In the spirit of the new year, I thought we could take on one of the first modern Gothics!
ELEANOR HIBBERT: I am a bestselling author under the names Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr, but I want to pick a new name and be an even BIGGER bestseller.
PUBLISHER: Lady, we like your style. Have you noticed that this book REBECCA has literally never been out of print? Do you realise that the publishers of REBECCA probably have so much money that instead of hot stone massages they get gold coin massages. ‘Oooh,’ they say. ‘Feels so affluent it stings a little!’
PUBLISHER: … We dream of being that publisher.
ELEANOR HIBBERT: I dream of being that author. I’m gonna call myself Victoria Holt, after my bank. Because someday I’ll have so much money people will think they called the bank after ME.
PUBLISHER: … Oh Victoria. If only they were all like you. Please write a book like REBECCA.
So Victoria Holt wrote THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN, which was designed to be like REBECCA and also came out quite a lot like JANE EYRE. It came out in 1961, and Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart (who we’ll be hearing about… another time…) are generally considered the mamas of the modern Gothic.
READERS: 1961? Modern Gothic?
SARAH: It’s what they called it at the time, I don’t know. Anyway… modern compared to 1860…
THE MISTRESS OF MELLYN opens as:
Martha Leigh is sitting on a train depressed about going to be a governess in a Gothic manor. As well she might. No good awaits her.
PETER NANSELLOCK: Your name is Martha Leigh. You are going to a house called Mellyn.
MARTHA: Gasp! Can you read…
PETER: The future? Your mind? Maybe.
MARTHA: … Luggage labels? Ass.
MARTHA: Oh well, I am a Gothic heroine. I should be grateful the flirty fake fortune teller wasn’t crossdressing.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Welcome to Mellyn, humble governess! You may be wondering who all these people are. Well, the master is not here on account of he goes off on ‘business trips.’
MARTHA: The Ho Tour of Europe?
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Possible. Also possible that it is the Brood Tour of Europe. Sometimes he sends back pictures being like ‘Here I am in Venice. 🙁 ‘
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: The mistress, Alice, is not here on account of being dead. As is, of course, standard.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: This is Alvean, the troubled daughter of the house! This is Gilly, my mute illegitimate granddaughter whose mom committed the suicides! And these are some trampy maids.
TRAMPY MAIDS: Tee hee.
MARTHA: Judgin’ you.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh well, even if the maids can’t keep their hands off the stable boys, at least they can keep their hands off the valuables! The last governess was dismissed for stealing. We’ll all be keeping an eye on you, Miss Potentially Sticky Paws.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Here is Celestine Nansellock, the sister of the weirdo fortune teller you met on the train and the dead mistress’s best friend! She lives next door.
MARTHA: Well, at least someone called Celestine has to be trustworthy…
CELESTINE: Still super upset about Alice’s mysterious and terrible death!
MARTHA: Wait, her what?
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Spot of whisky, dear?
PETER: Awesome to meet you out in the woods! I love to harass women in a variety of locations.
MARTHA: … Charmed.
PETER: Having fun at Mellyn? It’s a little awkward that my brother Geoffrey ran off with the mistress and then they both died in a big train explosion, but other than that we all get on pretty well.
MARTHA: Wait, ran off with who? Train explosion what?
PETER: Of course the question is, was the body found exploded beyond recognition actually Alice’s?
PETER: So nice to chit-chat! Welcome to the neighborhood!
MARTHA: I sense something weird is going on here. I’m very intuitive like that.
CONNAN TREMELLYN: Hello, I am the master of Mellyn, and my face always looks like this. 🙁
MARTHA: Scowly dudes really get me hot beneath the petticoat, and so I’m going to assume you’re having it off with the trampy maids!
TRAMPY MAIDS: Tee hee.
CONNAN: So how’s the kid’s education going? 🙁
MARTHA: Get away from me, you IMMORAL SEDUCER!
