Breaking the Mold
Critics and parents have long maligned the novels of V.C. Andrews as trash, and being of little substance for nearly thirty years. Critics have labeled the books’ plots “unbelievable” and the dialogue “indigestible” (Huntley, 8). Andrews has been accused by her critics of writing novels obsessed with incest.
Despite the numerous disparaging reviews, however, Andrews’ books are still incredibly popular, and there are over 85 million copies of her novels in print. Readers devour her novels at a voracious rate, prompting one reviewer to posit an explanation as to why her books could be popular. He suggested “that one explanation for the popularity of Andrews’ novels is that readers take a macabre pleasure in reading about the travails of others … (Huntley, 8)” The audience lives vicariously through Andrews’ accessible characters, experiencing those characters’ fears and joys from a safe distance.
All of the novels written by Andrews bear many strong, unmistakable resemblances to the Gothic and sensation fiction of old. Innocent young children are locked away in dark, dank attics by a cruel, selfish mother, left to wither and die. An evil grandfather threatens disinheritance and abuse to his willful daughter, unless she gives in to his demands. A falsely sanctimonious grandmother laces with arsenic the food she brings her captive grandchildren to eat.
V.C. Andrews’ novels follow in the tradition of the Gothic novel. (Huntley, 17) The Gothic novel, a suspenseful tale of psychological terror, first appeared in Europe in the eighteenth century, and combines horror, violence and supernatural forces with medieval elements—typically a medieval Gothic castle or a monastery. As these traditions immigrated with their authors to the New World, they were modified. Since young America lacked medieval castles, American authors focused on old crumbling estates that were relics of a dying or decaying society.
V.C. Andrews’ novels are a Gothic of the twentieth century, focusing on a young heroine who is forced to endure abuse and isolation, only to triumph over adversity and get her “happily ever after”—if only for a short time.
Andrews’ novels are considered the female Gothic, as they usually center around an adolescent girl and her emerging sexuality. The masculine Gothic, to which Matthew Lewis’ The Monk belongs, typically focus on a male outsider who enforces his isolation on a female counterpart (Huntley, 19). The female Gothic focuses on dangers in the home and family, where patriarchal figures menace the young woman under the guise of protecting her. Not all Gothics written by women, however, fall into the female Gothic category; Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein have more in common with Matthew Lewis than they do with Anne Radcliffe.
The modern Gothic novel has undergone many changes since the novels of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and many others. The American Gothic owes some of its existence to writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Faulkner (Huntley, 20). The true twentieth century descendants of Radcliffe and the Brontë sisters are Daphne du Maurier, and later, Babara Michaels, Joan Aiken and Mary Stewart, to name a few. Andrews’ has more in common with these authors than the horror novelists she is routinely grouped with. Andrews, E.D. Huntley writes, worked both within and without the Radcliffe tradition, leading reviewers and critics to attach to her novels a number of different labels: “Gothic tales,” “horror fiction,” and “romantic suspense” are the most common (28). None of the applied labels, however, truly fit, besides female Gothic.
The most obvious of Andrews’ Gothic works is the Dollanganger saga. The saga deals with the beautiful, blonde, and perfect Dollanganger family. The parents and the four children are so lovely, others nickname them the Dresden Dolls for their Germanic good looks. The first and best of the Dollanganger saga, Flowers in the Attic, begins as a sort of fairytale; the family is close and loving, and “all of life [was] like one long and perfect summer day (Andrews, 5).” The fairytale abruptly turns into a nightmare, however, when Catherine’s father is killed in a car accident and the family can no longer afford their lavish lifestyle. Catherine soon learns that her parents were actually half-brother and half-sister, and that their true name is Foxworth. Catherine’s destitute mother must return to her childhood home to seek financial assistance from her wealthy parents, whom Catherine and her siblings have never met.
Upon their arrival at the familial estate, the children are separated from their mother and locked in an attic suite. Because their mother, Corrine, hopes to be reinstated as her father’s heir, she must pretend she does not have children. If it is discovered she and her half-brother Christopher had any children, Corrine will forfeit her inheritance and receive no money when her father dies.
The days lengthen into weeks and then months, and finally, years. The children are physically abused, starved and eventually poisoned by the wicked grandmother, while Corrine enjoys a life of leisure as a jet-setting socialite. One of the children dies from poisoning before the survivors manage to escape their attic prison.
