Wednesday, March 4, 2015

*Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush

Oxford University Press, 1992
originally published 1812
194 pp


This story may have just been the Mommie Dearest of its day.  Forget evil stepmothers -- the mother in this book is about as nasty as they come. If ever there was a time when I wanted to reach into the pages of a book and slap someone, it was while reading Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush.  The truly awful thing is that I can actually understand why she did what she did, given the context of the time.

Kelroy is set in Philadelphia, and begins with a woman (Mrs. Hammond) who finds herself in bad financial straits when her  husband dies. Emigrating earlier from England to America, he had become quite successful and tended to live well beyond his means, having more of a reputation for wealth than actual wealth. After his death, his wife took stock, and paid off the debts he'd left behind (no more than "two thirds of the property which she held,"), paid off what she owed and found herself left with six thousand pounds and the house she lived in. Mrs. Hammond was all about appearances, and feared poverty more than anything else in life.She rented out the house and moved to the country, where she bought a "small, but elegant residence," seemingly overwrought with grief, but in reality, she was cutting back on expenses to use her money to realize a plan designed to marry off her daughters to wealthy, upper-class husbands who will provide for them (and for herself) in an upper-class lifestyle. Her daughters' looks were her insurance policy against poverty --  and everything she did from her husband's death onward had one single purpose -- to make the best, most advantageous matches for  daughters Lucy and Emily.  She has them educated at home by a governess and "masters" from the city, but she also has her own lessons to deliver:

  1. the "pleasures of wealth,"  offer "deference" to those who have it,
  2. romantic attachments --  "involuntary love" -- are an "unpardonable folly," and 
  3. last but not least, and probably most importantly, unfortunate people were in that situation because they'd brought it upon themselves and so "deserved" to be "universally shunned and forgotten."  

After four years, Mrs. Hammond makes the great "sacrifice" for her daughters and moves back to the city, where they move about  in upper-class circles.  Elder daughter Lucy by now is vain, very much into the idea of money, and thinks little of anyone but herself.  Her dear Mamma has circulated rumors here and there of her great fortune, although the expenses involved in getting her daughters ready to be married off to suitable husbands (elegant parties, dinners, dresses, the best of everything more designed for appearances sake)  has left her little ready cash to her name.  Lucy is chosen by a young English Lord Walsingham, and finding him beyond suitable, a marriage is arranged.  Emily, on the other hand, falls for one of Walsingham's friends, a young poet named Kelroy, definitely not the kind of man Mrs. Hammond believes she can profit from through marriage to her daughter.  After Emily falls hard for Kelroy, the rest of the novel follows our Mommie Dearest,  who refuses to stand idly by and watch her own plans go awry.

To me, Kelroy serves in large part as a commentary on social class and on class pretensions. For example, there's one very nicely-composed scene depicting an interaction between Emily and her friends and a nouveau-riche, formerly working-class family named Gurnet.  The Gurnets have absolutely no concept of gentility, yet when Emily and friends come to visit, they try to impress upon Emily's party that they too know their manners, are educated in the arts, respect nice things -- and in doing so accomplish exactly the opposite.  Mrs. Hammond herself has a place among the upper class simply because of her dead husband's fortune, but because of his debts, finds herself in a position where she has to fight to keep her status.  Her daughters are her investments and are treated as such by her.  All of the money she's put into the girls and,  more importantly to her, into  keeping up the appearance that she actually belongs in this class, has led her into debt and a decline in her cash situation and the shopkeepers are literally knocking at her door. In all fairness, after giving this book some consideration, considering how limited her prospects and those of her daughters would have been if she had not gone to such great lengths, I can sort of understand her reasoning.  On the other hand, one would think that Lucy's marriage to an English lord, and a later change in her own fortune would have relaxed Mrs. H's  grip on Emily's future, but it does not turn out that way -- and this is what makes her truly a greedy and beyond-hypocritical villain in my eyes.

