Dolly Haze, Meet Cathy Dollanganger
A middle-aged man boarding in a widow's house, Humbert Humbert, becomes infatuated with her 12-year-old daughter, and when the widow is killed in a car accident takes advantage of the opportunity to kidnap the daughter with the intention of raping her. After becoming lovers they settle in another town, posing as father and daughter, until the girl tires of his possessiveness and escapes with the help of another older man who is infatuated with her. They split up after he tries to involve her in pornography and she ends up married, pregnant, and poor. Humbert helps her out with money, but she dies in childbirth at the age of 17.
This, as everyone knows, is the plot of Nabokov's Lolita (1955), considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
After losing her husband in a car accident, Corrine Dollanganger, a beautiful young widow reveals to her children that their family is fabulously wealthy and that she will be taking them to her grandparents' mansion, Foxworth Hall. They arrive at night and are taken to a far-off room leading to the attic, as well as meeting their grandmother, a terrifying Bible-thumper who makes no secret of hating them. Corrine explains that her sternly religious parents' disapproved of her marriage to their father because he was her half-uncle, and that they will have to stay in the room for a few days or weeks, until she wins her father over. The “few days” turn into months and then years of waiting for the old man to die, during which their mother appears less and less frequently. The children can only play in the attic, which they decorate to resemble a garden. The monotony of their existence is broken up by surprise visits from the Grandmother, who spies on them and doles out whippings and other torture for disobedience or any hint of sexuality. The growth of the two younger children is stunted because they are never outdoors, while the two older children go through puberty and, with no one else around, develop a romance. Meanwhile, their mother gets remarried, to a man who knows nothing about them. When one of the young twins dies, from pneumonia according to their mother, Cathy and Christopher resolve to finally escape. When they see that their dead brother's pet mouse died after eating one of the powdered-sugar donuts that has been added to the picnic basket recently, they realize that they're being poisoned. Worse, they deduce that the poisoner is not their grandmother but their mother, having learned that the grandfather added a codicil to their will that she will forfeit her inheritance if it's proved that she had children from her first marriage.
This, as everyone knows (though perhaps not in all cases the same “everyone” who knows about Lolita), is the plot of V. C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic (1979), which is set in the 1950s upon which Lolita is often presumed to pass scathing commentary. Whereas both Lolita and Flowers critique the nuclear family and the cheerful, suburban American ideal that conceals its secret passions, Lolita also criticizes the kitsch of American existence – tacky hotels and slangy, gum-snapping teens. Both novels are also first-person narratives, although Lolita is told from the perspective of the abusive adult (every bit as much of a charmer and self-deceiver as Corrine) and Flowers from the perspective of the abused young girl (the oldest girl, Cathy).
The interesting question before us is, of course, why Lolita is considered a masterpiece and Flowers in the Attic a piece of irredeemable yet strangely undying trash. Usually a novel is only considered “trash” if its subject matter is “trash,” which is to say, deals with an unacceptable form of sex; otherwise the milder pejoratives “garbage” or “junk” suffice. Obviously I have no systematic way of proving this anecdotal observation, but you know what I mean: novels dealing with taboo sex are put in their own category of “badness” and assumed to be bad until proven, by the defense of the cultural elite, to be aesthetically good, which, according to that elite, mitigates or negates their moral badness, and is in any case the more important value, or perhaps I should say, the appropriate value when dealing with art. The fact that Humbert Humbert keeps the reader morally anaesthetized by aestheticizing his predation of a child only makes the novel better by making us aware that the aesthetic defense is problematic.
But no novel survives because of its prose style. We make distinctions between novels based in part on the sophistication of the language, concepts, and structure, in part on things like whether or not it belongs to a genre (most genre fiction has to be around for a very long time before it's accepted into the canon), on its marketing, on what happens to be popular among the literati at the time (e.g. since Modernism you have to be a Modernist), and, yes, still in many cases the gender of the author (and presumed audience). But novels survive because of their archetypal power, and at that level there is frequent continuity between acknowledged great novelists and great popular novelists: it's interesting to compare the character types and the romantic endings of Portrait of a Lady and Gone With the Wind, for example, and Henry James is another progenitor of Flowers in the Attic, particularly in “The Turn of the Screw.”
