By Anya Seton
Published 1944 by Houghton Mifflin
One-Sentence Summary: Miranda Wells falls in love with and marries a rich landowner, but finds her ideals and her life in danger as she comes to know her husband.
How I Found It: Library bookfair.
The Setting: The setting makes this book unique.
Beginning in 1629, Dutch settlers who moved to the American colonies and brought at least fifty families with them were granted deeded tracts of land along major rivers. These lands were called patroonships and the men who such lands were called patroons. Patroons had similar rights as lords in feudal times. The Revolutionary War decreased their rights, but tenant farmers were made to pay exorbitant rents on lands that they had no option to purchase. In 1839, the Anti-Rent War/Anti-Rent Movement commenced, lasting until 1852, affecting politics and leading to the downfall of tenant farms. You can read more about patroonships on Wikipedia.
Dragonwyck’s antagonist Nicholas Van Ryn is a patroon in the 1830s. Times are changing and farmers are beginning to fight for their rights. He does not care about the problems faced by the farmers and is in denial that a revolution is on the way.
I had never heard of patroons before reading Dragonwyck, which appears to be the most (and only?) prominent novel to deal with this situation.
Add to this a gothic mansion at a large river estate and you’ve got a great place for a novel of historical fiction!
The Narrative: Third person limited from Miranda’s point of view.
The Story: Miranda Wells leaves her father’s farm in Connecticut to work as a companion for the child of prominent, prosperous relations, the Van Ryns, at their Hudson Valley estate, Dragonwyck. Though warned by her father not to become accustomed to a lavish lifestyle and to stay true to her Christian upbringing, Miranda can’t help but fall in love with Dragonwyck, and with the married, moody Nicholas Van Ryn. Upon the sudden death of his wife, Nicholas confesses mutual love and admiration, and it seems that they will live happily ever after. With more than half of the novel remaining, this is not to be.
The Characters: The main character is Miranda Wells, a country girl who is dissatisfied with her life and all the marriage prospects in Greenwich, Connecticut. Nicholas Van Ryn believes himself to be infallible and as powerful as a monarch in his kingdom of Dragonwyck. Dr. Jeff Turner cares about his poorest and richest patients without being too good to be true. Thrown in are spooky household staff, a haunting, and some of history’s notables, including Edgar Allan Poe.
Themes: spiritual and religious conflict, the journey from youth to maturity, ghosts, revolution, depression.
The Best: Miranda was a very well-developed character. Her desire to leave a small town and experience the benefits offered by high society was as realistic as how she recoils from her life as the despised lady of the manor who is forced to conform to a hateful way of life.
The Worst: Dragonwyck reminds me in some ways of Rachel Field’s All This, and Heaven Too, which I reviewed in December. Both books take place, at least partly, in New York, both deal with social upheaval, and both feature female characters who are enchanted with a way of life and the male who introduces them to it.
Dragonwyck, unlike All This, deals primarily with imagined characters, but both have cameo appearances by prominent artists of the day. I sometimes feel like historical fiction is weakened by ordinary characters interacting with notables. In All This, the acclaimed opera star Rachel and members of the Booth acting family appear, but as the novel is based on historical people and events, this was successfully executed. In Dragonwyck, the inclusion of several notables in the plot seems forced at times. At first I was concerned that the meeting between the Van Ryns and Edgar Allan Poe would seem contrived, but the scene plays out well enough. Still, it was one of my least favorite scenes of the novel.
Of Note: Anya Seton was a popular writer of historical romance, and another of her novels, Foxfire, was adapted for film.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by 20th Century Fox
Review: Dragonwyck is a good movie that largely follows the book, but there are missing scenes. I’m a little sorry that this one was shot in black in white. It works that way, but it would have been nice to see the colors at and around Dragonwyck.
Differences: There are typical differences between the book and the movie, but I was impressed by how the film followed the book in terms of mood, character, and plot.
In the movie, almost all of the action takes place at Dragonwyck (it feels like half to two-thirds in the book), and only one scene is in New York City (in the book, the Van Ryns spend an extended amount of time there). Jeff Turner never visits Greenwich in the movie, but he’s very present throughout the movie at and around Dragonwyck.
The ending is more dramatic in the book, and I am sorry it wasn’t filmed as it was in the book. Little can be said without giving either ending away, but my interpretation is that the finish of the book was not in compliance with the part of the Hollywood Production Code and had to be changed for a 1940s audience. I’d love to see a miniseries of Dragonwyck in the accurate manner of HBO’s Mildred Pierce, though perhaps not as lengthy.
Cast: The movie has an all-star cast. I know that’s common in 1940s movies, but I think listing some of the performers and saying that they are all excellent in Dragonwyck should be adequate: Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Glenn Langan, Anne Revere, Spring Byington, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan (of M*A*S*H fame).
Awards: I couldn’t find anything about Dragonwyck had been nominated for any awards, which I think is a shame, because it’s as good as its contemporary films. If you know otherwise, please leave a comment.
A Later Scene (spoilers, but captures the mood):
Your comments appreciated!
Later this month on Reel Old Reads: Junior Miss by Sally Benson.