I loved this book and I am grateful that it's been reprinted and made available.  My copy is a part of a series of publications called Early American Women Writers from Oxford University Press and there are many others in this series I want to get my greedy little hands on. Of all of the books in my American novel survey so far, this one has been by far the easiest to read and to understand, and even though it was published in 1812, there's so much going on in here which, in my opinion, has some relevance for our own time.  Definitely recommended.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

March: moving into the 19th century; February wrap-up

With Alonzo and Melissa, I got pushed into the 19th century and I'm staying here for a very, very long time. I am sort of getting tired of women protecting their virtue against rakes and libertines, but  I'm enjoying the Gothics even though by today's standards they're pretty tame.  The current read is Rebecca Rush's Kelroy -- and this is a little different than the previous Gothics I've read -- where before the one person a woman could turn to for support and guidance was her mother or female guardian, in Kelroy, it's the social-climbing mother who uses her daughters as tools to maintain her own self interest.  I've just barely started and I'm totally hooked.

Looking back over the month, here's how things played out:

*Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, by Charles  Brockden Brown
*Julia and the Illuminated Baron, by Sally Sayward Wood
*Alonzo and Melissa, by Daniel Jackson Jr.
Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Eckback

Pop. 1820, by Jim Thompson 
The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin (obscure women crime writers project)

Miasma, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (obscure women crime writers project)
The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach
The Long-Legged Fly, by James Sallis

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

strange/weird/horror fiction:
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson -- if you have not read this yet, go get a copy. NOW.          -- I've earmarked this one for the book group for October 2015 .--  
At Crichton Abbey and Other Horror Stories, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Currently reading:
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink
Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush
A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

--- other stuff

  • the book group read The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane. Everyone was depressed by the time we finished discussing it, but without exception, it was a winner with the group.  Next up is The Rosie Project, which I haven't read, but since it's funny I chose it as a needed antidote to The Night Guest.  I'm more looking forward to April when we read Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier.  Yowza!
  • Next Saturday I get to meet Hampton Sides, who wrote one of my favorite books from last year, In the Kingdom of Ice. I hope it's a good crowd so whoever's behind this will realize that contrary to  popular belief,  here in Florida there are a few of us who don't limit our reading to  Carl Hiassen or the latest Southern romance novels. Mr. Sides will speaking about his book and doing a signing -- I'm there. Early. Like an hour early. With coffee. Front row. Eyes ears glued. First in line to get book signed. All that nerdy stuff.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

*Alonzo and Melissa, by Daniel Jackson, Jr.

Echo Library, 2009
109 pp
originally serialized by the Political Barometer, 1804;
novelized in 1811


This novel's publication history is as interesting as this version of the novel itself.  The story first appeared from June to October, 1804, in Poughkeepsie's Political Barometer in serialized form, written by the newspaper's editor Isaac Mitchell.  By 1811, Mitchell had expanded his work into a much longer version entitled  The Asylum: Or Alonzo and Melissa, which, according to Cathy N. Davidson in her book Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, was a hybrid of a "sentimental story set in Europe" and a Gothic reenactment of that tale by the titular Melissa in an American setting. It was this second, Gothic half that had earlier appeared in the Political Baromenter in serial form. The publication was no secret --  Mitchell had published the prospectus of this book in his newspaper for subscription on April 17th of that year.  However, that same year a book by Daniel Jackson, Jr. appeared entitled A Short Account of Alonzo and Melissa; Setting Forth Their Hardships and Difficulties, Caused by the Barbarity of an Unfeeling Father, which turned out to be the same Gothic version that had been published seven years earlier in the newspaper, as well as the version that I've just finished.*

