Feeling confined? Suffering from a bit of cabin fever? Getting Stir Crazy? While we shelter in place, we have an excellent opportunity to find new OR reconnect with outstanding, thought-provoking, uplifting, and entertaining old books and movies.
Yesterday, I was channel surfing, searching for something that would keep my on the treadmill, and I ran across that marvelous old movie, Dragonwyck. Many years ago, I’d read the book written by Anya Seton in 1941, and made into a film in 1946. The movie starred Vincent Price and Gene Tierney (gosh, she was so-o-o beautiful).
This is a deliciously gothic tale of life in 1844, on the upstate New York estate of Nicholas VanRyn, a fictitious member of the very real “Upper Ten” New Yorkers, as described by a leading journalist of the time, Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam.[i]
The story begins at the home of independent farmers, Ephraim and Abigail Wells, and their children in Greenwich, Connecticut. A letter arrives from Abigail’s rich and powerful cousin, Nicholas VanRyn, who admits that he has looked into her background and decided that she and her husband are worthy and of good character, even if only farmers. He invites Abigail to send one of her daughters to him to be a companion and governess to his eight-year-old daughter, assuring her that the girl will receive every advantage that his wealth and position can provide.
The Wells must decide whether or not to send either Tabitha, who has no desire to leave the farm, or Miranda, who spends her time daydreaming of a different life. Miranda, of course, very much wants to go. Ephraim relents despite his misgivings, and Miranda is allowed to go the VanRyn home, where she becomes enchanted by Nicholas and his wealth.
Miranda realizes that something is amiss in Nicholas’s relationship with his wife Joanna, and both are both distant from their daughter, Katrine. From the servants, Miranda hears that the VanRyn bloodline is cursed. It’s rumored that the VanRyns hear the harpsichord played by the ghost of Nicholas’s great-grandmother Azilde whenever misfortune befalls the family. These stories, however, do not dampen Miranda’s obsession with Nicholas and his wealth.
Soon after her arrival, Joanna dies and Nicholas quickly marries Miranda. It is only after marriage that she begins to see the strange, dark side of his character. Now begins the big reveal of murder, madness, and the road to the final tragedy.
In the movie, the pretty pictures in Miranda’s head begin to fracture when Nicholas objects to the woman she’d hired as a personal maid because she limped, but when Miranda tells Nicholas that she is pregnant, he gives in. After the birth of their baby boy, Miranda demands that her son be baptized immediately because of his defective heart. Nicholas objects but in the end allow it, and just in time. The baby is christened and dies in his mother’s arms, and Nicholas’s personality becomes more sullen. Life at Dragonwyck becomes stranger, and more threatening.
Anya Seton’s inspiration for the story was the historical framework of the “manor system,” the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre, and the steamboat races on the river, that often resulted in crashes and deaths. It was all part of life on the Hudson, with its brand of Yankee gothic and ghosts, and where there existed houses and mansions “not unlike” Seton’s Drangonwyck.
The atmosphere in the book is set immediately with Edgar Alan Poe’s poem Alone. From childhood hair, I have not been as others were—I have not seen as others see—I could not bring my passions from a common spring. The opening lines describe both Nicholas and Miranda. He for his hedonist/atheist dark madness, and she for her discontent with the life to which she was born.
Seton uses some of the major conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century in her story. In both the movie and the book, Nicholas’s tenant farmers are ready to rebel against his feudal control; their discontent is woven throughout the book. Nicholas, however, insists that he would never relinquish the lands that had been in his family since they arrived in America.
In the Hudson Valley Magazine, David Levine explains. “Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt.” Farmers began to question why, after their ancestors had fought for freedom 50 years earlier, were they still held under the yoke of another European master.” [ii]
Seton also uses The Astor Place Massacre of 1849 as a major turning point in Miranda’s and Nicholas’s story. By May, 1849, Miranda is in a constant state of anxiety trying to please Nicholas. While in New York City, they go to the theater with friends on May 10. The great actor William Charles Macready is starring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When they arrive a mob has already formed in front of the theater. At the end of the play, the theater manager tells the audience to exit through the back doors and they would be led to safety. Nicholas refuses and seems frighteningly elated by the prospect of bloodshed. He insists on exiting through the front doors, “the same way they came in.”
Nicholas involves himself in the fight and is wounded. After the incident, he and Miranda return to Dragonwyck, where he becomes more morose and distant, spending most of his time in his tower room. Nicholas’s and Miranda’s marriage and their lives together disintegrate, and the story climaxes, as it must, in an attempted murder and death.
Although the movie takes certain liberties with the story because it cannot delve deeply into all of the author’s characterizations and historical events, it hits the major points well, and Vincent Price as Nicholas is the outstanding performer. Both the movie and the book are well worth becoming (re)acquainted with while confined to home.
In addition to Dragonwyck, if anyone is interested in the Astor Place Massacre, I highly recommend Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots, which I intend to re-read while sheltered in place.
Stay well, and stay safe!
[i] https://www.history.com/news/before-the-one-percent-americans-resented-the-upper-ten (accessed 3/30/20) [ii] https://hvmag.com/life-style/history/history-of-americas-other-revolution-the-anti-rent-wars/ (accessed 3/30/20)