CONNAN: … 🙁
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Wondering how Gilly the Illegitimate went all mute and funny in the head? Oh, the dead mistress was out riding and she basically rode over the kid. Horse hoof right in the brain pan!
MARTHA: Not medically advised.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: And now the mistress’s daughter is super scared of riding! Nobody knows why!
MARTHA: … Yes. That is a puzzle.
MARTHA: … Could I trouble you for a spot more whisky?
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: I like you, girl. You are what we all wanted in a governess. Respectful to your elders. Good with the children. Secret tippler.
LADY FOXYPANTS: Hiiii I’m super hot.
ALVEAN: Hate you.
MARTHA: Hate you even more than the trampy maids.
TRAMPY MAIDS: Tee hee.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Yeah, she’s an actress married to an old dude who lives across the way.
MARTHA: Say no more, I already assumed she was of loose morals because she was so super fine.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Yeah, I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but… wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Sorry, still drunk.
MARTHA: Come on Alvean, I’m going to teach you to horse-ride!
ALVEAN: I was hoping you’d neglect me while mooning after my dad, as is standard!
MARTHA: That’s the dream, Alvean, but unfortunately these days people have all these newfangled notions about ‘taking care of the children’ and ‘at a bare minimum, making sure they don’t die.’ Silly fuss! Let me just put on your mom’s horseriding clothes.
CELESTINE: ALICE BACK FROM THE GRAVE!!!! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!
MARTHA: Is that you Celestine? Haha, she fell down. What a funny story. Someone fetch the medicinal brandy… and bring it to me.
ALVEAN: I BROKE MY ARM.
MARTHA: Well, you didn’t die of the typhus, did you? So it’s all fine! We even got you MEDICAL ATTENTION.
MARTHA: Every luxury showered on you. Lucky girl.
CONNAN: Is the kid okay? She’s not dead, is she? For once my face is entirely appropriate. : (
MARTHA: Dude, has it occurred to you that this is the 1900s? You can’t just neglect children anymore!
CONNAN: No. It literally never occurred to me before this moment when you pointed it out that a motherless child, who I have raised from the day she was born, might need affection or attention.
MARTHA: Are you being SARCASTIC?
CONNAN: No, seriously. I am Gothically handsome, but none too bright. : (
MARTHA: Oh you big hot gloomy hot doofus. I love you.
GREAT-AUNT: Want to sit down and have a drink with me, Martha?
MARTHA: Boy do I!
GREAT-AUNT: So, funny story: Alvean was Geoffrey Nansellock’s kid and not Connan’s at all!
MARTHA: That explains so much about Connan’s parenting. And his face.
GREAT-AUNT: You want me to pour you another glass of dandelion wine?
MARTHA: If you would be so kind as to pass me the entire bottle.
HEROINE’S SISTER: Sending you a plot-convenient hot dress! PS Remember dudes hate sassy ladies. Zip it! PS Not the dress. Unzip that whenever.
ALVEAN: Arrrrrrrgghhhhh Mommy’s ghost!
MARTHA: Just me, sweetie, dressed fancy in this plot-convenient dress! It’s hilarious how people keep mistaking me for your dead mom, isn’t it?
ALVEAN: Hilarious. Can I have a soothing drink?
MARTHA: Best not. You’re eight.
PETER: Here is a pretty pony as a token of my affections.
CONNAN: Here are some lovely diamonds as a token of my affections.
MARTHA: Dudes keep giving me horses and diamonds! I wish they’d give me something useful like a hip flask.
GHOST ALICE: You look great, Marty. You look super fly in that dress. I totally think my husband has the hots for you. Hit that like a gong!
MARTHA: Ghostly visitations. So weirdly supportive.
MARTHA: At last all my dreams have come true! I am the prettiest girl at the prom! I’m going to be homecoming queen!
CONNAN: ???? : (
MARTHA: Or some Gothic equivalent of same.
PETER: May I have this dance?
CONNAN: I kiss you!
GUESTS AT BALL: Are you Team Peter or Team Connan? Is there a place to buy a T-shirt?
