Well, here I am again, running late and falling short. I have, once more, failed at my objective to read all of my books in the time frame allotted to me by myself. No excuses this time; I just suck. But let’s talk about what I did get to finish, shall we?
We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We Have Always Lived in the Mother Effing Castle. Wow, this is my kind of book. I’m not sure if I’ve referenced this film a million times yet or not, but one of my favorite movies is Stoker by Korean director Park Chan-wook. It’s dark, twisted, unconventional, and incredibly beautiful. I felt all of those things about WHALitC. We enter into the lives of Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood, two young women who live isolated in their large house with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian. The fractured family fell into disrepair after an unfortunate case of arsenic poisoning knocked off the rest of the Blackwoods half a decade ago. Constance, having been put on trail and then acquitted of the crime, suffers from such extreme agoraphobia that she cannot leave the house. Uncle Julian is so much diminished from the poisoning that he struggles to keep one foot in reality.
The town is happy to keep them isolated, making disparaging comments and singing a haunting little nursery rhyme about the murders whenever Mary Katherine comes near. And it is only ever Mary Katherine, or Merricat as she is referred to, that leaves their extensive grounds.
We view the story through Merricat’s point of view via her first person narrative, which is both childlike and vicious. Joyce Carol Oates, among others, has described her as feral. If I were to describe her, I think I would go with psychotic, because that would surely be her diagnosis. Even though she does all the shopping and errands for the household in the outside world, she is the most detached from reality of them all. Merricat’s disjointed thought process and her invented system of superstitions is incredibly off-putting and creates an atmosphere of sharp unease. Imagine you’re going on a hike on a hot day, and suddenly you get to a part of the trail where there are no trees. The June bugs are so loud, and the sun is so bright, and you start getting one of those headaches. That was the feeling I had during this book, that sharp contrast, dehydrated feeling. But I’m going to say that was a good thing.
These three live in their disconnected world, more or less happy but always perfectly balanced so that they don’t plunge back into chaos. That balance is broken when their long lost cousin Charles arrives with secret plans to confiscate the family fortune. He upsets the delicate atmosphere, and Merricat suffers the most. The book culminates with a massive house fire cheered on by the towns people. The mob mentality escalates, and while the young women survive the ordeal, they end up crawling deeper into their isolation.
Like in much of Jackson’s work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an exploration of otherness, persecution, and feelings of isolation. The specifics of this particular novel are said to have been reflexive of North Bennington, VT, where Jackson and her husband lived and dealt with a community of ignorant anti-semites. In the end, Merricat wins even in their destitution. The reality of their situation begins to resemble her surreal interpretation of reality in a way that feels truly sad, especially for Constance.
This is a very short book, and I refuse to tell you anymore about it because I really want you to read it. Once you’ve read it, we can talk about your feelings. WHALitC will go down as one of my all-time favorites, and Merricat, in all her twisted malice, will remain one of my most loved characters.
It was such an interesting comparison to read Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest after We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The two novels felt so different, but ultimately they are both about young women trying to navigate the very real and harsh realities of their surrounding environments in very different ways.
The Romance of the Forest is such a classic Gothic novel. It’s both juicy and tedious. Something that Radcliffe is well known for is her attention to landscape and the surrounding of her characters. This is put to great use when describing horrifying passageways in a run-down and abandoned abbey, but it can be very exhausting when characters are moving from one place to the other. Her writing can be very slow and methodical (not nearly as bad as say, James Fenimore Cooper), and I honestly think if the description in Romance were cut in half it would be twice as thrilling. However, the connection Radcliffe has to nature and the extent to which she writes about it has a direct effect on her heroine, Adeline, who identifies with the forest.
The plot follows lovely Adeline, a young French woman, who, after being horribly mistreated by her father, is rescued by Monsieur and Madame Pierre La Motte, an aristocratic couple fleeing Paris due to charges brought up against Pierre. Adeline is then thrust into a world of danger and mystery that includes a dark wood, an abandoned abbey, a skeleton in a chest, a mysterious manuscript, several romantic interests (one of which tries to kill her), secret identities, hidden fortunes, and at last a happy ending.
This novel is a perfect representation of the classic gothic and romantic genre. Ann Radcliffe was instrumental in defining Gothic literature, and The Romance of the Forest was her biggest commercial success. Gothic romances are interesting in that they were very much a female driven genre in almost every way. Radcliffe paved roads for women, including Jane Austen, in the writing and publishing industry. Women bought and read gothic romances, and the novels themselves usually featured women having exciting adventures and, when all is said and done, being the agents for change in their own lives. At the beginning of Romance, Adeline is the typical damsel in distress, an important trope of the genre. She had been rejected and mistreated by nearly everyone she’s known, but she perseveres and never forgets herself or gives in to the dastardly whims of others. In the end, she turns her situation around and becomes the controller of her own fate.
This evolution in Adeline throughout her journey struck me. Her character could initially be perceived as weak, but I am more inclined to say she is kind. She is naturally loving and trusting, which is evident in everything she does. But when she is presented with choices in her life, she always looks inside herself and picks the one she knows it right for her. This innate self-worth and self-respect is ultimately what gets her in trouble. Instead of just shutting up and letting the men in her life mistreat her, she choses the harder path of opposing them, even when she isn’t given a choice.
One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Adeline is being held captive by the Marquis de Montalt and she decides to escape before being forced into a sham of a marriage (because he wants her lady goods, as usual). She jumps out of her window and wanders around the expansive grounds for what must have been hours, looking for a way out. She keeps moving, despite her exhausting and fear. When her hero, Theodore, arrives to rescue her, she is happy to see him but doesn’t immediately feel safe. He assists her in escaping, but by the end of the novel it is Adeline who saves his life, as well as the life of Pierre La Motte. Not only is she the rescuer, but she is rewarded for the pain she suffers. By staying alive and true to herself, she is able to inherit a rather impressive “legacy,” as they say.
I think both of these novels, being written over one hundred years apart from one another, have a lot to say about women and society. But they also just have a lot to say! If anyone wants to chat more at length about either of these, just hit me up. And if you haven’t read one or both novels, try to pick one up next time you’re looking for a book to dig into.
The next genre I’ll be focusing on is mystery. I absolutely love mystery novels, but there are some pretty glaring omissions to my “read” list. Because my timeline has been adjusted, I will be reading mysteries from March through June, and I’ve cut my list down substantially. If you were daunted by the archaic nature of gothic literature, get ready to have some fun with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Tana French, and newbie Paula Hawkins!