Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

This is one of the historical novels by Anya Seton, whose actual name was Anne Seton Chase and who died in 1990.  The book can be characterized as “Gothicism” or as influenced by the “Dark Romanticism” which is represented within Edgar Allen Poe’s writing.  This genre suggests that humans are fated to suffer from impulses that are destructive to their happiness.  Dragonwyck is a mansion on a 19th century feudal estate of the Hudson River Valley in New York.  The estate and others around it are holdovers from the Dutch Patroon system, where the farmworkers and their families were considered as part of the landholder’s property.  

Seton presents Nicholas Van Ryan, the current owner of Dragonwyck, tall and arrestingly handsome, with noble features.  His eyes, instead of being black, are piercingly blue, which effect makes our heroine uneasy, in spite of her admiration.  For this is a story about love.  The book’s heroine is Miranda, a girl brought up on a farm, but one who always yearned for riches and romance.  Van Ryan is her distant cousin, and she has come to Dragonwyck to live for a time, to benefit from her cousin’s patronage and to help look after his young daughter.  

The duckling Miranda is thoroughly awed by all she sees, and although there are hints and dark foreshadowings that there is no real serenity in Dragonwyck’s luxurious surroundings, under Nicholas’ tutelage she begins her transformation into a graceful and beautiful swan.  The fly in the ointment is Nicholas’ wife, Joanna, who having failed to provide a son and heir to the estate, has been essentially banished from her husband’s esteem.  While he is excessively polite to her, he ignores her, and she has consoled herself in eating, becoming enormously overweight.

Seton sets her story in a time of rapid change on this continent, showing the small towns becoming centers of commerce, with trade increasing due to the railroad and the thriving industrial revolution.  The tenant-landlord arrangement of the Hudson manors is doomed to fall, with the tenants waking up and demanding, not asking, for the right to own their land.  Nicholas’ iron will has to grapple with these changes, and with the people around him who do not suit his desires and ambition.  

Miranda is bound by her own ill-fated desire for Nicholas.  Her fate is happier than his, since she will allow herself to bend under grief and disappointment.  Nicholas, who will not yield, must suffer the tragic consequences of his character.  Seton weaves her story well, making Miranda a sympathetic character by virtue of her unreasoning childishness, which seems realistic given her upbringing. 

Dark Gothic undercurrents thread themselves through the narrative.  The old Creole servant tells of a haunted presence in Dragonwyck, and we hear Edgar Allen Poe’s melancholy poem, “Ulalume”, recited by the poet himself, next to his wife’s sickbed. 

For a satisfying excursion into a simpler time, with characters that engage your interest and your emotions, Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck is well worth the read.  Click here for the entry in our catalog. 

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