MARTHA: Come on, wrestling match in fountain… come on…
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Oh no, Sir Thomas Foxypants has died on his way home from our ball! I bet Connan and Lady Foxypants will soon be wed.
MARTHA: … Buzzkill. Is anyone using this tray of drinks? No? Good.
GILLY: Hey dead Alice.
MARTHA: You people are laugh riots! I’m going to go up to my room and find something to drink! Maybe paint thinner!
CONNAN: Hey sexy, thinking about you, come visit me at another of my houses. I have loads of them. My estates are extensive. I know how the Gothic ladies like that. Yours, C.
MARTHA: I believe your letter meant to imply I should visit with both the children?
CONNAN: Uh… sure. How about we have a candelit dinner and I talk to you about… wait for it… architecture.
MARTHA: Oh my. You do know the way to a Gothic heroine’s heart!
CONNAN: Some houses are built into the shape of an ‘E’ for Queen Elizabeth. Yeah, baby. How do you like me now?
MARTHA: This improper conversation has left me all weak about the knees. If you talk about buttresses, I shall swoon.
CONNAN: These are the actual words of my proposal, from the actual book. ‘I want to marry you because I want to keep you a prisoner in my house.’
CONNAN: Your mouth says no but your eyes say yes.
MARTHA: Incorrect, my sexy presumptuous friend! My mouth ain’t saying no.
CONNAN AND MARTHA: *make out*
MARTHA: But tell me, Connan, I need some reassurance. Are you a ho?
CONNAN: I am a ho fo’ sho’. I have been with like every lady in-
MARTHA: Uh—great. Have you been with Lady Foxypants?
CONNAN: I banged her like a screen door in a hurricane many, many times. Many, many-
MARTHA: Okay, good talk! Very reassuring.
MARTHA: I’m going to be the mistress of Mellyn.
GILLY: Yay dead Alice!
MARTHA: You know what? Sure. Fine. Someone pass me the brandy.
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: So word is that Connan and Lady Foxypants murdered Sir Thomas Foxypants and he’s marrying you to evade suspicion and like, hanging and stuff.
MARTHA: You still got that whisky?
ELDERLY HOUSEKEEPER: Maybe we should save it for after the autopsy.
MARTHA: By then I’m planning to be on the opium.
CELESTINE: Oh my gosh you’re marrying Connan.
MARTHA: Oh my gosh you’re crying. You’re such a good friend to be so thrilled for me!
PETER: So if you change your mind about marrying Connan for any reason—such as, a shot in the dark here, just throwing this out there—he’s a murderer in love with Lady Foxypants who killed his wife and her husband? Consider me still in this love triangle.
MARTHA: What’s that? Have some more wine? Don’t mind if I do!
GILLY: Come look at this
MARTHA: Oooh, pretty architecture, thanks, kiddo.
GILLY: What is WITH the people in this house? I’m like ‘HEY, LOOK AT THIS PEEP HOLE OF DEATH’ and they’re like ‘So many fancy fittings!’
MARTHA: I especially like the crenellation of doom on the ceiling. Look, child!
GILLY: … I want a drink.
MARTHA: So if Connan and Lady Foxypants killed Alice, and Sir Thomas, are they going to kill me? I wonder how? Oh my God, what if they poisoned the whisky? Those MONSTERS!
MARTHA: Oh well. In actual words taken from the actual book, ‘I do love him. So much that I would rather meet death at his hands than leave him.’
READERS: … Oh, Martha. Drunk again.
EX-GOVERNESS ACCUSED OF STEALING: Hi Martha. I am totally innocent of the crime I was accused of.
MARTHA: I bet Lady Foxypants framed you.
EX-GOVERNESS: Sure. Celestine was also there the whole time. Also Celestine got me this new job.
MARTHA: She’s a peach.
EX-GOVERNESS: Celestine and I are both super interested in architecture.
MARTHA: Let’s face it, we’re ladies in a Gothic novel, who isn’t a little bit hot for houses?