Cathy, the heroine of the Dollanganger saga, bears strong resemblances to several Gothic and sensation fiction heroines. The most obvious of those resemblances is Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights. Shared name notwithstanding, Cathy Dollanganger and Catherine Earnshaw are both passionate and hot-tempered. Both Cathy and Catherine have strong, almost unbreakable bonds with the main men in their lives; Catherine to Heathcliff and Cathy to Christopher. The only thing that can separate the pairs of lovers is death. Neither of the relationships are sanctioned, either. Heathcliff is off limits to Catherine because of his lower status and the fact he is an outsider. Christopher is off limits to Cathy because he is related to her by blood. Where Andrews flouts the tradition, however, is when Cathy and Christopher decide to eschew the moral norms of society and live as husband and wife, while concealing the true nature of their relationship. Like Catherine Earnshaw does in Wuthering Heights, Cathy Dollanganger marries another man—several other men, actually, in a desperate search for the man who will fulfill her yearning for her dead father, Christopher Sr. Cathy is forever searching for romantic partners that remind her of her strong, handsome father; like Catherine Earnshaw, she is unable to hold on to them. Cathy loses her all her lovers—except her brother Christopher—to premature death.
Cathy bears a striking resemblance to another heroine of sensation fiction, Lady Lucy Audley of Lady Audley’s Secret. Like Lady Audley, Cathy leaves behind her a trail of dead men (Andrews, Petals on the Wind; 436). Also, like Lady Audley, Cathy is so taken with her own beauty, that she admires herself in mirrors. Cathy’s beauty becomes a tool, and even a weapon she wields with surprising power. Cathy is able to captivate men and lure them to their demise like an unwitting siren, as well as incite jealousy and hatred in her beautiful mother, Corrine, just with her looks. Also, like Lady Audley, Cathy, in later installments of the Dollanganger saga, commits vengeful and cruel acts to get what she desires—and to protect her family. Both women must eliminate reminders of their dark past to keep what they believe is rightfully theirs. Lady Audley seemingly murders her first husband to keep the past from darkening her doorstep, while Cathy conceals her incestuous relationship from everyone, including her own children, and exacts a triumphant revenge on her mother which leads to the death of the grandmother and Cathy’s step-father / lover.
One very important aspect of Gothic fiction that is perpetuated in V.C. Andrews’ brand of the female Gothic is the concept of surveillance and voyeurism. In Flowers in the Attic, surveillance is pervasive and predominant; the grandmother often spies on the four children without their knowledge. Christopher watches Cathy undress in front of a mirror and admire her body, without her knowledge—while the grandmother is watching them both. In Garden of Shadows, the prequel to Flowers in the Attic, Grandmother Olivia—a young woman in this installment—spies on her husband Malcolm’s father and step-mother, Alicia, as they make love. Olivia even follows Alicia when she goes to bathe, and spies on an intimate exchange between Alicia and Olivia’s husband Malcolm that leads to attempted rape.
Characters in the Dollanganger saga have no privacy, especially in Flowers in the Attic and Garden of Shadows. Characters often spy on secret discussions and illicit affairs. Crucial developments often come about while characters are surreptitiously spying. Christopher learns that their grandfather has been dead all along, and that their mother was poisoning them with arsenic-laced donuts through spying (Andrews, Flowers in the Attic; 390).
Surveillance is also a large theme in Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White. Woman in White deals with the Victorians’ anxiety about being watched, through the introduction of a detective character who invades the domestic sphere. Walter Hartright also intrudes on territory that would otherwise be off-limits to him—specifically when Walter reads and edits out portions of Marian Halcombe’s diary. Marian’s privacy is further violated when the villainous Fosco actually takes a pen to her diary, and writes in it.
Clearly, these are different types of violations, but they are all violations of privacy. Characters insinuate themselves into other characters’ lives, where they would otherwise not belong. The violations are meant to make the Victorian audience uncomfortable and put them ill at ease—just as V.C. Andrews intends with her depictions of spying and surveillance in her Dollanganger saga.
It is obvious that V.C. Andrews’ dark, Gothic tales owe a lot of their existence to the Gothic and sensation fiction novels that preceded them. The books also incorporate influences from Southern Gothic to the original Grimm Brothers fairytales. Like Sarah Waters and her novel Fingersmith, V.C. Andrews takes on the traditional Gothic genre. Like her finest creation, Cathy Dollanganger, V.C. Andrews breaks the mold.