A Gothic Novel Come True: “Dragonwyck”

Happy early three-day weekend, Persephoneers! This week, we’re going to kick off the unofficial summer with a movie that’s based on a book that’s perfect for summer reading, or for watching during those severe summer thunderstorms. This week’s pick is “Dragonwyck,” made in 1946 and based on Anya Seton’s novel of the same name.

A movie poster for "Dragonwyck"

In 1844, young Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), who lives on a farm in Connecticut with her family, is invited by distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) to live at his magnificent home on the Hudson River, Dragonwyck. Nicholas’s family is a very old one and goes back to the Dutch patroons who colonized New York before the British took over. Miranda is to act as governess to Nicholas’s young daughter, Katrine. While her father is reluctant to let her go, the headstrong, romantic Miranda sees this as her chance to be something more than a simple farmer’s wife. Using the family tradition of picking out a Bible verse that will help in making decisions, Miranda convinces her father to allow her to accept the invitation.

Miranda is charmed and enthralled by the erudite, handsome Nicholas, though she finds his dismissive attitude toward the tenant farmers on his land unsettling. She quickly adjusts to life in the house as a governess and gets on well with Nicholas’s wife, Johanna. But it is during the annual kermess – in which Nicholas’s tenants pay them their rent – that Miranda gets a good look at how Nicholas treats the farmers on his land. It is here that she also meets the local doctor, Jeff Turner, who takes a liking to Miranda, but despises Nicholas’s treatment of his farmers. Later that evening, while attending a ball that the Van Ryns are hosting at Dragonwyck, Miranda gets a taste of the scorn the landowners have for their tenants when the guests make it very clear that she isn’t welcome to associate with them.

Gene Tierney as Miranda.
Gene Tierney as Miranda

But things take a strange turn for Miranda. Johanna suddenly dies of a cold she has been trying to fight off, and Nicholas is strangely relieved, since he had been very unhappy in his marriage to Johanna. He asks Miranda to marry him, since he has been in love with her from the moment they first met, and Miranda, thrilled despite the grim circumstances, accepts. To maintain appearances of propriety, the engagement is kept secret, and Miranda returns home. Two months later, Nicholas comes to ask Miranda’s parents for her hand in marriage, and after her parents consent, they are married in a simple civil ceremony.

Miranda is overjoyed to be married to Nicholas, because for her, it is a dream come true. She likens herself to the heroines of the romantic novels she read as a young girl. Once she was a simple farmer’s daughter, now she is the wife of a very powerful, wealthy man who is a scion in the community, and now she is the chatelaine of a glorious house. She has overcome the odds, found true love, married her handsome, brooding hero, and will live happily ever after. But much like those Gothic romances, things aren’t as rosy as they seem, and she suddenly begins to see that there is a certain darkness under the facades of her husband and of the house itself. And she must find some way to overcome it, before it consumes her.

 

Vincent Price’s role as the dark Byronic hero is a mainstay of the film, and you can see how this helped put him on the track for the later roles he took in horror movies. Gene Tierney’s ingenue role as Miranda is believable and endearing, and she elicits compassion from us as we watch her soar to happiness, descend into despair, and yet still remain strong as she begins to see what kind of man her husband truly is yet stubbornly maintains a grip on her own sanity. The onscreen interactions between the two are flawless; they both very easily convey how each feels about the other at different stages of Nicholas’s and Miranda’s relationship. While the onscreen romance doesn’t have the same charm as their characters did in “Laura,” you can really see why they were cast together in more than one film. Jessica Tandy, Walter Huston, and Harry Morgan round out the film in supporting roles, helping to flesh out the different worlds Miranda and Nicholas moved in and emphasize the differences between man and wife. However, since I read the novel before I saw the movie, I will admit that the movie ending was a little bit of a let-down.

Vincent Price as Nicholas

While “Dragonwyck” is a Gothic historical romance, much in the vein of “Rebecca” or even “Gaslight,” there are also other factors that add to the tension of the plot. We have the differences in class between the landowners and the tenant farmers, as well as the struggle between Nicholas’s love of autocracy on his land and the desire for more democratic rule among the tenant farmers. Like many of Anya Seton’s novels, which are well researched, the story has much historical fact woven into it, and the discontent of the tenant farmers only adds to the growing tensions between Nicholas and Miranda and the gradually approaching sense of dread you get as you flip through the pages to the climax of the novel. This is not well handled in the movie, nor is the platonic friendship between Jeff and Miranda, which could possibly lead to something more. Instead, the end leaves many questions unanswered and without a sense of hope for the futures of all those involved, although the book very satisfactorily handles it.

Nicholas and Miranda

So if you want to add this to your long, hot summer-reading and movie-viewing list, this is a good start. It’s not too fluffy, nor is it too sappy, but it has just the right amount of romance, suspense, and historical fact to keep your mind buzzing and you on the edge of your seat. Let’s leave the lighter stuff for the dog days of August. “Peyton Place” or “Valley of the Dolls,” anyone?

Also – and this is just my personal opinion – doesn’t Vincent Price make an excellent broody, darkly romantic hero?

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