Briefly, Melissa and Alonzo meet, fall in love and become engaged, to the delight of both sets of parents. Alonzo had a potential rival in the form of Beauman, who also was a parentally-approved suitor for Melissa's hand, but Melissa has made her choice and all is well.  Sadly, the Revolutionary War intervenes and Alonzo's father, a wealthy merchant, loses his fleet to the British. On top of that, he is owed a lot of money that his erstwhile partners decide not to pay him, and he loses everything.  This doesn't sit well with Melissa's father, who is somewhat beholden to a wealthy aunt who divides her time among her relatives -- he thinks that he has to placate her or stand a chance of losing the fortune that she could potentially leave to him.  He refuses to let Melissa marry Alonzo because of his lack of money, and demands that she break it off and marry Beauman instead:
"Marry Beauman, and you will roll in your coach, flaunt in your silks; your furniture and your equipage are splendid, your associates are of the first character, and your father rejoices in your prosperity.
Marry Alonzo, you sink into your obscurity, are condemned to drudgery, poorly fed, worse clothed and your relations and acquaintances shun and despise you."
Melissa's mother and brother want her to be happy and indeed, her brother is on her side, but the father is adamant that she will no longer be his daughter if she does not adhere to his wishes. When she refuses to obey her father, the story moves into high gear and well on into Gothic territory.  In an effort to keep Melissa away from Alonzo long enough that Melissa will come to her senses and agree,  to marry Beauman, good old maiden Auntie devises a clever ruse that  leaves Melissa locked into a remote "house of real Gothic architecture, built of rude stone, with battlements," complete with drawbridge and moat. There she is confined while the aunt goes off to collect her various rents, "leaving Melissa not dissatisfied with the prospect of her absence." She reads, thinks, and  walks around the garden enjoying the natural beauty of this place on Long Island Sound.  But one night,  Melissa has the first taste of what seem to be supernatural happenings:  encounters with disembodied voices, a hand "cold as the icy fingers of death," on her arm, mysterious gunshots and "sulphurous" smells. Things get worse with voices screaming at her to "begone,"  but Melissa's reasoning assures her that if these are indeed supernatural events, she has very little to fear, even though logic fails to help her make sense of things.  Eventually, however, through a mixture of detective work and sheer luck, Alonzo finds her. They make a plan for him to return with a carriage and effect an escape -- but when that day dawns, and Alonzo returns to the old house, Melissa has vanished.  Over the next several chapters, the now-devastated Alonzo has a series of adventures that take him to London as a British prisoner, to France where he meets Benjamin Franklin, and then back to America once more.

Although I won't divulge the rest of the plot, once again this novel highlights the gothic heroine who maintains her cool, logical head in the face of extraordinary events which in turn allow her much more freedom to act than do the normal constraints of home or society. She's so ingenious that if she was pitted against  Julia of the previous book in a best gothic heroine contest,  what she does here would guarantee her first prize. In fact she is so clever that she outwits pretty much everyone who threatens her happiness and well being in this novel.  The Revolutionary War, however, is the big star of this show.  While it is an active element that provides the rationale for a lot of action in this story, it's also reflected within the context of the domestic drama that's occurring as well.  There are multiple examples, but a very prominent one is the "tyranny" of Melissa's father that ultimately causes the divisions between the two and forces her to take the actions she does that result in her gaining her independence.

To be very honest, I found this novel at surface level to be interesting and a fun adventure, and I had to keep reading to see what happened next,  but it's another case of a story that is filled with way too many implausible coincidences on which events turn. And if you'll forgive me for being so blunt, one of the big reveals that come at the end sounds like it came directly out of a book designed for kids. This is another one designed for reading under the surface -- and on that level, it actually works. And by the way, these little Echo Library editions are amazing.

*Interesting sidebar In looking for info on Daniel H. Jackson, I came across the following: On September 3, 1904, a short piece appeared in the New York Times by an H. Bradley Jackson, who claimed that the story was based on fact -- that his ancestor, Daniel H. Jackson, while teaching at Plattsburg Academy between 1808 and 1810,  had met Melissa's cousin, who had related the facts of the story to Jackson, "and wished him to write it out and have it published in a book."   In 1905, in the Boston Transcripta "querie" was published by someone who was investigating, along with a Yale Professor, whether or not Jackson's version was an abridgment of Mitchell's novel. The respondent from the Transcript believed that it was Mitchell who was the "literary thief," using dates and differences between texts to prove his point.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

America's first female gothic novelist: Sally Sayward Wood -- Julia and the Illuminated Baron: the critical edition

University of Maine at Machias (UMM) Press
Library of Early Maine Literature, 2012
 -- originally published 1800
243 pp 


"This volume, to the reader's eye displays
Th' informal conduct of abandon'd man
When French Philosophy infects his ways,
And pours contempt on Heav'n's eternal plan;
Reversing order, truth, and ev'ry good,
And whelming worlds, with ruin's awful flood." 

