socialite’s clothing (I lost sympathy with this type of Byronic abuser some years ago, so the book was less appealing to me on that score). I did like Miranda though. She is young, naive, in love with everything money can buy and a bit in love with herself. But I couldn’t blame her for preferring life at Dragonwyck to a life of toil and childrearing at the farm. She pays the price for her luxury lifestyle and grows up a lot in the course of the book.
A Gothic novel is like a Victoria sponge – stick to the time-tested recipe and you can’t go wrong. Dragonwyck has all the right ingredients – a haunted mansion, a young girl in peril, a hero, an anti-hero and plenty of atmosphere. The Hudson River setting gives it a more unusual flavouring and introduces the theme of the emergence of American society from its European antecedents, politically, socially and artistically. Nicholas’s Gothic Revival house is a powerful symbol of the bad old ways which have to be rejected in order to create the brighter future the characters look forward to at the end of the book.
I borrowed my copy of Dragonwyck from the library.