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The House of the Seven Gables – Movie and Book

house-of-seven-gablesOne of the main reasons I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables is because I also wanted to watch the 1940 film adaptation, starring George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay. I am trying to discipline myself to read more books before rushing off to watch their film adaptations. How do they compare? It’s not easy to compare, since they are both essentially different stories, but I enjoyed both.

The House of Seven Gables: Novel

The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851 and is a Gothic novel soaked in story layers, ghosts and curses, greed and decaying life and the hope of new life, though it is never made explicit whether or not the supernatural elements are true or merely the fancy of the author.

It is not a conventional story and somewhat difficult to summarize because of its many layers, though the plot is simple. Hawthorne begins the novel by giving us a bit of history. There was land owned by a man named Matthew Maule in the 1600s. Colonel Pyncheon offered to buy it, but when Maule refused, Pyncheon denounced him as a sorcerer and Matthew Maule died during the Salem Witch trials. But before he died, Maule said that God would give the Pyncheon’s blood to drink. And sure enough, not long after Colonel Pyncheon built his great, wood house with the seven gables, he died mysteriously, with blood found on his neck (referred to later as a throat aneurysm). And a number of Pyncheon’s die in this way through successive generations.

Hawthorne then proceeds to give us a bit more history as Pyncheon’s descendants descend into decay, financially and spiritually. One Pyncheon takes it into his head to right the wrong done a long time ago by Colonel Pyncheon to Matthew Maule by returning Seven Gables to the Maule family. But before he can do so, he dies mysteriously. One of his two nephews, Clifford Pyncheon, is accused of the murder and sent to prison. The other, Jaffrey Pyncheon, reforms his wild ways and becomes a model citizen and a judge. But this is all background and disposed of in one chapter, even though it is extremely important to the story.

House of Seven Gables, owned by Hawthorne's cousin, which inspired the house of the story

House of Seven Gables, owned by Hawthorne’s cousin, which inspired the house of the story

The bulk of the book begins with Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly woman, also the sister of Clifford. She is obliged to open a cent shop inside Seven Gables to support herself and Clifford, who is being released from prison soon. In the dark house comes Phoebe Pyncheon, a young relative whose parents live in the country. She is like a breath of fresh air in the old house and it seems like the house is beginning to come alive again under her influence. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious lodger at Seven Gables named Mr. Holgrave, who is a daguerreotypist. And Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon really wants to see Clifford, though both Hepzibah and Clifford hate him and won’t let him in, despite his reputation for being a good man.

But the events of the story are not that important in the novel. There is a bit of mystery, very little action. Mostly, there are set scenes that Hawthorne describes and then uses to discuss his characters – their past, their present and their association with the overall story. Hepzibah opens a cent shop and as she does so, Hawthorne tells us about her. How she has a scowl, but not because she’s bad tempered, but because she’s nearsighted. She was bred a lady (the Pyncheon’s are the American equivalent of impoverished aristocracy) and is humiliated by being forced to work. But she has a good heart and is loyal to Clifford.

After Phoebe arrives, Hawthorne takes time to discuss the essential sunshine of her nature. She is something fresh and new from the moldy line of Pyncheons and seems to dispel the curse merely by her refreshing presence, even brightening up the ruined life of Clifford, who would have been a somewhat shallow lover of all things beautiful, but now is a sorrowing man who has a dim sense of goodness that Hawthorne suggests he might not have had otherwise.

The way Hawthorne tells his story, the past and the present seem somewhat blurred. His theme are ancestral decay and family legacy (in this case, a legacy of guilt and rapacity) which is handed down the generations, though Hepzibah and Clifford seem more like victims than perpetrators. It’s a bit of a slow read, but Hawthorne’s prose is lovely. He paints word pictures so vividly and the atmosphere of the book is so strong, it almost comes off the page and I enjoyed it much more than I did his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter.

The House of the Seven Gables – Movie

house-of-gablesThe movie, on the other hand, is not very like the book. It is a more straightforward Gothic tale of romance and vindication, though it retains the sense of the family legacy of greed and a curse, without the same sense of decay. What makes the movie interesting is its exceptional cast: George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay.

