Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

My only experience of pre-Victorian Gothic is Frankenstein. I really didn't know any others. So I had a little Google around and came across this site which contains lists of the Gothic novels read by the Romantics. If it's good enough for Mary Shelley, it's good enough for me, and I picked Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown.

It is apparently the first novel by an American born writer. Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771. According to the short biography of him in the edition I read, he didn't have a very happy life. His father was imprisoned for debt and the young Brown spent a lot of time visiting him in jail. His family wanted him to study law, which he did unenthusiastically. Eventually he gave it up because he wanted to support himself as a full time novelist. He was unable to achieve this and died of tuberculosis aged 39, seemingly very unhappy with his the way his life had turned out.

The Wieland of the title is Theodore Wieland. The story is narrated by his sister, Clara. The Wielands are well-to-do and live in some comfort. Their father dies in mysterious circumstances - a flash of light and an explosion, apparently a case of spontaneous combustion. Wieland inherits the family home, marries the lovely Catherine and has a family of his own. Clara moves to a house close by on the property where  she lives with her servant. Catherine's brother Pleyel also lives close by and they are all very happy together.

Then strange disembodied voices begin to be heard, often giving warnings. At first Wieland and the others seem to find this puzzling rather than frightening. At the same time a new person joins their group, a man named Carwin. Clara is unsure of him, she 'was wholly uncertain whether he were an object to be dreaded or adored, and whether his powers had been exerted to evil or to good.' Carwin is not the social equal of the others, but he is intelligent and well-informed.

The voices become more threatening and malevolent. Clara hears threats to kill her coming from the closet in her bedroom and then later in a spot near her house she hears the same voice;

This voice was immediately recognised to be the same with one of those which I had heard in the closet; it was the voice of him who had proposed to shoot, rather than to strangle, his victim. My terror made me, at once mute and motionless. He continued, 'I leagued to murder you. I repent. Mark my bidding and  be safe. Avoid this spot, shun it as you value your life. Mark me further; profit by this warning, but divulge it not. If a syllable of what has passed escape you, your doom is sealed. Remember your father, and be faithful.'

Their lives begin to crumble as suspicion and mistrust spread. The horror culminates with the murder of Catherine and the children and the dreadful truth of their killer.

I found this story a bit disjointed. Some parts were very atmospheric, particularly those scenes which take place at Clara's home. It is only three quarters of a mile from the main house, but seemed very lonely when the mysterious voices were making themselves heard. But the whole thing didn't hang together very well. The father's death didn't seem to serve any purpose, and the unusual nature of it had nothing to do with what happened later in the story. A young woman named Louisa turns up, and we learn quite a bit about her backstory - but again, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the main story.

So on the whole, while I found it interesting, it wasn't as good as Frankenstein.

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