I just love discovering little historical tidbits about people when I'm looking things up.   According to the introduction to this novel, Sally Sayward Wood (1759-1855) was born in York, Maine, and was a poet and quite a prolific novelist. Julia and the Illuminated Baron (hereafter Julia) is only one of four books that she wrote.  After the death of her first husband, she took to writing because it "soothed many melancholy, and sweetened many bitter hours."  In fact, she wrote all of her novels in between husbands, remarrying in 1804. Mrs. Wood came from a very prominent family, and during the American Revolution most of her relatives sided with the British.  Her father, Nathaniel Barrell,  was an adherent of the unpopular Sandemanian religion (brought to America in the 1760s), which affirmed that it was one's "Christian duty" to obey "one's temporal ruler," (in this case the King) a stance that pegged him as a target during the uprising caused by the Stamp Act, leading to a stunted political career and the burning down of his church.  Her mother Sarah was the daughter of a rich Loyalist and prominent judge, and was seen as "a great belle of the time," as well as a "leading favorite of the village."

Wood's background might seem like no big deal to most people, but in the introduction to Julia,  the writer notes that "Instances such as these," i.e. the burning down of the Barrell family's church that happened when she was six,  may have "shaped" "the novel's dread of revolt and popular uprising."  This seems logical to me since the novel ends with the French Revolution and a brief statement of the respective aftermaths of the two main aristocratic families in this book.  It also has as its central villain a member of the Illuminati - not the Illuminati of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, don't go there; rather, here it is portrayed as an evil society of atheists and amoral rogues responsible for the French Revolution; it is also an order with which the American public was familiar at the time because of the publication of a book by John Robison called Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of EuropeThis book spread throughout "New England pulpits and pamphlets through 1798 and 1799," as a propaganda tool,  used by those who supported the Federalist cause against  those who felt that America should be less centralized and more of a democratic republic.  It also played to the fears of those who were concerned about the intrusion of  foreign "radical" ideals. 

The actual Julia of the title is a young, beautiful woman who not only turns heads where ever she appears, but she gives off vibes of being perfectly virtuous, honest, and selfless to such a degree that everyone who meets her is enchanted by her in the truest sense of the word.  This is, of course, a credit to her mother, who never sent her away to school, but educated her at her humble home in France where the two live with Julia's grandfather on a farm.   Her mother, it seems, had promised her a great revelation of some sort, where "every mystery will be cleared," and in which Julia would be "acknowledged" for what she really is. It seems though that  Julia would just have to wait to find out what her mother meant, because she left one day, leaving Julia behind, and never returned. True to her mother's earlier admonition to  never leave the cottage, the ever-faithful Julia is set to obey, and probably would have continued to stay there forever but for the death of  her grandfather who lived there as well.  It is at his death that this story truly begins, when Julia is in great distress and Camilla, Countess de Launa just happens to show up.  After spending some time with her, and recognizing that surely Julia is living beneath her proper station, she convinces Julia that she'd be better off living with her, so off they go after the grandfather's funeral.

Julia and the Illuminated Baron follows Julia's rather adventurous life after arriving to live as the companion to the Countess at her lovely villa.  She meets Colwort, a young Englishman,  and falls in love, pledging to remain true to him always no matter what. Yet the two are separated soon after they meet, when Colwort must retrieve a female cousin in distress from America and reunite her with her family in England. His voyage and subsequent stranding in America  is only one obstacle in the lovers' path; before all is said and done, Julia will undergo some strange adventures that will take her away from those who love her and leave her in the clutches of evil.