The movie begins when Clifford (Vincent Price) and his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders – Jaffrey and Clifford were cousins in the novel) are still young. Hepzibah is transformed into a cousin (Margaret Lindsay) who is in love with Clifford.

Clifford is a musician, eager to leave his moldy family behind and go to New York. He also wants to sell Seven Gables, which appalls his greedy brother, Jaffrey, who believes that there is hidden in the house documents that could make the family very rich (there are echos of this in the novel). When a loud argument between Clifford and his father leads to the latter’s death of a throat aneurysm, George accuses Clifford of his murder and Clifford is sent to jail.

But instead of inheriting the house, Jaffrey is stunned to learn that Hepzibah actually will inherit the house. She forbids Jaffrey to ever enter and closes all the shutters, and cutting herself off from life until years later, when Clifford returns. She also has a lodger, Matthew Maule (Dick Foran), descendant of the original Matthew Maule, and who met Clifford in prison (this Maule is an abolitionist) and is helping him to clear his name. Also Phoebe (Nan Grey) is comes to stay, though she has less to do than she does in the novel, except be a love interest for Matthew Maule and provide contrast with Hepzibah.

Margaret Lindsay is sensational as Hepzibah. As the young Hepzibah, she reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck. The role is actually the kind of thing you could imagine Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis sinking their teeth into. She begins as a young girl, with mischievous eyes, hope in her face and a bounce in her step (though not excessively bouncy). But after the years of being alone, her posture changes and grows more severe, her expression hardens, her voice deepens, with a bearing that has a strong resemblance to Olivia de Havilland walking up the stairs at the end of The Heiress.

The young Jaffrey, Vincent Price and Margaret Lindsay

The young Jaffrey, Vincent Price and Margaret Lindsay

There is a lovely, touching scene when she and Clifford are reunited after eighteen years of separation. Both have changed so much, ravaged by time, and they are both afraid to see each other again, for fear of what the other will think of them. But their romance is the real romance and heart of the film (Phoebe and Matthew are mostly there for contrast, as the fresh young couple).

Vincent Price is so young in this film. He was about 29 and had only made his film debut two years previously. But he still has that voice and also does an excellent job playing both the younger Clifford, full of energy, and the older Clifford, now with white hair and a stoop in his shoulders.

George Sanders as Jaffrey remains mostly the same when young and older, but George Sanders is always such a perfectly sneering villain, and he’s not supposed to show the affects of time as much as the others.

Overall, it’s a very satisfying film. It’s not well known, only released as a DVD-R, but worthwhile if you are at all a fan of the actors involved. And its not  necessary to read the book before viewing, though the book is worthwhile in its own way.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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The Bride of Lammermoor – Sir Walter Scott

Henry_Gillard_Glindoni01I’ve read that The Bride of Lammermoor is quite different from Sir Walter Scott’s usual books, but since the only other one I’ve read is Ivanhoe I can’t say if that’s true. The Bride of Lammermoor is much shorter, though, and Gothic, romantic, and mystical. There are a lot of comparisons to be made with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

It was published in 1819, but the story is set sometime in the late sixteen hundreds. Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, has lost his ancestral lands (rather, his father lost them because he supported James VII of Scotland, who was also James II of England – the king who was ousted during the Glorious Revolution in 1688). The new owner of the Ravenswood estate is Sir William Ashton, a malleable and shrewd lawyer who always has his finger to the political wind.

Ravenswood is a stern and fierce young man who desires to revenge himself on Sir William and now lives in the tower of Wolfscrag, which was once a fortress and looms over the ocean in dilapidated, Gothic splendor. However, instead of revenging himself, he saves Sir William and his daughter, Lucy Ashton, from attack by some kind of wild cow and Lucy and Edgar fall in love. The two engage themselves secretly, despite deep forebodings from an old former servant of Ravenswood’s named Alice, various portends (a dead raven falls at Lucy’s feet when they engage themselves to each other) and a warning from Ravenswood’s one remaining servant, Caleb.