EX-GOVERNESS: You’d better tell her all about how the peep hole at Mount Mellyn is actually a priest hole!
MARTHA: Okay. I’m so glad we’ve got off the boring subject of murder and adultery, and we’re talking about truly fascinating stuff like architecture. Waiter, more drinks! You, tell me all you know about… renovations…
CELESTINE: Hi Martha. I hear that Sir Thomas Foxypants died of natural causes! Great news, huh?
MARTHA: Sure, sure, but more importantly, did you know our peep hole might be actually a priest hole, for priests to hide in? Weird, right?
CELESTINE: That is totally new information to me! Let’s go investigate at once!
MARTHA: Boy, something in this priest hole smells awful, like someone got buried alive in here and rotted for a year.
CELESTINE: That is totally new information to me!
MARTHA: Celestine? Celestine, I think the door fell sh… Oh. Oh, right. I see. Oh spit.
DEAD ALICE: …
MARTHA: Buried alive, I see. What’s that like?
DEAD ALICE: You are about to find out.
MARTHA: So far I’m not a fan. I don’t suppose you have a drink on you?
DEAD ALICE: …
GILLY: Come quickly she’s been buried alive!
CONNAN: What’s that little girl? Timmy’s in the well?
GILLY: Your latest girlfriend has been buried alive in your HOUSE OF DEATH, just like the last one was!
CONNAN: Well, one must humour the children… oh my God, hey baby! Sweetie, don’t worry, Connan’s here! Connan to the rescue!
GILLY: Connan to the rescue? Gilly’s getting a drink.
MARTHA: And that was how I was saved from being a governess and also being buried alive, very similar things. Before she went conveniently mad and was shut up forever—that’s what you gotta do with mad ladies–Celestine confessed that she wanted to marry Connan—because she was hot for his house, not because she was warm for his form, which let that be a lesson to all of us! You’ve got to at least pretend to be into the dude as well. Connan and I had a ton of kids, and also a ton of fights where I accused him of being unfaithful with Lady Foxypants and all the trampy maids at once! LOL, you know what I am saying? And here comes Gilly with the drinks, because what better payment for saving my life is there than for her to serve me forever? … Gilly, over here! Heavy on the gin, light on the tonic.
Governesses, brooding dudes, jealousy, big big houses, people getting buried alive. The usual Gothic stuff. But in the Mistress of Mellyn, the actual evildoer is a woman—not a woman shut up and mostly helpless like in Jane Eyre, or a dead woman like in Rebecca—there is a woman scheming and murdering up the joint to get what she wants, and this woman reminds the heroine of herself. Actually, the book is full of the heroine being scared of and hostile towards other women, seeing all of them as threatening reflections or shadows of herself. She’s scared of her love interest, yes, but it’s not a case of ‘Somebody’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband’ (Joanna Russ) but ‘Somebody’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s A She’ (Brooke Willig).
In the Mistress of Mellyn, the heroine keeps seeing a sinister shadow and not knowing whose it is: the heroine herself keeps getting mistaken for a ghost, and compared to the other women in the book.
There’s a pair of lady doppelgangers in the Vampire Diaries TV show. There’s a song (music by Schubert, words by Heine) called ‘Der Doppelganger’ – that famously begins ‘Still is the night…’
‘It chills me, when I behold his pale face
For the moon shows me my own features again!
You spirit double, you specter with my face…‘
Being scared of yourself is something I wanted to do with Unspoken for both the hero and the heroine: but part of having the Gothic heroine role be played by a boy means there isn’t jealousy of other ladies competing for your house, or who shall be the fairest of them all.
But the idea of a shadow self, a specter with your face, someone like you or better than you, someone whose very existence poses a threat to you, whose coming into your life is meant to be the warning of your own death. Well, that’s something I wanted to keep. The boy playing the Gothic heroine of Unspoken has a cousin. They’re very alike.
Oh pallid companion. But which is which? Would you even know, if you were the doppelganger? Would you want to know? Or would you want a drink?