Gothic elements are woven quite nicely into this work, making Wieland look rather tame as a "Gothic" novel in comparison.   There is the crumbling castle, a secret and debauched society with dastardly plans, guests who are in fact prisoners, a hint of incest, people locked away in underground oubliettes, and a family mausoleum that may or may not be the site of some supernatural happenings. In one moment that just screams Gothic,  Julia secretly (but with help with kind servants of her captor) makes her way from the room where she's being held out to the property's crypt.  There, a coffin lid is opened and Julia  finds herself staring into a face that is her own, and if that is not horrific enough,  it falls apart, crumbling to dust, while she watches.  I would also comment here that in my opinion, these same elements that put Julia into positions that threaten the very virtue she is known and widely praised for also offer her the space to act independently as a true Gothic heroine.  She may not act with all of the propriety expected of her, but in surpassing the obstacles which she must overcome, her virtue nevertheless remains intact:
"Almost inevitably, the gothic heroine is intended to be the best at everything she does; she is sometimes so seemingly perfect as to appear self-parodying. The standards of what this perfection entails have changed over the years as societal expectations of women fluctuate; a modern gothic heroine is valued more for her strength and outspokenness, while an earlier heroine might be prized for her purity and silence."
Obviously, we can go with the "earlier heroine" as outlined here. Continuing:
"Regardless, however, she is often more intelligent, more beautiful, more accomplished, and more resilient than any other woman--and in the earlier novels - more chaste. These are the characteristics within the control of the young woman. There are, however, outside factors surrounding the behaviour of the gothic heroine. By the very nature of the genre, these women are faced with huge obstacles—from depraved monks to bigamist husbands--particularly in their quest to maintain their perfections. These obstacles are nearly always overcome with grace and ingenuity."
Considering the likelihood that this particular novel was aimed at a female reading audience, there are some pretty strong statements being made here at a time when women's roles were still highly uncertain within the context of the new America.  At the same time, there are other women in this book who also deal with a number of obstacles and come through them with soiled and tarnished reputations, failing to meet society's (read patriarchal) expectations. Reading their stories,  it doesn't seem all that far fetched that the author is also trying to provoke some sympathy for choices that women under pressure often had to make that put them in that position.

There's much more going on under the surface here that I could bring up, but suffice it to say Julia and the Illuminated Baron ultimately goes to show that virtue is stronger than vice and will triumph in the end.  However,  to arrive at that understanding the reader must follow a long, windy road so full of  implausible coincidences and a lot of moral didacticism.  Each subplot is way too obvious as to its outcome; in short, there are very few surprises on the horizon. In spite of its shortcomings, however, it is a fun little read for anyone who may be interested in examples of early American gothic writing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

contemporary reading: Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck

Weinstein Books
370 pp
The further I got into Wolf Winter the more I realized that  in many ways this book has the same sort of feel as  Hannah Kent's outstanding Burial Rites.  The most obvious parallel between the two is found in how people managed to live in remote areas and survive in unforgiving conditions. They are also both historical novels, and there is a murder in both as well.  But Wolf Winter is no repeat of Burial Rites -- it is definitely very different.

 Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the story, which is related through three different points of view,  centers on a  family from the Finnish coast that for personal reasons, trades homesteads with an uncle and settles on the isolated mountain of Blackåsen in Sweden. There are other homesteads on the mountain, but the people in this family -- Paavo Ranta, his wife Maija and their two daughters Frederika and Dorotea -- have their work cut out for them in order to survive, especially in the midst of a "wolf winter,"
"...the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal...Mortal and alone." 
 Arriving at Blackåsen near midsummer, fourteen year-old Frederika and her six-year-old sister Dorotea are  tasked right away with taking the family's goats out to graze.  Climbing the hill, Frederika stumbles upon a man's dead body. Her mother Maija knows that the man must "belong somewhere" among the handful of other settlers on the mountain, and eventually comes across someone who knew him. Seeking out the others, she learns that the dead man is Eriksson, and after one look at him, one settler comes to the somewhat cryptic conclusion that "The mountain took him." Maija can tell that he did not die from injuries from either wolves or bears -- she realizes that this was human agency at work.  Word filters down from the mountain to bishop of the parish, who orders the local priest to find out what happened and report back to him; later he will also have to deal with a suicide/murder.  What becomes abundantly clear is that Blackåsen is a place full of secrets -- including the whereabouts of two children and an entire family who had earlier disappeared.  However,  finding the answers to these mysteries will have to take second place behind the matter of survival during this incredibly severe winter, which in this family's case is made worse by the fact that Paavo has gone back to the coast to find work when the need arises, leaving Maija and her daughters to fend for themselves.  As the author notes in an interview that accompanies this edition of the book (a perk from Indiespensable), a 'wolf winter' has another meaning --
"'s also the expression we use to describe the period in a human being's life that is the worst period, after an illness, or during an illness or upon the loss of somebody you love. Or something that confirms your mortality and makes you feel at the end of the day that we are alone." 
Maija has no choice -- she must survive and she must ensure the survival of her daughters as well. As she will discover, despite what ever else is happening around them, and despite her fear, she has no choice but to go on.  As time goes on, she faces an overwhelming number of  difficulties, not all due to the storm.

