Last week I began looking at Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet, in advance of the publication of the fifth book in the sequence next March. I thought 1980’s Bellefleur was a tremendous work, eloquent testimony to the imaginative power of the Gothic and to the sophistication the form can sustain. This week I’m looking at 1982’s A Bloodsmoor Romance, to which I had a more qualified response.
To some extent this may well be a function of my being not the right reader for this book. While Bellefleur consciously played with the genre conventions of the Gothic proper, Bloodsmoor uses and parodies the conventions of 19th-century romance — romance as we know it, the story of young women looking for love and marriage. And romance as such is not a form that has any intrinsic appeal to me, or whose appeal I understand. I don’t say it’s bad. I’m saying I have no idea what makes romances good or bad as romances.
Unsurprisingly, then, the book plays off of texts with which I’m not familiar. I’ve seen similarities noted to Little Women, for example, which I’ve never read. Bloodsmoor is also intensely ironic, satiric in a way that Bellefleur wasn’t (as I read these books, anyway). So this is a genre that never appealed to me, and with whose key stories I have no experience, and it’s being sent up in a fairly unsubtle manner. Maybe it’s surprising that I didn’t have a worse reaction than I actually did.
It is true that the book uses a lot of other genre elements: melodrama, science fiction, and ghost stories, to name a few. Given that one of the five heroines is kidnapped early on in a hot-air balloon, and that the father of four of the girls is a scientist struggling to perfect a perpetual-motion machine, it’s nearly an early example of steampunk. And yet it also is not: despite the apparent evidence of time travel, despite the importance of spiritual visitations to the plot, these things aren’t what the book is about, as such. They’re not, on the whole, what define the key moments for the characters or plot. It’s about five girls, and their parents, and their character and secrets and future and how all these things relate and work themselves out.
The book follows the five daughters of inventor John Quincy Zinn and his wife Prudence: Constance Philippa, Octavia, Malvinia, Samantha, and adopted Deirdre. The book’s main action begins in 1879, with Deirdre’s abduction from her family’s ancestral home — Kiddemaster Hall, to be found in the Bloodsmoor Valley of Pennsylvania — by the pilot of a mysterious black hot-air balloon. Over the next twenty years (the book concludes at the end of 1899), we follow the Zinn girls as they grow, marry, or reject marriage.
Constance Philippa runs away on her wedding night, Octavia marries a man with a predilection for sadomasochism, Malvinia runs away to take up a life on the stage, Samantha busies herself with helping her father in his work, and Deirdre, previously the centre of poltergeist activity, meets Madame Blavatsky and becomes a successful medium under the name of Deirdre of the Shadows. Altogether there’s a picaresque quality to the girls’ lives, but they can’t escape the shape of genre, and indeed of melodrama (and it’s probably relevant that it is after watching a staged melodrama that Malvinia runs away with the leading man). Far-flung as they may be, they come together at the end of the book for the reading of a will and the revelation of various family secrets.
The book’s highly conscious of form, and I think interested in working with specifically female stories — questioning what those might be, and what bounds male literary traditions might set upon them. Characters, especially Malvinia, discuss a sense of doubleness when watching a story, as though being both inside and outside the tale. The story is itself told by an unidentified female narrator in a self-consciously 19th century style:
Though Mr. Zinn had instructed his womenfolk to expunge from their minds all fanciful thought of the occult, wisely teaching that what we know as the Supernatural is but the Natural, imperfectly grasped, it did come to seem as if, on that golden autumnal day when Deirdre was carried off, a demon of some sort — bodiless, but ah, how powerful! — was loos’d, upon Bloodsmoor; it truly seemed as if the sacred mechanism of the universe had been grievously upset, and the highest of civilized values — not only gentility, and Christian morality, but Maidenhood itself — were cast down into the mud.
With what catastrophic results, we shall see: for I scarce exaggerate when I say that, from that day onward, the fortunes of the Zinn family were tragically alter’d.
It doesn’t look much different from the style of Bellefleur, maybe, but to me the effect’s much less interesting. Devices like the dashes and italics and capital letters and elided letters work with the obtrusive narrator to create a flat, ironic tone; that ‘wisely’ is meant to be read as satire. It’s technically interesting — the narrator becomes a character, who we learn about in bits and pieces, and by the end that unmarried female storyteller seems to be in on the joke: professing herself shocked by the Zinns’ irregular lives, by their varied sexualities, even as she seems to revel in lurid descriptions of their wild and at least relatively liberated fates. But since the narrator is not actually a character in the book, speculations about her motives seem ultimately a distraction from what is being described; a point where the work fails to cohere as a whole.