Childhood, the Gothic, and Freud
Dickens is a rare case of a great popular novelist who is also considered uncontroversially canonical; but this is unlikely to happen to V. C. Andrews, because there is far too much shame associated with her oeuvre. If the day comes that that shame is no longer present, the novels will have lost the power that makes them important. If FITA's chronologically immediate progenitors include sensational bestsellers like Peyton Place (1965), with its themes of incest, illegitimacy, and adultery, and the child abuse memoir Mommie Dearest (1978), it also takes its place among such memorable horror novels of the 70s as Stephen King's Carrie (1974), the ultimate account of female adolescent shame, and Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), which also features a tremendously dysfunctional mock-nuclear family, this one headed by two male vampires, and the idea of doll-like children who are at once mature beyond their years and unable to achieve physical maturity, in a hellishly suspended puberty.
Both Rice and Andrews revived and developed the “Turn of the Screw” theme of the sexualization of children that appeared at the same cultural moment as Freud's theory of child sexuality – an idea that still makes as uncomfortable. The question that torments the Governess in James's Gothic novella is whether she is projecting sexuality onto the children or whether she has accurately assessed their sexual knowledge, in which case the source of contamination was their previous caretakers, Jessel and Quint. Her morbid fascination with the question of the children's innocence, however, is itself a kind of voyeuristic objectification of them – which finds one kind of logical development in Lolita, whose heroine is erotic for the narrator because she is non-sexual, and another in IWTV, in which our cultural fetishization of children and infantilization of women is played out in the form of a kind of nightmarish curse instead of the usual fantasy. Peter Pan is another fairy-tale progenitor to these horror novels; the Lost Boys are motherless children taken care of by Wendy, the Victorian Little Mother who can't wait to get out of the nursery, or rather get out of the nursery and then re-enter it as a mother. Only Peter Pan himself (like Rice's Nietzschean Lestat) boldly refuses to grow up (or in Lestat's case, grow old and die). It's perhaps interesting to note that a dead child featured centrally in the lives of both J. M. Barrie and Anne Rice: in Barrie's case, his older brother, whom Barrie would imitate (e.g. by wearing his clothes) in order to get the attention of his grieving mother; in Rice's, her daughter, who died of leukemia soon before her sixth birthday.
Adolescent Shame and Aesthetic Embarrassment
Although King's Carrie may be the ultimate account of female adolescent shame, with the DePalma movie still being discovered by new generations of teenage girls (even those who would never otherwise watch a movie made before they were born), FITA goes a step further: thanks to its “icky” incest theme, it is itself contaminated by that shame. The shame that one felt reading this smut as a pubescent girl transmutes later into an even more agonizing aesthetic shame: one can see it in the comments, essays, and blog posts by former readers of the series, who are only willing to confess their former fandom if they also excoriate Andrews's writing. The more recent the repudiation, the more hysterical the tone; the psychological mechanism is similar to the one whereby a generation of American movie critics who grew up with Jerry Lewis turned him into the bete noir of American film criticism when, as adults, they attempted to establish the seriousness of the medium, their enterprise, and their country's films in particular. Lewis, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued, epitomized the shame of the unruly pubescent body; but the sexuality of the persona was officially neuter, with even his lavish displays of sexualized affection for Dean Martin falling under the permissible neuter category of male puberty. In FITA, the shame that the pubescent girl feels about her changing body and biology and her curiosity about sex are projected onto the mother, who hides her children away and then forgets about them, while the book itself becomes another dirty secret, the act of incest objectifying and rationalizing the shame and embarrassment that the hazy idea of sex inspires in well-brought-up young virgins. Internet fan fiction, mainly written and consumed by young women and girls, now serves this purpose, and is aesthetically excoriated accordingly. It's perhaps to be expected that this demographic has internalized the idea that “female genres,” such as romance, are aesthetically worthless, and mixed up this cultural embarrassment with their sexual embarrassment and general adolescent shame or the shameful memory of it.
Andrews's Gothic Tropes
Andrews may not have been much of a prose writer, but, based on the names dropped in FITA, shewas a great reader, and there is a sophisticated as well as an instinctive side to her understanding and development of the Gothic genre. Take the invented name that the children's parents adopt for the family: Dollanganger calls attention to the doll-like qualities not only of the family's “all-American” beauty, but of their approach to gender roles (with Cathy as the ballerina doll and Chris as the doctor doll); it suggests the “gangliness” of adolescence and Cathy's “anger” at their mother's betrayal, as well as containing the word “gang”; and of course, as many have pointed out, it resembles “doppelganger.” Camille Paglia has written about how the profusion of doppelgangers in Gothic suggests psychological obsession and claustrophobia on the part of the writer. The Dollangangers are all doppelgangers for each other and serve as substitutes for each other: Cathy competes with her mother first for her father, then for Chris, as a substitute for her father; she wins (partly because of their sexual relationship), but only precariously, aware that Chris may at any time revert to his original love for their mother, for whom, Cathy knows, she is only a substitute.
