Wieland or the Transformation: An American Tale by Charles Brockden Brown

Daniel Couégnas’ essay, “Forms of Popular Narrative in France and England: 1700-1900” points out research by Maurice Lévy on the titles of gothic novels. “The most frequent model of title falls into two parts linked by or in the eighteenth-century style, followed by a subtitle that indicates the genre.” That last is usually “a romance” or some such.

In the case of Wieland, however, this gothic novel is “an American tale,” an interesting effect. English gothic novels were commonly set in southern Europe, where the mysterious and occult Catholics native to the area could terrify innocent and unsuspecting heroines. Charles Brockden Brown’s novel is, instead, set in Quaker Pennsylvania just before the turn of the 18th century.

Never heard of Brown? You’re hardly alone. Invisible College Press, which partly specializes in hard-to-find classics, reprinted Wieland, which was originally published in 1798.

The first interesting thing about the novel is that the innocent, unsuspecting heroine is in fact our first-person narrator. She ominously sets the scene:

I feel little reluctance in complying with your request. You know not fully the cause of my sorrows. You are a stranger to the depth of my distresses. Hence your efforts at consolation must necessarily fail. Yet the tale that I am going to tell is not intended as a claim upon your sympathy…. It will exemplify the force of early impressions, and show the immeasurable evils that flow from an erroneous or imperfect discipline.

My state is not destitute of tranquility. The sentiment that dictates my feelings is not hope. Futurity has no power over my thoughts. To all that is to come I am perfectly indifferent. With regard to myself, I have nothing more to fear. Fate has done its worst. Henceforth, I am callous to misfortune.

A melodramatic heroine? Impossible!

In fact, Clara Wieland is quite level-headed, and demonstrates that throughout most of the narrative. But at certain times of climactic passion she gives over to depression—with good reason.

The first part of the narrative is heavy on exposition. Clara’s father was an immigrant to Pennsylvania from Europe, with his own strange, personal religion. He began a homestead outside Philadelphia and prospered and had a family. He also built a small temple on the outskirts of the property, and it was his unshakable habit to go there each day at noon and midnight. He had attempted, for a time, to evangelize the natives, but failed, and believed this failure damned him eternally. He became more and more peculiar until finally, one midnight, he seemed to spontaneously combust alone in the temple, and no satisfactory explanation for his death was found.

Years later Clara and her older brother Theodore inhabit the homestead. Theodore has married a childhood friend, Catharine, and her brother, Pleyel, rounds out a group of four kindred spirits who seem to spend all their time together, reading plays and epic poems and discussing matters intellectual. Wieland has inherited his father’s contemplative religious nature, but unsurprisingly not his habits at the temple. Mysterious voices begin to be heard about the farm, and while they are disturbing nothing seems too sinister—at first. The friends speculate on the supernatural possibilities, but are mostly skeptical.

The group of four is augmented by a fifth friend, a Carwin, whom Pleyel knows from his time touring Europe. Carwin used to live in Spain and was Catholic, though his origin and reason for coming to the new world were unclear. Clara, always extremely upright and chaste, is intrigued by Carwin at first but is truly in love with Pleyel. On the day she expects her longtime friend to propose, she is first attacked in the night in her own bedroom, and then Pleyel arrives not to console but to level accusations and part from her for good. While Clara tries, with the help of her brother, to retrieve her good name, unimaginable tragedy strikes and her entire family—everyone she loves and holds dear but Pleyel—is destroyed.

This is where, naturally, Clara descends into a great depression. She cannot, of course, contemplate suicide, but expects to lie abed until her life simply slips away. She firmly believes Carwin to be an evil man and at the root of the tragic occurrences, but he has disappeared and the authorities blame another. Clara must return to the scene of her former happiness one last time, and when she does she receives the very mundane, earthly reasons for the seemingly spiritual events that plagued the family. She doesn’t want to accept this—or Carwin’s innocence (however flawed)—but is eventually forced to see the truth of it when she herself is almost killed.

This is very firmly a late-18th/early-19th century novel, but shouldn’t be shied away from as boring or staid. Yes, there is a perfect and pure heroine who faints away from time to time, but really the narrative is almost entirely plot-driven and a real page-turner. Setting a gothic romance among American Quakers proves to be an interesting conceit, as is allowing the swooning heroine to narrate the whole thing herself. The tale also has many elements of the mystery, and Carwin’s long soliloquy presages in many ways the final scene of a detective novel, where the investigator reveals everything and all becomes so suddenly obvious. (That explanation, in this case, may seem to us a bit silly but I understand it was much more exciting in 1798.) Those who follow the 50-page rule (of which I seriously disapprove) may not make it out of the initial exposition and into the real story, which would be a shame, because soon enough the plot takes a much more exciting and breathless turn.

This was not just an enjoyable and unusual execution of the gothic novel, but simply a good read, and a fascinating precursor to other American writers like Edgar Allen Poe.

Thanks to Mini Book Expo for Bloggers for hooking me up with this book.