Monday, August 14, 2006

When the Romance Novel Was Fine Literature: Anya Seton's "Dragonwyck"

Anya Seton was a bestselling author in the forties and fifties and her books are still delighting readers today. In fact, Chicago Review Books recently published new editions of a half dozen of Seton's best. Although she has been remembered primarily by readers of romances, Seton's genre was historical fiction of a broader, more mature kind. She herself preferred the term "biographical novels" to describe her work and there have been comparisons of her achievements to those of Thomas Costain and even Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Bronte's and Jane Austen.

Having little enough experience with Anya Seton's body of writing, I don't know if these comparisons can hold up but, having just finished Dragonwyck, I can at least say that it was a tautly written, thoughtful and moving novel. The book is kinda' Gothic in mood but it is certainly not a mere romance novel. It doesn't fall into traps of maudlin emotion nor does it give way to extended descriptions of mysterious or amorous scenes. No, its effectiveness is more like a "morality play" in novel form, a realistic parable that is well crafted and full of historical detail about the period.

That period, by the way, is the 1840's and the setting is primarily upstate New York. The story involves a beautiful (but flighty and self-occupied) farmer's daughter who leaves her Conneticut home for life with a wealthy relative. Her subsequent adventures, her tragedies and eventually her reclamation provide the plot, but along the way are several examples of Anya Seton's well-researched historical material. They include social themes like America's nativist movement and the struggle of anti-renters against the feudal landlords of New England; appearances by James Fennimore Cooper, Martin van Buren, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and others; and events like the Astor Place riot and the sinking of the Henry Clay steamship.

It was a very enjoyable book (especially for this lover of history and fine literature) and it will almost certainly be among my year-end suggestions for the Notting Hill Napoleons' next booklist.

But before I close, here's a few more notes on Anya Seton ---

* Seton was given the name "Ann" when she was born in New York City in 1904. She didn't start using "Anya" until trying to get something published as she thought the more European sounding name might attract interest.

* Her parents were quite wealthy. Her father was naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, the founder of the Boy Scouts of America. Her mother was Grace Gallatin, the travel writer.

* There were two movies made from Anya Seton novels. Foxfire (starring Jeff Chandler -- a hard one to locate) and Dragonwyck, a 1946 movie that has been widely praised as a Gothic classic. It starred Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Spring Byington, Harry Morgan, and Jessica Tandy.

* Anya Seton's own life was nearly as turbulent as some of the characters in her books. For instance, before reaching the age of sixteen, she had made at least 8 trans-Atlantic crossings, met many celebrities (including H.G. Wells in Egypt) and assisted in an autopsy in a French hospital. She was married at 19 at a ceremony which had over 1,000 guests in attendance. She didn't begin writing until in her 30's as a twice-married mother of three children.

* Finally, there is very interesting information on the Seton family (Ernest, Grace and Anya) here, here and here.