When I chose Wieland: or, The Transformation for my history class, I was not expecting a masterpiece of plot, philosophy, or characters. I did expect a good old-fashioned Gothic tale with a dash of melodrama, an eerie edifice, and maybe a ghost or two. Sadly, this is the third book connected to my class that disappointed me, and while it was vastly more fast-paced, it was also quite a bit worse than The House of the Seven Gables or The Prairie. Would I read more Charles Brockden Brown? Maybe, someday. Not in the near future.
Wieland introduces us to the narrator, Clara Wieland, her brother Theodore and his family, and their mutual friend, Henry Pleyel. These characters live in a surreal sort of isolated, literati circle, centered around Theodore’s home, Mettingen (which would seem to fit better in Victorian England than its actual setting: pre-Revolutionary America). Their perfect lives become interrupted by seemingly supernatural occurrences and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Carwin. Tragedy accompanies transformation, as more than one character experiences hallucinations that they feel lead them to the most horrible conclusions and, in one character’s case, crimes.
I give this 1.5 out of 5 stars. The extra half star is for the writing style, which was a breath of fresh air after Cooper. Anybody could read Brown, because his sentences are short and tend to get straight to the point. The story moves along at a good clip, with plenty of action (the downside being, much of it is gory).
What I did not realize when I chose this book is that it is about demonic possession and/or insanity. It’s not as disturbing as more modern works or accounts of true crime, but if it’s not your cup of tea, then by all means be forewarned and skip it. It seemed to me that the treatment of religion in this book was typical for the genre – i.e., used for effect rather than substance. And frankly, the way things were supposed to tie together did not come across as credible. The “transformation” appeared to happen out of the blue; I was left unconvinced, which is where the story more or less lost my interest.
I will be writing a paper comparing/contrasting Wieland with The Prairie. Two books could hardly be less alike, so my theme will probably be a comparison of female characters. At first, I really, really liked Clara, who seems unusually independent and (on Brown’s part) well-written. Towards the end of the book she became unbearably morbid. I think in the long run, Ellen from The Prairie is more courageous (even if she does cry more easily).
The good news? Now I can finally devote my reading time to the Turn of the Century Salon.
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