Brother-sister incest has a respectable Gothic pedigree going back to Byron's Manfred, and Paglia has written about how Romantic incest is idealizing, with the “sister-spirit” as a manifestation of the poet's androgynous nature. FITA, however, is told from the sister's perspective. Chris is no Muse; he is, curiously, the sexually safe choice within the terms of women's romantic fiction: incest as the comfort of the familiar, a little like Isabel Archer's relationship with her cousin Ralph in James's Portrait of a Lady. Like many a romantic novel (or novel series) heroine, Cathy isn't especially in love with any of the men she seduces, but any of the others are more challenging to her than Chris – including Julian, whose “vulgar” attitude to sex she can't abide, and Bart, whom she comes closest to loving because her competition with her mother for him creates emotions that are strong enough that she mistakes them for love. But the only actual emotion Cathy is capable of feeling the love-hate (mostly hate) she feels for her mother/doppelganger, with whom she's stuck in the adolescent position of wanting to establish her own identity/wanting to be nothing like her and wanting to be just like her (the all-powerful seductress that she worshiped in childhood). She ends up with Chris not because they're Cathy-and-Heathcliff-like soul-mates, but because she can't escape the matrix of her family romance: she can't cathect onto anyone outside her immediate family. That claustrophobic psychological situation is spatially reproduced in the room and attic where they're kept prisoner, a womb-space where unpleasant emotions strangely change into pleasant ones. The reader, too, wants to return to that site of trauma, supercharged with emotion and meaning, which is why even though the second novel in the series, Petals on the Wind, is an enjoyably soapy coming-of-age and revenge story, the most exciting scene is the one where Cathy returns to Foxworth Hall to confront the Grandmother, raising the spectre of a horror that Cathy learns, to her disappointment, is now part of a past so irretrievable that revenge will always miss its mark, even though that past will haunt her for the rest of her life.
The Southern Gothic, Invalidism, and the Family Romance
One of the ways that reviewers of the new Lifetime movie adaptation dealt with their embarrassment over the subject matter of FITA was to accuse the movie of not being “campy” enough. But FITA, although full of stylized (successfully or not) dialogue and first-person narration, is the least campy of the novels actually written by V. C. Andrews. The feverish My Sweet Audrina, whose heroine must attempt, like the young J. M. Barrie, to channel the spirit of her dead older sister, “the first and best Audrina,” in order to please a parent, is easily the campiest of the novels actually written by Andrews (there are so many deaths-by-falling-down-the-stairs that it's like Ed Wood wrote a soap opera), and as such would probably best lend itself to dramatization. It also best fits into the Southern Gothic tradition exemplified by writers as diverse as Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Like those other famous female Southern authors, Andrews found inspiration in illness, in Andrews case the arthritis that afflicted her from the time of a teenage accident; like McCullers she used a wheelchair, and like O'Connor, who moved in with her widowed mother as an invalid, she lived most (all?) of her life with her widowed mother. (All of this I've gleaned from the Wikipedia article on Andrews and a couple of web biographies.) Andrews and O'Connor were also both visual artists as well as writers; Andrews, however, did not turn to writing until she was in her 50s, and died of breast cancer early in her bestselling writing career. My Sweet Audrina features two classic Southern Gothic “grotesques”: Billie, a double leg amputee who becomes Audrina's mother-in-law as well as her dad's girlfriend, and Audrina's intellectually disabled little sister, Sylvia. The plot, however, is Henry James meets Robert Aldrich.
Unlike the angry, vengeful heroines of the Dollanganger and Casteel series, Audrina is purely passive: she's Andrews's Maggie Verver, except that the libidos and drama swirling around her belong to hillbillies instead of members of high society. Just as Maggie gets her marriage into hot water by clinging to her emotionally incestuous relationship with her father, Adam, thus driving her husband into the arms of her friend Charlotte, who's also, by the way, her stepmother, since she married her off to her father so he wouldn't be left lonely by her marriage; so Audrina, by clinging to her childhood and shrinking from the physical side of her marriage, lets her jealous cousin and illegitimate half-sister (that's right: dad had an affair with her mother's sister before he met her mother) step in and seduce her husband. Audrina, however, has a pretty good excuse for her regressive tendencies: although she thinks she's afraid of men and sex because her older sister was gang-raped and murdered in the woods, in fact she was the rape victim, although everyone in her life has conspired to persuade her otherwise.