Rereading Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst for review, it struck me how very depressing a novel it is. It opens with a sensational tabloid article about a crumbling medieval mansion called Wake’s End and the murder that Edmund Stearne, its last owner but one, committed one fateful day in 1913. Was his 16-year-old daughter, Maud, to blame? And is there a connection with Edmund’s disturbing, Dadd-like paintings?
What follows is Maud’s story of her childhood and the events that led to the murder. Without giving too much away, it’s a typically Gothic novel in its portrayal of Edmund Stearne as an abusive, tyrannical patriarch and Maud as his helpless female relative; we’re reminded of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, in which the innocent Emily is imprisoned by her step-uncle Signor Montoni, or Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, in which Isabella is pursued by her father-in-law. The ancestral home is important in these stories: quite often it symbolises the inherited privilege that gives these men almost absolute power over their female relatives, which is why they’re such menacing places to exist. So it’s interesting that Maud loves Wake’s End; that she wants to restore it and conserve the fen that sits alongside it. In this update on the Gothic novel, Edmund’s abuse of Maud (as well as her mother, who dies early on in the book) renders him a usurper at Wake’s End; Maud, with her love of the house, the fen and the wildlife that both support, is a more worthy owner, and as such comes into her own at the end of the novel. This is a framework that places respect for the house and for the land over ancestral power or “right”.
It’s a framework that is of course born of progressive thought: as a society we now mostly recognise that power should not be held by those who abuse it merely because they’ve inherited it. However, I’m inclined to think that it also somewhat defangs the transgressive power of the Gothic: these novels are set up specifically to question the idea that wealthy men have a legal right to control and abuse women solely. Remove that legal right, or the moral framework in which that right exists, as Paver does in Wakenhyrst, and you get a story that’s more about individual circumstance than it is about a social problem. Edmund Stearne is a dick! But in Paver’s framework he has no right to be a dick; his power comes largely from the fact that Maud is a child and can’t do anything to supplant him. He’s terrifying, but not as a Gothic villain and not as a representative of The Patriarchy.
That the novel’s bent is actually more conservative than it would be in a traditional Gothic patriarchal framework can be seen from the very fact that Maud does go on to inherit Wake’s End; that she retains the privilege she’s had, functionally, her whole life. Her father, awful as he is, never deprives her of food or the run of their literal medieval mansion; she always has warm clothing and she does not have to go into service at the age of 13 to a literal child rapist, as is the fate of one of the Wake’s End maids. Which is not to minimise the experience of abuse victims; it’s just to point out that Wakenhyrst is perhaps not the most intersectional of novels. Its privileging of Maud’s view of things, its implicit positioning of Maud as the greatest victim in all of this, is actually all the weirder in view of the fact that we get a much better look at the Wake’s End staff and how their lot compares with that of “the quality” than we would in a traditional Gothic novel. Most Gothic novels have a classist bent, in that they’re almost all about gentlewomen, some of whom may have fallen on hard times; take the patriarchal critique out of the Gothic novel and the classism is all you get.
To be clear, I enjoyed some things about Wakenhyrst: Maud’s love for the fen, the way we as adults understand things that child-Maud doesn’t, Maud’s relationship with her mother. It’s not a nice novel, though: pretty much everything is horrible for Maud for most of the book, and knowing that she turns out all right in the end doesn’t make it easier to read. Edmund is deeply, deeply narcissistic: he puts his own sexual desires above the needs of the women he uses to sate them; his only interest in Maud is as a secretary/housekeeper, not as his actual daughter; he generally sees other people as a means to an end. Pretty much everything Maud finds joy in gets taken away from her – her love interest, her faith in her father’s love for her, her wild pets, her friend. There’s a fair bit of animal death in this book, if that’s a thing that distresses you. Basically this is a novel that’s pretty grim without doing very much to justify that grimness; it’s an okay read, but at “okay” you might as well read something else.