Personally, as I’ve said, I found the irony heavy-handed as well. This is a long book, probably on the order of 300,000 words, and that’s quite a distance to spin out a joke. For me, Oates’s choice of narrative voice here has a tendency to flatten out characters (whereas Bellefleur’s voice tended to lend them depth), which over the course of the book creates an oddly mechanical sense. One is at a distance from the highly-gendered world of the Zinns, and if Oates’s mockery of patriarchy is bracing, her mockery of what seem to be specifically 19th-century forms of patriarchy can feel facile.
Still, the use of the narrator, of her particular voice, does point up the book’s exploration of women’s stories. It investigates repression, women being made to fit artificial social roles, alienated from language, narrative, and even their own bodies. Older women fall into vaguely-diagnosed ongoing illnesses, taking dubious patent medicines, while younger women are taught not to look at their own bodies and kept ignorant of sex and pregnancy. The disconnection between what can be thought or said and actual physical reality is constantly pointed up: “It was a custom in those days for mother and married daughter to knit and sew baby things, month upon month, and, indeed, year upon year, in anticipation of an imminent birth, without once descending to the coarseness of mind that would feel the need to state their mutual purpose: such indelicacies as ‘pregnant,’ ‘going to have a baby,’ and ‘expecting,’ being quite out of place in genteel surroundings.”
But that level of repression can’t be maintained indefinitely, and the Zinn women manifest their sexualities in different ways. Octavia, most conventional, has an affair. For Malvinia, sex triggers a cartoonish overexuberance that terrifies her male lovers. Constance Philippa pretends to be a man, then finds her sex physically change. Samantha, we are told, once had a birthmark which her great-aunt ominously declared to be the “mark of the beast” (the same term used for Malvinia’s episodes of uncontrollable desire), and which, when she was an infant, was burned off by her father using one of his inventions; so she ends up becoming his assistant in the lab. Deirdre is also said to have possessed this mark — for there is a secret about her parentage that is only made explicit late in the book — and it’s tempting to read the spiritual manifestations that surround her as being in some sense an expression of repressed sexuality.
Then again, male scientists who express this theory in the book are roundly mocked. Deirdre coldly rejects the idea of a distinction between a female spiritual world and a masculine world of rationality and the physical. Denying any suggestion that she is all spirit, Deirdre implicitly insists on her own concreteness, her own physicality. On the other hand, at the end of the book she invokes (presumably unconsciously) a manifestation of the spirit world that undoes the last scientific achievement of John Zinn; so while Oates wants to question the distinction between spirit and body, irrational and rational, female and male, I’m not sure that questioning is as sustained as it might be.
I thought there was a similar kind of tension in the way Oates approached the genre of the romance. She’s depicting a society in which the lives of women are made to fit a certain shape: marriage. So the romance form, about women finding love and marriage, is in a way complicit with that ideal — women’s lives and stories forced into a certain form (just as Oates describes their physical forms being shaped by dresses and corsets, aiming at turning reality into the image of a mannequin). Oates is clearly conscious of this dichotomy. The five Zinns proceed to have various adventures — with one, Octavia, apparently living a ‘normal’ life that actually points up the inability of these prescribed social roles to deal with the real complexities of human life and desire — before ending up in middle age having found various lives and futures for themselves. Their story both questions the form of the romance while also accepting its conventions, turning certain things inside-out while following the outline of the genre. It’s a tricky balance, and I can’t honestly say if I’m convinced it works.
Oates does point up the way roles for women were shaped by texts, in the form of various self-help books and guides to comportment. The book’s full of long lists of (what Google searches suggest are) mostly-fictitious texts dictating female behaviour: “—Eliza Leslie North’s Maiden, Wife, and Mother; Mary Manderly Ogden’s The Christian Mother; Dr. Elias Riddle’s Counsels on the Nature and Hygiene of Womanhood; Alice C. Dodds’s A Letter of Advice to a Young Bride; and, of course, Great-Aunt Edwina’s volumes, which the heedless Constance Philippa had neglected to study in the past — The Young Lady’s Friend: A Compendium of Correct Forms, and A Guide to Proper Christian Behaviour Amongst Young Persons, and, most valuable of all, as she approached the threshold of matrimony, and prepared to exchange Maidenhood for Wifehood, the best-selling The Christian House & Home …” I don’t know if the invocation of these kinds of texts are meant to draw a parallel with the way contemporary media articulates expectations for women’s lives, but it seems to me important that one of the Zinns’ great-aunts writes them. In doing so, she’s helping to lay down the genre rules for the lives of her great-nieces. She also, as it turns out, drives the plot; so she literally is the one who shapes the story.
