What Happened to the Gothic Novel? Mary Stewart’s “My Brother Michael”

Gothic novels are thrilling.  When we recall the intoxicating pleasures of the Gothic, we think of 18th- and 19th-century ghost stories, haunted castles, secret passages, unexplained lights wavering, and supernatural phenomena revealed to be the product of human agency.

Victorian writers manipulated these tropes to great effect. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a mad woman escapes from the attic and terrorizes Jane and Mr. Rochester. In Charlotte’s later novel, Villette, the teacher Lucy Snowe sees the ghost of a nun in an attic and later is drugged by the villainous headmistress/owner of the school.  In The Rose and the Key, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Maud Vernon thinks she is going to a party only to find herself kidnapped and locked in an insane asylum. 

In the twentieth century, Gothic tropes remained vigorous.  Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is full of grotesque Southern characters and suffused with a moody atmosphere.  In Shirley Jackson’s novels and short stories, there are haunted houses, good families gone bonkers, and ignorant villagers who will stone a person as soon as look at him. 

But what interests me this summer is the renaissance of women’s Gothic novels in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.   If you have read Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, and Anne Maybury, you know these engrossing mysteries with Gothic elements.  The heroines travel, visit mansions, meet very masculine men, solve murders,  and investigate crimes, but are often startled by strange, unexplained apparitions.  And, of course, there is romance.  Falling in love is probably the most common trope in the history of the English novel.

These mid-century Gothics are now reclassified as romantic suspense. Perhaps the term Gothic no longer sells.  These heroines do meet attractive men – quite often two, as in Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic – but there is the Gothic possibility that one of the men is himself the murderer/smuggler.  

The most elegant of these Gothic writers is Mary Stewart, who published her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?, in 1955. I am  fond of My Brother Michael, published in 1959, and recently reread it.  In this Gothic thriller, the heroine, Camilla Haven, a Latin teacher, travels alone on vacation in Greece. Camilla’s solitary trip goes about as well as these things can, until a Greek man approaches her in a cafe in Athens and insists on giving her the keys to a hired car.  She did not hire the car, but he says it was for Simon in Delphi, “a matter of life and death.”

But before I go on, let me share the Author’s Note, which shows Mary Stewart’s intellectualism and knowledge of Greek literature – and how she differs from the Gothic writers of her time.

She writes,

The quotations from Professor Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Electra of Euripides appear by kind permission of Messrs. Allen & Unwin.  I am also indebted to the editors of the Penguin Classics for permission to use extracts from Sophocles and Euripides in translations by E. E. Warling and Philip Vellacott; to Messrs. Faber and Faber for their leave to use the lines from Dudley Fitts’ translation of The Frogs by Aristophanes…

Stewart often uses the quotations as epigraphs, or interweaves them in the text. The following epigraph in Chapter 1 draws attention to Camilla’s character, as it complements the opening passage.

Why, woman,
What are you waiting for?
                    Sophocles:  “Electra”
                   (tr. E. E Watling)

“Nothing ever happens to me.”
I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.

An amusing, brilliant opening of a novel!

Camilla dithers when the Greek drops the car key on the table, but she is running short of money and  has longed to go to Delphi, so she takes the car – Delphi  is so small she should be able to find Simon, she reasons.   And along the way there is much humor, because she is not an experienced driver, and has a few adventures en route – including an encounter with a macho bus driver who will not let her pass.

Simon Lester, an Englishman, the only Simon in Delphi, has not hired the car but tries to help her find the other Simon. (There is none.) There is a natural sympathy between them:   Simon is a classics teacher and housemaster, while Camilla, of course, teaches Latin.  As Camilla wryly tells Simon, she is not quite a classicist, because at girls’ schools only Latin is taught.  And, so, yes, the man who knows Greek is acknowledged by Camilla as superior, which is, by the way, unusual in Stewart’s books. But quiet Camilla becomes stronger as the plot unravels – and God knows she has to use her wits, because Simon is investigating the murder of his brother Michael 14 years ago in Greece, where he was stationed during World War II and then worked  in the Greek resistance.  Stewart also outlines the fascinating history of the war and the resistance in Greece.

Before I go,  I must describe one of Stewart’s travel scenes:  she is a natural travel writer, and traveled in order to set her novels in different countries. At night, Camilla and Simon visit the temple at Delphi. It is a magical experience. And then in  the small theater, Simon, at Camilla’s request, recites some Greek.  He chooses a passage from Sophocles’s Electra.  The acoustics are marvelous, and the passage evocative.  The spirits of the ancient Greeks seem eerily present. This is a charming, brilliant novel, which I cannot recommend too highly.  I would call it a mystery with Gothic elements, rather than a pure Gothic novel.  But that is often true of this particular subset of women’s novels.  I will, however, post soon about a purely Gothic novel of the ’60s. 

If you enjoyed this, let me know, and look forward to more posts on the Gothic reading experience.


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