Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

Dragonwyck - Anya Seton Sorry for neglecting my blog recently…I’ve had a busy two weeks at work and haven’t had much time or enthusiasm for blogging. Luckily I have a week off now and will be able to catch up on telling you about all the books I’ve been reading, beginning with this one, Dragonwyck, which I read for the R.I.P challenge.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, having been a fan of Anya Seton’s for years and also being a lover of both historical fiction and gothic novels. Dragonwyck is a combination of both – it includes some typical gothic elements (mysterious deaths, a mansion with haunted rooms and an old servant who tells tales of ghosts and curses) but it also has a fascinating and thoroughly researched historical background.

One day in 1844 Abigail Wells, wife of a Connecticut farmer, receives a letter from her rich cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, offering to take one of her daughters into his home as a governess for his own young daughter, Katrine. Eighteen-year-old Miranda is the one who is chosen and she is thrilled to be given this opportunity to improve her situation in life. Nicholas is the Patroon (landowner) of a large estate called Dragonwyck in Hudson, New York, and after growing up on her parents’ farm the naïve and romantic Miranda is immediately captivated by the handsome Nicholas, his luxurious home and his aristocratic lifestyle.

Soon she becomes aware that she is falling in love with Nicholas and is sure he feels the same way – the only problem is, Nicholas is married. When tragedy strikes at Dragonwyck, Miranda’s life is transformed again, but this time she begins to uncover some of the house’s dark secrets and to learn the truth about her mysterious cousin Nicholas. As Anya Seton explains in her author’s note introducing the story: “All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations…”

As a gothic novel I didn’t find Dragonwyck particularly creepy – although it’s certainly a very dark book, with an oppressive, unsettling atmosphere. But the real attraction of this book for me was its wonderful historical setting that gave me some fascinating insights into areas of American history I hadn’t read about before. We learn about the Patroon system, for example, which began when landholders in the Dutch colony of New Netherland were given power over large areas of land, similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. This led to an uprising of the tenants known as the Anti-Rent War and this forms a large part of Dragonwyck’s historical backdrop. We also learn about the Astor Place Riot during William Charles Macready’s performance in Macbeth and about the steamboat captains who would race each other on the Hudson River with total disregard for the safety of their passengers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

There are also a few brief appearances by real historical figures, most notably Edgar Allan Poe, but these felt as if they had been woven naturally into the story rather than name-dropping for the sake of it (in fact, the Poe episode does have a significance to the plot which only gradually becomes apparent later in the story). The main focus though, is on the three main fictional characters – Miranda, Nicholas and the doctor, Jeff Turner – and you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of those three, because to attempt to explain why I liked or disliked each character would risk giving away too much of the story.

I did enjoy Dragonwyck but not as much as some of Anya Seton’s other novels (and I don’t think it really comes close to the brilliance of Jane Eyre or Rebecca, two books that it has been compared with). I do love reading ‘older’ historical fiction novels like this one though, as they seem to somehow have a completely different feel from modern ones. This book was published in 1944 and there’s a film too from 1946 with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. I haven’t seen it, so I’d be interested to know what it’s like and how faithful it is to the book.

As well as this book, I have now read Katherine (one of my favourite historical fiction novels), Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Devil Water. If there are any of her others that you think I should look out for, please let me know which ones!

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20 thoughts on “Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

  1. Natalie says:

    I’ve actually wanted to see the 1946 film of Dragonwyck for some time, as Gene Tierney is one of my favorite Old Hollywood stars, but since I heard about the book, I’ve been debating whether or not to read it first. You’ve definitely sold me on the book; it sounds fascinating! I’m also interested to learn more about that historical time period, as I don’t know too much about it.

    • Helen says:

      It’s been on my list for a few years now and I’m glad I’ve finally had a chance to read it. The setting was wonderful and touched on a lot of aspects of American history that I’ve never read about before.

  2. Leander says:

    Good heavens, Helen, you’ve done it again. This is on my shelf right now waiting to be read! How is it that you so often manage to be one book ahead of me? 😀 I daren’t read this until I’ve got through it for myself… but I shall be back to see what you think in detail when I’m done. Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed Katherine, so I hope this is as good!

    • Helen says:

      Really? What a coincidence! I hope you like it. Katherine is by far my favourite of Seton’s books and I don’t think any of her others come up to quite the same standard, but I’ve found them all enjoyable and well worth reading.

  3. Lisa says:

    As I was reading, I thought, this sounds familiar – but I was remembering the film! I’ve never seen the whole thing straight through, though it also has Walter Houston, one of my favorite actors. I don’t know that I even knew it was a book first!

    I hope you enjoy your week off!

    • Helen says:

      I don’t usually have much interest in watching adaptations of books, but I think I would like to see this one. And thanks, I’m enjoying my week off already!

    • Helen says:

      She doesn’t seem to be all that well-known anymore, which is a shame as her books are great. I consider Katherine to be one of the classics of the historical fiction genre and would highly recommend it!

  4. Alex says:

    I know that ‘Avalon’ is sitting on my shelves somewhere and Seton is an author that a number of my friends enjoy. Perhaps I should take it off my shelf:)

  5. heavenali says:

    I can remember reading Anya Seton years ago when I was probably in my teens. I loved all that gothic romance. Dragonwyck does ring a vague bell so I think I might have read it.

    • Helen says:

      I wish I had read Dragonwyck when I was a teenager…I did enjoy reading it now as an adult but I think I would have loved it when I was younger.

  6. Christina says:

    I’d definitely recommend the film version of Dragonwyck! It’s largely faithful to the book, but the ending was quite different. I mean, it was essentially the same in the solution to the mystery, but some of the mechanics were different, if that makes sense?

    I really loved Katherine as well, and I have Green Darkness on my shelves somewhere.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear the film is good and mostly stays faithful to the book! I don’t like it when they change the story too much, but I don’t mind a few differences.

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