The book also makes several references to canonical literature, particularly American literature, since, like Bellefleur, it is concerned with America and the nature thereof. Mark Twain has a particularly hapless cameo as one of Malvinia’s lovers; Hawthorn is mentioned in the context of John Quincy Zinn’s remembrance of his father, John Jay Zinn. Amusingly, it turns out that the Zinns are related to the family of Henry James’ Daisy Miller, whom they try to reach in a séance. Constance is inspired by Walt Whitman. Being set in Pennsylvania, and concerned with the Gothic, there is a mention of Poe, who lived in Philadelphia for some years and whose death perhaps points up a failure of ‘polite’ society — and whose science fiction helped inspire John Quincy Zinn.
Zinn, inspired by the idealism of Emerson, spends much of the book dreaming of creating a perpetual motion machine — the embodiment of his deistic universe. For Deirdre, that’s the image of death, a highly-machined trap that inspires her to run away, and even (it seems) to create the mysterious black balloon as a manifestation of her spirit-world. At any rate John Quincy Zinn, constantly hailed by the narrator as an American genius, never succeeds at creating his machine, and throws away the things he does create, not bothering to patent them; a form of cinema seems to him merely a toy. Toward the end of the book, asked to create a means of execution for convicted criminals, he is inspired by fears that his lab assistant has fallen in love with Samantha to create an electric bed — later to be reworked as a chair. (This means of execution is described, by a despairing Zinn in taking his commission, as “showy, and flashy, and ingenious, and — what was the other? — ah yes, American.”) Zinn denies the spirit world entirely, denies the whole world of religion, but especially the poltergeist phenomena around young Deirdre. No wonder she must escape.
(On the other hand, Zinn creates at least one great invention. Early in the book, he fashions what appears to be a working time machine, in the mists of which a young disciple of his named Nahum Hindley vanishes so completely even his memory is lost. Years later, Samantha sees a figure emerging out of mists in a gorge near her father’s workshop; right after that, a man named Nahum Hareton presents himself, asking to be John Quincy Zinn’s assistant. The two Nahums are presumably meant to be one and the same: Hindley and Hareton are father and son in Wuthering Heights.)
Genre forms are typically held to be concerned with ‘escapism.’ And the Zinn women can only find their lives by escaping: three run away in various ways, to the stage, the spirit world, and the man’s world of the Old West; two remain close to home, escaping into a laboratory or into marriage and motherhood. What one seeks out, the others reject, since this is a process of finding one’s own life, something that the society into which the Zinns were born tries to deny them: individual experience, an individual story. Genre is more free. It is subversive of assumed social power even as it is complicit with that power. In that sense, the ironic tone of the narration is spot-on.
Still, genre has limits. Some things are outside the story entirely. When Constance, or Philippe, runs away and becomes a man, she has a man’s adventures, gambling and fighting through the Old West. The book doesn’t follow her through any of it. She leaves the story, returning only at the very end — at which point she’s involved in romance, rescuing a childhood girlfriend, Delphine Martineau, from a bad marriage. It’s easy to look back at the earlier part of the book and see that she was in love with Delphine when they were both children; but it’s also easy to miss, since Delphine isn’t given much of a personality. It might be a satirical take on the idea of woman-as-idealised-object-to-be-rescued, but since Delphine is so undefined it undermines Philippe’s character. We don’t know what draws her, or why. (Or whether ‘her’ or ‘him’ is appropriate here; the character’s sense of gender identity isn’t investigated much.)
It also points up a certain limitation in the book. The Zinns are given personalities and emerge as rounded characters. Other people are flatter, or simply undefined. Like Delphine, for example, Nahum never emerges as a personality. Great-Aunt Edwina is enough of a blank that the final twists of the book have no particular charge to them. And I felt that Oates’s depiction of 19th-century America lacked coherence, a sense of internal logic — her investigation of America and American dreams seemed underdeveloped and disconnected from the social structures she described. It’s tempting to describe Oates in the book as playing the role of a medium, channeling characters as Deirdre channels spirits, but in fact it is precisely life that is lacking: these spirits are never more than ghosts.
A Bloodsmoor Romance is a technically interesting book. It’s structurally sophisticated, though I found simpler than Bellefleur, and much slower, not as compressed. Still, if it’s not as symbolically or narratively dense, there are mysteries and riddles enough in the book to repay close reading and rereading. How one responds to the book will be, I think, qualified by how one responds to the thick irony of its style. Personally, I found it became repetitious, and I found myself wishing the narrator had either been developed into more of a character or else given a more subtle voice, which would have allowed the satire to be more devastating.
As it is, I found that the exploits of the Zinns were sporadically interesting, but undercut by the facile irony. Oates has a tendency to pick easy targets here, sending up aspects of the 19th century that are unfamiliar or repulsive in the late 20th or 21st centuries, and it seemed to me that there isn’t the sense of continuity that would make the satire really live. There’s no real sense that one is complicit with the world of the novel. So in the end, I found A Bloodsmoor Romance interesting, but uninvolving. It’s not bad, but not up to the level of its predecessor.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.