Background: It has been theorized that, cinematically, the Gothic genre had a revival in the 1940s due to World War II: stories targeting the anxiety of women marrying men they barely knew or husbands returning home from the war “not themselves” tapped into the national zeitgeist. It seems pointless to complain that this week’s selection borrows a bit too freely from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (or going back another century, from Jane Eyre) because everybody else was, too.
It was a trend that continued well into the next decades, most notably on TV where the daytime soap “Dark Shadows” started out with the same premise before evolving into something much weirder, what with the vampires and Frankenstein-monsters and werewolves and double-secret time traveling staircases into the past. In fact, I originally picked up this book assuming it had been published to cash in on Dark Shadows-mania, only to find on closer inspection that the book preceded the TV series by a full decade. Maybe inspiration flowed in the opposite direction: the similarity between the two still remains striking.
The Plot: The books open with farmhand Willie running screaming up to the main house on the estate:
“A skilliton!” he kept saying. “In that field we haven’t ploughed since the war.” Then he began to sob. “My plough turned up the head, if you please, sir.”
This causes Emma, the newly-married mistress of the house, to recollect at length how she met her aloof and secretive husband and how she came to live at Manderley. I mean Collinwood. I mean Courtlands. Sorry, it’s hard to keep track of which mysterious gothic estate I’m reading about.
Emma, a sensible 20ish Londoner, had been living with her Aunt Deb (naturally, having been orphaned at an early age) and working in a clerical position at a women’s magazine when she gets the break of a lifetime when there is an outbreak of influenza in the office and she is the only one well enough to conduct an interview with famed “tall, broad-shouldered, decisive, virile” mystery writer Barnaby Court. After some verbal sparring during the interview, Barnaby sweeps Emma off her feet:
“You are not to everyone’s taste to be sure. You have green eyes and a temper. That would be a challenge to some men, of course. And you are not always beautiful. You have moments. My dear, shouldn’t you eat more?”
Well, I’ll give credit where credit is due: E.L. James is up on her goth-tropes.
After a whirlwind courtship, Emma and Barnaby are married seven days after their initial meeting (“‘I only waited this long so that you would get to know me,’ he explained.”); Aunt Deb advises Emma to “Love him but don’t trust him” which is unhelpful but appropriately goth-y advice. Whenever Barnaby starts to bring up something of his past Emma protests that “the past is past” and she doesn’t want to hear about it. She’s seems to be fine with the fact that neither of Barnaby’s brothers show up for the wedding, although she is somewhat ruffled when one of Barnaby’s old girlfriends stops by their table in the restaurant afterward and is confused when Emma turns out to be neither “dark and beautiful” nor named Josephine.
However, Barnaby has some explaining to do the next morning: a caller to his (now their) London flat claims to be Barnaby’s 8 year old daughter. They won’t be going to Madrid for their honeymoon after all. Barnaby is the father of not just one, but twin girls from his marriage to dark and beautiful ex-wife Josephine, who has conveniently disappeared into the jungles of South America instead of picking up the kids from boarding school for the holidays. Oopsie:
“Don’t say I that never told you about them. I started to one night and you wouldn’t listen, as you know very well, and then somehow they didn’t seem anything to do with us. I pay their school fees, of course, but Josephine has always had custody, and I hardly know the little brats.”
Obvs, Emma totally understands how this is all her fault somehow and reassures Barnaby that these omissions are amongst his most charming traits:
“I love you when you do extraordinary things like not telling me you had a wife and two children.”
So, instead of Spain it is off to Courtlands instead, Barnaby’s country estate which is packed to the rafters with supporting characters. In addition to the twins, the reader is introduced in rapid succession to his brother Rupert, a George Sanders-ish playboy recently sworn to the straight and narrow after his engagement to a Scottish aristocrat whose family will advance his political ambitions; eldest brother Dudley, (as his name suggests) the pathologically shy dud of this family of ladies’ men; Mrs. Faithfull, the housekeeper, who still treats Dudley like a small boy; Angelina, the maid who keeps dead bats in her apron pockets and practices witchcraft (???); and Willie, Angelina’s husband, who seems like he would be used to things like “skillitons” after so many years of marriage.
And then there are Maggy and Dina, Barnaby’s surly and neglected offspring. Forever playing pranks and performing spells to (successfully) drive off their governesses, they are not impressed by their father’s choice of wife, and plot to wear down Emma’s resistance when it comes to leaving Barnaby’s past in the past by constantly dropping hints about their father’s involvement with the last departed governess, Sylvie.
Enter Miss Pinner, sent over from the employment agency to mind the girls, who immediately start putting dead rodents in her bed. Miss Pinner seems to be made of stronger stuff than previous governesses and is determined to stay, especially once Doofus Dudley seems to take a shine to her.
And then the Mysterious Happenings start mysteriously happening. In the attic, Emma feels that She Is Not Alone; Miss Pinner claims to have seen a face floating outside her window; Emma receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be Sylvie, who wants to meet Emma in secret, but then does not keep the appointment. This all climaxes with Willie finding “the skilliton” out on the back forty, which despite its advanced decomposition, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the first Mrs. Court, who upon closer consideration, does not seem like the kind of woman who would join an expedition up the Amazon…
Despite weighing in at a trim 192 pages, this book is extremely tedious. I dare any modern reader to get through it without constantly muttering “Now, really, Emma!” every time our heroine crafts yet another elaborate explanation for her mysterious husband’s mysterious behavior.
Now, in the mid-century Gothic model, there are two ways that the story can be resolved. Either the naïve young second wife’s suspicions are proven correct and there is indeed something seriously amiss with her new husband (see: Gaslight) or it turns out that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this mysterious behavior (see: Rebecca, Suspicion). Unfortunately for the reader, in this case it turns out to be one of the latter category, and Barnabas, I mean Barnaby, is just so virile and broad-shouldered that he’s not good at communicating things.
Dudley, on the other hand, has been up to a lot of murdering in his spare time. Mrs. Faithfull reveals his complicated and boring familial line (it involves a strumpet in a red velvet turban that briefly ensnared Barnaby, Sr.) by way of explanation; luckily, at that very moment a marble statue falls on Dudley, keeping him unconscious until Scotland Yard arrives.
And who turns up alive and well? Josephine, who is exactly the kind of woman who would set out on an expedition up the Amazon. She brings the girls a parrot and was planning on taking them to Venice, but then Emma all of sudden wants to take them to Madrid on her and Barnaby’s long-delayed honeymoon. Josephine does not seem all that broken up about being usurped:
“Seems as if I’m superfluous,” Josephine commented. Then, in her unexpected way, her face became alight and she exclaimed in excited rapture, “Now Harry and I can go right ahead with our next expedition. We’re planning to go Tibet. It should be madly amusing.”
Sounds like Josephine was threatened with the twins’ “death candle” one time too many. I can’t really blame her for wanting to get to another hemisphere as quickly as possible.
Sign It Was Written in 1957 Department: After all of the excitement over the finding the dead body, Dr. Emma prescribes: “Hot milk and bread and jam, and then an aspirin each to make you sleep.”
The Gift For The Child Who Has Everything Department: “A small expensive monkey.”
The Final Word on Miss Pinner Department: “She rather fancied herself as a botanist.” Clearly, she is doomed from the start.