Aside from Maija's struggle to keep her family alive in this bleak and isolated environment, the historical  aspects of this book kept me reading, especially those pertaining to religion. For example, by law,  anyone not already a Christian has been required to become one under an edict of enforced Christianization --  in this case, the Lapp (Sami) people (pictured above), are now forbidden by law to consult with their spirits via their shaman. It is a law that they ignore among themselves; they have long come to their shaman who intercedes on their behalf with the spirits to guarantee safe crossing.  Blackåsen is a sacred and magical space for one such group, and even Frederika is beginning to discover that the mountain is a living thing that is trying to communicate with her.

Wolf Winter immerses the reader into the time period right away.  The sense of place that is evoked through this author's writing is beyond excellent.  The mystery behind Eriksson's death is a good one, as is the mystery behind the metaphorical wall of silence that isolates Maija and leaves her outside of the circle of  fellow homesteaders on Blackåsen. For  me the very best parts of this book were found in the  real-world situations (the mix of the family's survival, politics, religion, the effects on the people of the ongoing war); the magical realism/supernatural elements were also well incorporated to a point before they started to become just plain distracting from the rest of the real-world story.  In my opinion, Wolf Winter without all of the supernatural stuff would have made for a much better novel, but in making the choice to settle the family on Blackåsen, I can understand why so much of it was used here.

For me, Wolf Winter is a liked it, didn't love it kind of novel -- it's something I probably wouldn't have chosen on my own and I probably wouldn't have even considered reading it except for the fact that it was an Indiespensable selection.  It seems like another book designed to catch as many readers as possible, incorporating the 14-year old girl who hears and sees things the others don't, the murder mystery, the supernatural, etc.  ... I even saw it listed as "Nordic Noir" somewhere. Reading past all of that, the book is a good historical fiction novel and I'd recommend it as such.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

from the crime page: a new thriller from James Grippando -- Cane and Abe

The newest posting at the crime page is for Cane and Abe, a new thriller from James Grippando.  You'll find the post here.  My husband, who is much more of a thriller reader than I am, loved it.

From the blurb:
"Samantha died too soon. Abe Beckham's new wife has helped him through the loss, but some say it was a step back to marry Angelina, a love from Abe's past. Abe doesn't want to hear it, and through the ups and downs, he's even managed to remain a star prosecutor at the Miami State Attorney's Office.

Then everything goes wrong. A woman's body is discovered dumped in the Everglades, and Abe is called upon to monitor the investigation. The FBI is tracking a killer in South Florid they call "Cutter" because his brutal methods harken (sic) back to Florida's dark past when machete-wielding men cut sugarcane by hand in the blazing sun.

But when Angelina goes missing, the respected attorney finds himself under fire. Suspicion surrounds him. His closest friends, family, professional colleagues and the media no longer trust his motives. Was Angelina right? Was their marriage not what they'd hoped for because he loved Samantha too much? Or was there another woman ... and a husband with a dark side who simply wanted his new wife gone?"

Monday, February 9, 2015

*Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, by Charles Brockden Brown

Penguin, 1991
365 pp


According to an account published in two parts in 1796, in 1781, James Yates of New York heard a voice, "a spirit", telling him to destroy his idols. After the Bible went into the fire, he took an axe to his animals. The spirit wasn't quite finished with him yet, saying that there was still his family to consider. Faithful James Yates went on to murder all but one child, then injured his wife before killing her too. He finally relented and killed the last living child after making her dance around the other bodies.  Charles Brockden Brown, who wrote Wieland in 1798, used Yates' story, which he probably assumed readers would be familiar with already,  to create his own tale, which by the way, starts with the same sort of religious mania.

