I blame it all on Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I truly do. As a young girl, my mother regularly received, in a neat cardboard box, a bound volume of best sellers that had been abridged for some unknown reason. I still have the one that introduced me to Victoria Holt – it was Kirkland Revels – and that was all it took for me to race off into the realm of the modern gothic romance.
In order to be considered a gothic tale, the plot has to be twisted and turned, the hero has to be one of those Byron-esque brooding types, and the poor central character must make a series of choices that leads to certain doom.
For this little foray into the #36in12 (by the by, I am quite behind in my quest), I have selected three gothic novels that are no more than 75 years old. I figure, in literature terms, the works are in their infancy of life. Some, sadly, fell along the wayside and into the bargain bin years ago, but they hold a soft spot in my heart.
Rebecca (1938) by Daphne DuMaurier
DuMaurier has to be the Queen Mother of the modern gothic. I had sworn off this book numerous times, resisting it’s pull into the darkest of all places – the human heart. Next door to that, Manderley. The have been many positive and negative reactions to our herione-who-must-not-be-named but I had a kind of sympathy for a former version of womanhood. The second Mrs. de Winter is an everywoman character – struggling with poverty, lack of self-worth, awkwardness, and dependence. Much has been made of her terminal introspection but I recall vividly being twenty-one. It was much the same for me. Still, she had a sad sort of reflected glamour as she was a paid companion to a horrid woman and spent a while in Monte Carlo – back when Monte Carlo was the place to be. There she meets our brooding hero, who promptly sweeps her off her feet, marries her out of hand, and plunks her down in Cornwall – at Manderley. The lush, rich, velvety texture of the descriptions lay traps for the reader and we wander from tapestry-hung halls to stone cold dread. The first Mrs. de Winter has never left the place, although she has long since been dead. Rebecca is not a real ghost,though, but a larger-than-life character who seemed to be conjured up in people’s minds in any way she needed to be. A chameleon, she infests Manderley and its environs, and she-who-must-not-be-named is tilting at windmills until she learns the vile and wicked truth, which, naturally, cements her love. Never short of self-sacrifice, the nameless everywoman endures, although I cannot say she triumphs. Would that I could.
It was a dark and deep read – one to cozy up to on a winter’s day with nothing better to do than listen to the wind squall and pet the dog. Not, I would say, a book for drinking wine. Rather, for the first half, a cup of cocoa with a dash of peppermint. For the second half – whiskey, straight up. The break-neck speed of the denouement is at utter odds with the rising action which, lacking much action, relies heavily on some of the most evocative descriptive work I have ever read. I have to say that I missed much, having picked up and put down this book about a thousand times in favor of something with a bit more action in the rising action. Rebecca will stand the test of time and probably will never fall off the radar of books that simply must be read in every woman’s life.
Which leads me to my next entry:
The Bride of Pendorric (1963) by Victoria Holt. Victoria Holt was actually not Victoria Holt, nor even Phillippa Carr, nor Jean Plaidy. Actually she was Eleanor Hibbert, born in England in 1906, which makes her a contemporary of Daphne du Maurier. But, for clarity’s sake (and my sentimental fondness), I will call her Victoria Holt. She was a lady who, perhaps, had too many names. While I have not been an exhaustive student of her body of work, I did give all the work done in the 1960’s and early 1970’s a good go. The Bride of Pendorric is, perhaps, my second favorite of her books – the first being Menfreya in the Morning. All that being said, the twists and turns of the Bride are fast and furious. Favel Farrington meets Petroc Pendorric on the storied island of Capri, where she is the studio manager for her artist father. She is 18 years old. Why are they all 18? Like any good gothic heroine, she is swept immediately from her feet and married out of hand and, once again, is shunted off to Cornwall to become a resident of the ancient Pendorric estate. Favel has done little research on her new family, being so wildly in love with the most handsome Cornishman on the block, so to speak. She possibly should have, since her father mysteriously drowned shortly after her wedding, leaving her a penniless orphan. Still, she is swept into the world of the Pendorrics, who, it seems, are quite prone to twins. Roc’s mother was an identical twin. Roc is a fraternal twin. His sister, Morwena, has identical twin daughters. Any good reader of gothic literature knows that there will be some serious twinscapades going on and they do. All the elements are here: the seductive nurse hovering over an elderly, wealthy neighbor, a pounding sea at every turn, mysterious violin music floating down from an uninhabited wing of the house and general terror at every turn. Favel treads the waters of Pendorric in somewhat of a calm manner, navigating through suspicion, death, trickery, and distrust until a blazing fire makes everything clean. At times I wanted to slap Favel and at times I wanted to hide her away from the evil the apparently only happens in Cornwall. I cared about what happened to her and that was a trick that Victoria Holt did really well for a long time – she created characters that I cared about. Holt went on writing and writing and writing, since she was three or four authors all at the same time. Her charm wore thin after a while and now she is to be found in old library rummage sales and on E-Bay. Not a giant of literature but a marvelous beach read with a big umbrella drink.
I have to step away from gothic heroines for a moment, because they seem so very helpless and go to the male version of a gothic romance:
The Walking Stick (1967) by Winston Graham, who is better known for his Poldark series set in Cornwall (where else?). I also blame this book on the Reader’s Digest Condensed books because it was included with the volume that had Kirkland Revels in it. Sometimes, I think I am the only person in the world who has read this book and has a violent, passionate attachment to it. Graham abandons Cornwall and its ghosts and moors and vicious seas and sets his stage in London, where Deborah Dainton works for a large auction house similar to Christie’s. Deborah fits the gothic heroine mold in some ways – she has a distinct limp due to childhood polio, her parents are terribly modern and much too busy with their own lives to take much interest in anything but sheltering her from her infirmities, her sisters are beautiful doctors, and Deborah walks with a stick, does not drive, and works in the basement of the auction house, cataloging tiny valuables. It is no small wonder that she is swept off her foot by Leigh Hartley – a sort of 60’s Byron-type – a flashy artist who is full of secrets. He is nothing that the upper crust, uber-cool parents want for their daughter and she valiantly tries to fend off his advances, but to no avail. Abandoning the marriage-out-of-hand method, Leigh manages to get Deborah to move into his other-worldly artist’s warehouse loft on the Thames, where she feeds the swans that swim to their balcony and he deftly reels her deeply into plots and plans about which she had no notion. Deborah comes a long way with Leigh, learning to drive, to dance, to ice-skate, and to walk without her stick. But that progress comes at a terrible price. As Deborah pays the price, she keeps that stiff upper lip that is so very British, while the lifeblood drains from her heart and, ultimately, her life as she has ever known it. Deborah is a victim and she is not a victim, much like any Cornwall captive. Her demons are in her own soul and they prey on her equally as much as the first Mrs. de Winter preyed on the second. No glory for this little book. It probably had it’s best day when Reader’s Digest proposed to crop out those boring character details and get straight to the heart of the matter. I found my copy years ago, at a library rummage sale, and have never seen one since. If you see it in a dusty library, give Deborah a chance. She takes gothic and makes it cool. Perhaps this is best read in the corner of a quiet bar, with a cosmopolitan at your side – as you lift your eyes from the page to take a sip, your eyes will search for the Leigh Hartleys in the crowd.
I spent much of my youth losing myself in that other-worldliness of gothic romance. They are a comfort and a curse to me as I struggle to maintain one readable copy for just the right drink.
The Bride of Pendorric 7/10
The Walking Stick 9/10