Sir William is not actually entirely opposed to the match, since it is possible that Ravenswood’s uncle, the Marquis of A_______(we never do find out what the A________ stands for) might be able to raise Ravenswood up when his political party regains power in the Scottish parliament. But Lady Ashton is opposed. As soon as she arrives in the story, Sir William almost completely disappears, becoming a henpecked, ineffectual husband. Lady Ashton reminds many people of Lady Macbeth, although she does not love her husband as Lady Macbeth did; but she is the driving force behind him, the one he listens to, who is willing to stop at very little to get what she wants. And what she does not want is for Lucy to marry Ravenswood; she wants her to marry another young man called Bucklaw. She sets out, therefore, quite deliberately, to break her daughters resolution to honor her betrothal to Ravenswood and if breaking her resolution means breaking her mind, Lady Ashton does not balk.

The book ends in tragedy, madness, death, stabbing, and broken family lines. However, despite the inevitable sense of tragedy, it is not a depressing read. The chief fun comes from Ravenswood’s devoted family servant, Caleb Balderstone. He will do anything to keep up the family honor, including lying, stealing, and arson. It is always a source of amused suspense to both the reader and to Ravenswood to see how Caleb will find Ravenswood’s next meal or provide for his guests or excuse his lack of provisions or even prevent Ravenswood from having guests so that no one will know the extreme poverty Ravenswood has been reduced to. But his devotion is touching because of his genuine concern for his master, as well as the family honor.

Charles_Robert_Leslie_-_Sir_Walter_Scott_-_Ravenswood_and_Lucy_at_the_Mermaiden's_Well_-_Bride_of_LammermoorScott seems to be drawing, self-consciously, from “Macbeth.” They are both tales in Scotland, there is a woman who is the power behind the husband who causes most of the evil, there are mighty storms with thunder and rain, specters appear, and Scott even has three old women like the three Weird Sisters in “Macbeth,” though Scott’s three women are being led by one, Ailsie Gourlay, who seems to know who is marked out for death and even helps Lady Ashton to poison Lucy’s mind.

The book ends up being part Gothic, part comic, and also part political as people scheme to be part of the winning party while such troublemakers as Craigengelt tries to persuade Bucklaw and Ravenswood to assist the exiled James II in France. It was a little hard to follow all the political aspects, but it didn’t fundamentally diminish my understanding of the story. Another difficult aspect of the book is the language. Many of the Scottish characters, such as Caleb and Ailsie Gourlay and Alice, speak in a Scottish dialect that is hard to decipher.

The books central couple make a very curious romantic pair, because they are not particularly suited. She is romantic-minded (she loves the stories, myths and legends) and very meek and pliable. He is stern, proud and energetic. They seem bound to each other less because they love each other (they hardly know each other), but because in a moment of heady-emotion, they became betrothed. She is sticking to it for the romance of it and he because he is honorable.

One complaint I do have is that the book appears to be rushed at the end. Just when the book should be getting most dramatic is when it wraps up. Plot Spoilers! When Lucy goes mad and stabs her husband Bucklaw and when Ravenswood dies afterwards, it is recounted almost as if it were a postscript. However, it is still not a story that is easily forgotten; it seems to imprint itself very clearly on the imagination. End Plot Spoiler.

Walter Scott is said to have derived the story from life and it was a story that Scott heard from many different people, including his mother, and he always thought that his mother told it particularly well. He was worried that the story would lose something in translation from an oral story to a written one. He thought a full-length novel wouldn’t have nearly the impact of, as he put it, a story told in thirty minutes by the fire. I see what he means. Sometimes, when a story captures our imagination, it can be hard to actually do it justice in a novel, where you have to provide so many more details that you do not have to provide in an oral tale. I think the power of his story is more in the story than in the actual writing – though there is nothing wrong with his writing; it is skillfully amusing and evocative. However, this might be why there are many details that seem to get lost in the book that Scott neglects to give us, like why Ravenswood does not receive Lucy’s letters, but suddenly gets them later. This is a story, not about details or human motivations, but about the romance of the story itself. It is a book that cries out to be read during the evening or night, on a rainy day, or during a storm.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Fiction

 

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