Underground Reading: Black Rainbow by Barbara Michaels
Monday, September 06, 2010
I was delighted to find a copy of Black Rainbow, a Barbara Michaels novel from 1982, during our recent spree at Borderlands. It promised to be everything I love about Michaels' novels - a snappy read, a Gothic, and one with feminist themes.
Sadly, Black Rainbow did not live up to my expectations.
While Black Rainbow is not a terrible novel, it's uncharacteristically ambitious for Michaels. She bites off more than she can chew, however, and the book suffers for it.
There is something really interesting going on with Black Rainbow, but Michaels never quite manages to make it work.
Barbara Mertz, as I've mentioned elsewhere, writes under two pseudonyms: Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. With my taste for mid-century American Gothic and feminist literature, I tend to favor the Michaels novels, particularly the early ones (which are Gothickier and feministier).
Black Rainbow is, sadly, only very superficially Gothic, although it's very feministy. Here's the story:
The time: 1855. A poor but well-educated and lovely young woman (Megan) is hired by a handsome young man (Edmund) to act as governess to his ward (i.e., illegitimate child). She becomes close friends with his competent, although not beautiful, sister (Jane) and, naturally, falls madly in love with him. (Shades of a bad Jane Eyre knock-off, eh? Wait, wait; there's more.)
Edmund has only just returned to the family home - an enormous Yorkshire mansion his family bought rather than inherited - from the Crimean War. He has delusions of wealth and privilege, and immediately sets about exploiting the local townsfolk and filling the family mill with laboring children. While Megan and Jane don't entirely approve of his behavior, they can't do much to stop him. Edmund eventually marries his predictable governess and deprives his plain but competent sister of her legal rights to the family mill.
Edmund's sister and wife become increasingly powerless in the face of his increasing villainy. Jane is smart and competent but insecure, having no real formal education, and constantly defers to her icky brother. Megan, meanwhile, is so naive and besotted that she can't see through the glowing halo she's imputed to him, even as he tries to murder her. Multiple times.
In theory, Michaels wrote a novel about the legal, physical and cultural powerlessness of women in mid-nineteenth century England. Megan and Jane have no recourse against Edmund, who asserts complete control over their lives. Again, in theory, the novel should be about their agency - how they discover it and learn to control it. Unfortunately, Edmund is such an evil bastard, and characterized so poorly, that their sufferance renders them almost entirely unsympathetic.
This, unfortunately, is where the book fails. Edmund is so obviously a villain from the first paragraph of the first page that he might as well be introduced drop-kicking a kitten. Michaels doesn't give him any characteristics that make Megan's and Jane's feelings towards him reasonable. He's not funny or charismatic or smart or interesting, or in any way half as fascinating as he should be. He's just an asshole, a lying, cheating, scummy jerk who eventually goes completely insane, locks his sister in a crumbling tower and tries to murder his wife. And they sit there and take it, because the plot requires that they do so until the end of the book.
To be fair, the conclusion is pretty interesting. But it's not worth slogging through the novel to get there. (I'll spoil it here, in white text; just highlight the next paragraph if you're curious.)
Jane realizes Edmund will eventually succeed in murdering his wife, their son, and the man his wife once slept with. So she she blows his head off with a shotgun during a hunting party. For real!
Barbara Mertz completely delights me. She's a gigantic nerd with a Ph.D. (awarded by Pornokitsch's collective alma mater), which she earned at the tender age of 23. She writes nerdy, funny novels that rarely underestimate her audience's intelligence and have a distinct and welcome feminist slant. And her personal webpage even sports an adorably crochety little note about how to contact her - snail mail only, please, as she doesn't have an email address.
Her novels aren't brilliant, but they're good reads. They're fun, they're funny, they're smart, and they're pretty progressive. I know, when I pick up a Mertz novel, that I may never read it again, but I'll likely enjoy the single ride. Black Rainbow, I'm sorry to say, doesn't live up to the usual Mertz standard. If you'll excuse the histrionic metaphor, the entire delicate house of cards collapses around the lack of a sympathetic protagonist. Or, at the very least, an interesting villain.
Tube Journeys: N/A
Rating: Twelve monkeys and an empty lint trap.