Thursday, October 16, 2014


He was all sin and mystery, and Miranda feared the pleasures he offered as she feared the fires of hell. Yet when she succumbed at last, it was not because her body was weak but because her mind was curious.

Beginning in the 1940s, American author Anya Seton began writing historical romances.  Her subjects ranged from Katherine, the wife of John of Gaunt to Elizabeth Fones, niece to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Her works would go on to influence many later writers, including Phillipa Gregory.  Her 1944 novel Dragonwyck is set a hundred years earlier when a still young American nation was trying to determine exactly what constituted true freedom.

The Plot:

Miranda Wells is a young woman who has spent her entire life on the family farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  She chafes at her family's humble life and yearns to find adventure outside of the farming community.  She gets her chance when her mother receives a letter from a distant relation, Nicholas Van Ryn, who asks that one of her daughters come and live at the family estate known as Dragonwyck and become a governess for his daughter, Katrine.  Miranda gleefully accepts and is soon taken with the handsome and cultured Mr. Van Ryn, though his wife is anything but welcoming.

Life at Dragonwyck is different from anything Miranda could have expected.  Not only is she out of her depth in this grand society, but there is also a dark and mysterious presence that seems to haunt the house.  When tragedy makes a way for Miranda to attain the life she has always dreamed of, she finds that neither Nicholas nor Dragonwyck are truly what they seem.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This is just one of those books that rings all of my bells.  Historic setting...check.   Mysterious house with a Gothic touch...check.  A magnetic and dangerous love interest...check.  Though it isn't great literature in the way a Bronte novel is, it was still very enjoyable.  It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's works.

The historical setting for this was very fascinating.  I had no idea that there was an almost feudal land system in America until I was introduced to this story.  This system was left over from the Dutch settlers of early New York and forced the tenants to pay the "patroon" in goods and services.  It is against this dying system that Seton sets her story.  Like the plantation owners of the South, Nicholas refuses to believe that his way of life will ever come to an end and he cannot understand why his tenants would want the change.  Seton doesn't just use historical settings in her novels, but also historical figures.  Writers like Edgar Allen Poe and James Fenimore Cooper make appearances in the story without it a jarring effect on the reader.

Though we see everything through Miranda's eyes, it is Nicholas who drives the story.  His personality is forceful and magnetic, and though you are never able to come to love him like you would Mr. Rochester or Maxim de Winter, you can't hep but be interested in him.  It is pretty obvious from the beginning that his relationship with Miranda has all the marks of an abusive one.  Nicholas is the type of person who believes that he can have anything he wants by sheer willpower.  But fate is the ultimate master and Nicholas must watch as the things he values most in his life are taken from him one by one.

As I said, this book had so many of things I love in my reading life.  If you are someone who likes historical romances or Gothic stories, this one is for you.  It has some fascinating aspects that will make it hard to put down.

The Movie:

I was introduced to this story by the 1946 film starring Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, and Anne Revere.  It follows the book pretty well though it does end differently.  Vincent Price is simply masterful as the polished yet ruthless Van Ryn.  Great for classic film fans even if you don't read the book.

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