Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Dragonwyck, by Anya Seton

The premise of Dragonwick seems very much like that of Jane Eyre--a young woman goes tot he house of a very wealthy man to teac his child and ends up falling in love with him. However, this book adds a completely new dimension to this story outline. The main character is absolutely nothing like the demure, humble Jane, and everyone else is sinister in a way that Charlotte Bronte's characters never could have been.

The book begins in 1844 and ends in 1849, covering the land rent problems the landlords face, the Astor Place Massacre, and the far-away wars in Texas. The Mid-Atlantic is peopled solely with those of old Dutch ancestry, and cattle still live in downtown Manhattan, which is more farmland than city real estate in the mid-19th century. Miranda Welles is the daughter of a poor farmer from Connecticuit. One day the family recieves a letter from a wealthy New York cousin of theirs, the Van Ryns. Nicholas Van Ryn, looking for a governess for his six-year-old daughter, asks the Welles family if they might be able to spare one of their daughters for the task. And so Miranda goes to New York, a place much finer than she had ever expected it to be. Van Ryn is of old Dutch stock that came to America two hundred years before, and are landlords and adherents to the old way of living, a way that is quickly disintegrating.

Upon arriving at the family estate, Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the Lady of the House, the corpulent Johanna. It is clear that Nicholas is no longer in love with his wife, and his attentions turn toward Miranda, who is his cousin by marriage. The book has an omniscient narrator, with intervals in which various minor characters interject their thoughts and feelings (the French Count's are the funniest and most astute). Vvery quickly, Miranda notices something discomfitting about the house, despite its beauty. All the members of the blood line of the Van Ryn family can hear the ghostly cries of one of their ancestors, and Miranda can feel that ancestor's presence in several areas of the house. Upon Johanna Van Ryn's death, under suspicious circumstances, Nicholas immediately proposes to Miranda, though they must wait a year to allow for mourning. Nicholas comes back to her exactly as promised, and they marry. But there is something not quite right with their marriage; Nicholas has a tendency to turn away from distressing situations--or he faces them and does something foolish. It is clear that Nicholas's moments of tenderness towards his new wife become few and far between. Added into the mix is a country doctor, Jefferson Turner. A local man who supports those who are trying to overthrow the manorial system, Jeff has an intense dislike, yet an admiration for Van Ryn. He also develops feelings towards Miranda, who increase as the book progresses.

One thing that I liked about the book was the number of contemporary authors who had cameos. We meet, briefly, Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. By the way, it is from the latter that Nicholas acquires a foul habit that will affect him significantly later on in the book. In sum, I thought this was a wonderful book, though not on the same level as Katherine and Green Darkness. Nevertheless, its not difficult to see why Seton's books are being reprinted; they're truly wonderful novels in the gothic style.
Also reviewed by: Reading Adventures

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