Among the easy correlations to make between Rebecca and Dragonwyck are the darkness and Gothic nature of both homes where the majority of the action is set, the aloofness of both main male characters, the hint of murder and tragedy. I suppose that these are characteristics of gothic romance as a whole, however it is a genre that I have not personally read a lot of so these were quite striking to me.
Miranda Wells, an 18-year-old farmer's daughter, is, one afternoon in 1844, suddenly invited to live at Dragonwyck, the Hudson Valley estate of her distant relative, the great Nicholas Van Ryn. Falling under the strange and passionate spell of both the mansion and its owner, she becomes part of Dragonwyck, with its gothic towers, flowering gardens, acres of tenant farms, and dark, terrible secrets.
In this exquisite and compelling novel, Anya Seton, with her customary attention to detail paints a marvelous portrait of an America torn between ideals of freedom and feudal traditions. We meet not only the poor tenant farmers at Dragonwyck and the European royalty that visits there, but in finely crafted New York City scenes, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and the Astors. Above all, Seton masterfully tells the heart-stopping story of a remarkable woman, her remarkable passions and the mystery and terror that await her in the magnificent hallways of Dragonwyck.
I wasn't really quite sure what to expect from this novel when I started it, but almost from the beginning I was drawn into the story, in fact surprisingly so, given the broad generalisations that are given to our main characters. When we first meet our heroine, the very naive and innocent Miranda Wells, she is reading a romance novel instead of completing her farm chores. Our first glimpse of our villain, Nicholas Van Ryn, is of a very charismatic, dashing, darkly handsome man, whose wife, the unfortunate Johanna is a gluttonous, extremely overweight woman. Our first glimpse of her is as she asks Nicholas if he remembered to bring her pastries for her from New York.
Miranda has just received an invitation to act as the governess to the Van Ryn's child. The Van Ryns are distant relatives on her mother's side. Her father, the dour Ephraim, is not keen for this to happen, but through a tricky manipulation of The Test, where the family bible is opened at a random page, to pick a verse and see what light it adds to the matter under consideration, the decision is made that Miranda is to go. She therefore sets out for the brightness that is New York City in the 1840's, where Miranda feels completely inept and out of fashion in what she had felt were her smartest and most fashionable clothes.
After meeting the dashing Nicholas, she is literally swept up river on a paddlesteamer, fearing greatly as the paddlesteamer races against another steamer during the trip. Here we get our first real glimpse of Nicholas, a man who appears to be extremely passionate about things like paddlesteamer racing, but who also vacillates between tremendous charisma and terrible internal darkness.
As we progress through the novel we are introduced to the big issues of the day. The rights of tenant farmers to own their own land for example, the looming war with Mexico, issues of which Miranda is completely in ignorance about. Miranda is introduced into a world where she doesn't belong, feeling completely out of depth, and not being accepted by any, it seems, except Nicholas, despite her ethereal beauty and her lovely new wardrobe.
Eventually, Nicholas' wife dies, and Miranda is sent back to her home, but she goes with a secret. She is betrothed to Nicholas, and once the obligatory year of mourning is over, he will be coming to claim her, which he does, much to Ephraim Well's consternation.
So Miranda returns to New York, and during this time we see short glimpses into New York's social scenes with visits to Edgar Allan Poe, who Nicholas greatly esteems. However it seems that part of the reason that Nicholas wanted Miranda is that he can mould her into his perfect wife, a woman without her own social networks (Nicholas actively discourages her from making any friendships with anyone), her own opinions, existing only to appear to be perfect to all around her, a sign of his own power and control.
Of course, if there is a heroine and a villain, then there must be a hero, and in Dragonwyck, our hero is Doctor Jefferson Turner, the doctor from the nearby town of Hudson. Dr Turner is a man of many faces. Not only is he a doctor, he is also very involved in the movement to allow tenant farmers to own their own land, and in due course he also goes off to fight in the Mexican war. If there is a shortcoming in any of the major characters, then Jeff is probably it. Whilst he is likeable, and integral to the plot, his growing attraction to Miranda is not given a terrible lot of page time, maybe because the fact that an attraction to a married woman was something that wouldn't have really been talked about openly when the book was first written.
Another thing that is not talked about much compared to if this novel had been written today is that of the marital relations between Miranda and Nicholas. There are hints of violence at various points in the novel, particularly as we begin to see the disintegration of Nicholas Van Ryn the man as he descends into his own personal darkness with chilling results.
Overall this is an entertaining read that kept me engrossed from beginning to end, giving glimpses into both people and events from New York and America in the 1840's. I look forward to tracking down more of Anya Seton's books. Some of her more popular books are currently being rereleased with forewords by popular historical fiction author, Philippa Gregory.
This review originally appeared at Reading Adventures in March 2006