Drawn by the antique cover and the peculiar name, I stumbled upon “Dragonwyck“, a gothic romance novel that tells the story of Miranda Wells, an 18-year-old farm girl in the US during the mid-nineteenth century.
The author Anya Seton set the story in 1844 when Miranda seized a rare chance of escaping the ordinary and expected lifestyle of her father’s farm to go to Dragonwyck manor, the world of her distant and aristocratic cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn.
Following the customs of their little society at the time, Miranda was pushed by her father to start a family and get married to a devout, traditional middle-class husband. Societal views of this 19th century American maiden is not so different to me than some views of modern women in Egypt.
We all know how coming of age can be a stressful time for Egyptian women. Suddenly everyone in society will be preaching you to get married, start a family, and not to be picky about any potential suitors. Any well mannered and hard working man should be fine. I could see all of that in the story of a 19th-century American teen.
Things, then, changed when Nicholas sent a letter to the Wells family addressing Miranda’s mother, Abigail. In the letter, Nicholas asked her to select one of her daughters for an extended visit at his manor to teach his 6-year-old child Katrine, smuggling offering the Wells daughter “advantages which she could not hope to enjoy in her present station.”
Even though the story is set in the year 1844, I perceived it as a guide for young women on important life choices and lessons of self-worth, which appeared to me vividly in Miranda’s encounters with the high society.
Miranda has a life-changing stay at Dragonwyck, and she goes through an evolution and comes to cherish her modest way of living at her home farm, which she formerly despised. Her pursuit to find glory in the far mansion resulted in really appreciating true life’s values after daunting events and cruel life lessons.
The author intelligently weaved significant events and characters from the US history into the storyline. In one chapter, the main characters went on a visit to the house of the renowned writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the entire plot revolved around the breaking down of an unexpected feudal system in the US, where generations of “patroons” used to own lands and rent them to generations of farmers.
While I thought many of the chapters to be unnecessarily prolonged and lacked hooks, by the middle of the novel the story finally gripped me and kept me guessing and rooting for specific characters. It would’ve been much better if there were more hooks distributed throughout the 316 pages of the novel though, not just the second half.
Jefferson Turner, a doctor who admired the middle class and despised the gentry was my favorite character. Jefferson fiercely supported the cause of abolishing rent and allowing the farmers to own land. He’s a man who loved his job because he liked to serve people and be helpful. Jefferson represented a righteous voice in the novel with a strong sarcastic sense of the rich people and their lifestyle.
The upper class was portrayed as cold and stiff. The class of workers and farmers, on the other hand, was shown to be kind and welcoming. Perhaps this generalization isn’t entirely true, but this concept is relevant to everyone in all societies I believe. Being rich will not necessarily make you happy. It’s like a proverb we hear all the time, in this novel I saw justifications of how this is true.
Set in an era before abolishing slavery, the book unsurprisingly lacked representation of black characters except for doctor’s turner assistant, a woman who barely escaped slavery at another state.
Also unsurprising, the author went to lengths at describing Miranda’s astonishing blonde beauty, white -almost transparent- skin color, and her waist-length blonde curls. I thought this portrayal of the protagonist was a naive and disappointing selection until the final few pages. There was a pleasant turn of events for me which I will not spoil for you, any potential readers.
I specifically liked the depiction of ways of life in the 19th century before technology dominated every aspect of our life. People used palanquins or horses as methods of transportation. Books and newspapers were exclusive ways of entertainment and gaining knowledge, and going to watch exceptional plays at a theatre was the high society’s way of spending a good time.
Even though some of the description of the gothic mansion decors’ was hard for me to grasp and relate to, it nevertheless sent a chill down my spine over the repetitive emphasis of the chambers’ vastness and black furniture. The novel also unveiled a curse that was concealed within the Van Ryn bloodline, successfully adding to the dim nature of the novel’s privileged characters.
Another aspect of the novel that I really liked: it didn’t go into sexual details — at all. I believe this was the case only because it was written in 1944, which was a seemingly conservative time, nonetheless, it made me comfortable reading the book and I appreciated how the writing focused on historical storytelling, explanation of complex characters’ feelings and choices rather than a cheap depiction of sexual intercourse.
I discovered there was a film made in 1946 about the novel carrying the same name. I found the film incredibly disappointing compared to the book. In the film I did not feel the same depth I found in the novel.
If you would like to read about a significant time in the US history within a story of a young woman’s empowerment, and if you’re nostalgic to a simpler life in the 1800s, then this is the book for you.