Wieland is billed as America's first Gothic novel, and despite the poor reviews that it's been given by modern readers, I couldn't put this book down. Yes, it's overly florid in language; yes, it's not as well written as it probably should have been (more on this later) but overall, it's an interesting story that, as with its predecessors in my great american novel project, works on more than the just the surface level, a point that several modern readers seemed to have missed when judging this  novel.  Without going into great detail here about philosophical and political thought during this period, the "advertisement" at the book's beginning gives away the fact that Wieland is going to illustrate "some important branches of the moral constitution of man." The idea of  understanding the "moral constitution" or "innate nature" of mankind was thought to be a sort  of precondition for enlightened leaders to be able to establish some kind of system of government that was workable for everyone -- and this at a time when politics was divided between those advocating for a strong, aristocratic central government (Federalists) and those who wanted more local control and expression of the general will (Republicans).  Brown sets up a debate between reason-based Enlightenment thinking vs. other ideas in vogue and also examines the individual vs. society and the important Rousseauian (?) concept of the expression of free will.  He also, through the character of Carwin,  establishes the ongoing fear of foreign intrusion.  All of this is framed in a Gothic story with more than strong hints of the supernatural at work, told via the medium of a letter written by Clara Wieland who has experienced her own share of great terrors.

Briefly, the story goes as follows:

Clara Wieland and her brother Theodore lose their father in some pretty mysterious circumstances based on his on-again/off-again religious mania,  and are raised by an aunt. When they come of age, Theodore marries Clara's childhood playmate Catherine Pleyel; they take up residence in the Wieland family home in Pennsylvania and soon have children. Clara has inherited a house nearby, and the group is often visited by Catherine's brother Henry. The four are inseparable, and spend a great deal of time together in basically what can be described as a perfect utopian existence in the countryside.  All are well educated -- they read classic works together, engage in friendly, rational debate on different issues where each has his or her own stance, put on dramas, and enjoy a generally egalitarian relationship. Clara is generally upbeat while Theodore is much more serious in nature, a little on the darker side, and while their "education had been modelled (sic)  by no religious standard," Theodore has more of a religious side to him than does Clara.

Their quiet, peaceful existence starts to take a downhill turn one night when Theodore is heading to their father's old Temple (where he met his sad end) to retrieve something left behind there. On the path just before the steps leading up to the building, he hears his wife's voice telling him not to go that way. He rushes home, and there's Catherine sitting just where she was when he left, and the others vouch that she'd never left. This incident leaves Theodore a little darker in mood, but when the voice occurs again, this time while Theodore is in Henry's company, it leaves both questioning their own rational judgment, especially Theodore, who becomes more serious and more introspective as time goes on.  The voice continues to make itself known -- to Clara more than once, leaving her extremely unsettled and trying to find an explanation she can understand; to Henry, turning him against Clara, who by now realizes she is in love with Henry.  Things get really bad, though, when one night the voice is heard by Theodore, and the consequences will totally shatter the group's idyllic existence forever.

As noted earlier, Wieland is not the best-written novel for several reasons, one of the biggest being that Brown waits to finish out some plotlines to the very end where he rushes through explanations. The other thing about the writing is that framing the novel as a letter to a friend just doesn't come across as realistic -- it's obviously much more of a narrative form rather than epistolary, several examples of which I've just read.  But on the other hand, I wouldn't have missed this novel for anything.  At surface level, it's a very entertaining story that kept me  turning pages hour after hour, sometimes missing nights of sleep just to find out what happens. Clara gives strong hints that something is going to go terribly wrong, and these little asides are scattered throughout the book. Brown also provides a number of hints as to what's coming through the classical works the men were debating -- something I discovered by looking them up.  The beginning of this novel captures the father's religious mania so thoroughly and so intently that it's downright impossible not to be drawn into his disturbed mind, establishing the stage for what is to come later.  Going underneath the story, though, Wieland offers a brief look at the philosophical and political struggles that were occurring at the time, but which in so many ways continue to have a lot of relevance in our own modern nation.

This book requires a lot of time and a lot energy, but if a potential reader isn't necessarily interested in the underlying philosophical issues, the story itself is also well worth exploring.