A Bloodsmoor Romance
In her latest fiction, A Bloodsmoor Romance, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates forsakes the contemporary world in favor of an earlier and therefore more pliable setting. The classification of A Bloodsmoor Romance demands more words than thoughts, since its genre is not hard to recognize, only to name. It belongs to those few works that attempt to blend realism and fantasy by setting their action in a past that closely resembles the historical past, and by peopling their settings partly with fictional characters invented by the author and partly with characters who bear the names of historical men and women.
Nevertheless, the author of such a work might well argue that if the books are not historically accurate in detail, then they are at least historically accurate in recapturing the “feel” of the time they depict. Such could well be Oates’s justification, because her characters exemplify many of the more eccentric attitudes and interests of the nineteenth century and some of the common ones as well. For example, Oates’s narrator is an elderly and sheltered virgin, who has little worldly knowledge; she exemplifies “ladylike” behavior and mores and is happiest when describing the dutiful, wifely life of Octavia Zinn or the conversion of Malvinia in middle age from stage-star to housewife. She has little sympathy with any attempt by the Zinn sisters to escape from the confines that society places on their lives. Her portrait is that of a type, so much so that the reader never even learns her name. She is a nineteenth century colored glass through which the reader can view the world that Oates has made.
Oates has discovered that by setting a story in the past and by creating a narrator of that time, the author is free to invent a new world. That world, according to the author’s intention, may be very much or very little like the historical past. In the case of A Bloodsmoor Romance, historical accuracy has not been followed. No one in the historical nineteenth century invented a working time machine; no one changed from a woman to a man by simply wanting to be one. The nineteenth century in A Bloodsmoor Romance, however, shares many of the interests of the real one, exploring those interests in the lives of the members of the Zinn family: spiritualism, the theater, the westward movement, experimental science, abnormal psychology, female sexuality, and the nature of marriage.
The first on this list, spiritualism and the occult, is portrayed in the life of Deirdre Zinn, the adopted daughter of John and Prudence. The sometimes outrageous comic tone of the book is well illustrated by Deirdre’s being kidnaped by a mysterious stranger who flies a black balloon. One never learns much about the stranger, but the incident serves to introduce the first of several of the novel’s characters who are modeled on historical figures. The balloonist deposits Deirdre on the lawn of the New York mansion of “Madame Elena Blavatsky.” Like her historical counterpart, the Madame Blavatsky of the novel is the cofounder of the American Theosophical Society, a group which attempts to achieve contact beyond the grave. Madame Blavatsky has been traveling the world, holding séances and demonstrations of occult power. She takes Deirdre under her protection and sponsors the girl’s entry into the world of spiritualism.
In Deirdre, the spirits find a natural soul; indeed, she has been haunted since childhood by at least three presences: a cruel older man, a sensual girl, and a weak old woman. It is questionable whether Deirdre is “possessed” by them in the usual sense of that word, but they do control her actions and her speech. The girl is never sure whether the spirits will allow her to speak, or what she will say under their control. They sometimes delude her, so that although she thinks she is being pleasant, she is in fact saying vicious things. Under Madame Blavatsky’s tutelage, Deirdre becomes “Deirdre of the Shadows,” and goes on tour.
The Zinn family, reading about the show, decides to attend to find out whether this Deirdre is their lost daughter, but the spirits intervene to make her unrecognizable to her...
(The entire section is 1718 words.)