Gothic romance has a long and lively history, from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to the works of Ann Radcliffe and the Brontë sisters. Jane Austen did a sendup of the genre in Northanger Abbey, which tells you how popular it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it kept right on going. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was a huge bestseller from 1938 onward, and her heirs, including Anya Seton, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart, carried on the tradition the way through the end of the millennium and into the next.
Andre Norton seems to have gone through a Gothic phase in the Seventies and early Eighties. The White Jade Fox (1975) ticks all the boxes. Nineteenth-century setting, orphaned heroine, epically dysfunctional family, mysterious and possibly haunted estate, it’s all there.
Saranna is a sea captain’s daughter. Her father died at sea, and her mother was forced to earn a living as a dressmaker, at a time when working for pay was very much Not The Done Thing, Dear. The mother has died of a lingering illness, and Saranna has been shipped off to Baltimore to live with the much older brother whom she has never met.
Saranna feels that she is completely alone in the world, and her brother’s house does little to disabuse her of the notion. Jethro is apparently kind and well-meaning but quite overbearing, the kind of person who talks over and past everyone around him. He is widowed; his adult daughter Honora, who though technically Saranna’s niece is some years older, keeps house for him.
Honora is also a widow, and she has her father’s overbearing personality without any of his kindness. At all. In any form. She is all smiles and sweetness to people, especially men, whom she intends to manipulate, but that sweetness turns to poison with those she considers her inferiors.
Saranna is definitely in that latter category. Honora is outright nasty to her, first shutting her up in a guest room, then, when Jethro almost immediately takes off on a lengthy sea voyage to Brazil, shuffles her off to Honora’s late husband’s estate in the countryside outside of Baltimore. There it’s emblematic of Honora’s hypocrisy that, after making a public production of generosity in giving her a collection of dresses to supplement Saranna’s extremely shabby wardrobe, Honora dumps all her torn, stained, unusable discards.
But Saranna is trained as a seamstress, and manages to cobble together a few presentable dresses. She also makes the best of her supposed exile. She has been sent to be a governess to Honora’s young stepdaughter Damaris, who is, Honora declares, unstable. Hysterical. Just this side of being shipped off to a very special school.
But Honora’s version of the truth and the one Saranna uncovers are two different things. Damaris is high-strung and sometimes loses control of her emotions, but she has good reason for it. Her grandfather built the mansion, Tiensin, after returning from the China trade. His son was sickly, as was his wife, Damaris’ mother. Honora married the son for the old man’s money, but when the Captain died, he left everything to Damaris. Hence the big production about Damaris’ mental instability. Honora plots to marry one of the local gentry, the attractive and wealthy Gerrad Fowkes (yes, it’s spelled that way), and get control of Tiensin.
Saranna is an obstacle to Honora’s plans. She is also, despite a poor self-image and a tendency to underestimate herself, resourceful and rather fierce when cornered. She quickly bonds with Damaris and learns the magical secret of the estate, the hidden garden occupied by a Chinese Fox Princess and guarded by a horde of semi-tame foxes. The grandfather’s will protects these animals, to the considerable dismay of the enslaved servants and the white housekeeper, her submissive and inoffensive husband, and her horrible bully of a son.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Parton, is Honora’s confederate. The two of them plot to marry Saranna off to the awful son and ship them both west, where he will make his fortune and Saranna will be gotten out of the way. This becomes particularly urgent as Honora realizes that Mr. Fowkes is kindly disposed toward Saranna.
The romance between Saranna and Mr. Fowkes is very much in the Norton style: awkward, inarticulate, and so understated as to be almost nonexistent. A glance here, a timely rescue there, and eventually Saranna helps him to confirm that Honora is not at all the sweet and lovely lady she pretends to be.
Unmasking, in fact, is a major theme of the novel. The Princess’ fox mask conceals a mysterious and tragic past, and her magic is based on hypnosis. Saranna gives herself a makeover, Honora is forced to see herself as she really is, and Damaris, with help from Saranna and Fowkes, finally wins the day—and her grandfather’s hoard of Chinese treasures.
Norton has a good grasp of the tropes, with an occasional mocking reference to the kind of melodramatic fiction that this novel itself represents. Saranna is prone to introspection, which is rare in a Norton novel but characteristic of the Gothic. Honora is one of the most vivid characters I’ve seen in a Norton work. She’s horrible, awful, nasty, but just this side of over the top. I recognize her in people I’ve known, the kind of toxic personality that is all charm to people it wants to manipulate, and all nastiness to everyone else. She gives me the sense that she’s drawn from life.
For the most part I really enjoyed this book. It’s a good example of the genre. There are a couple of problems with it, one being the portrayal of Black people, but that’s of its time as we say around here. She even tries to explain why the servants are so easily spooked and so superstitious: it’s a stereotype, she admits, but it arises from their enslaved state. They have no control over their lives, and no way to escape. As Fowkes (who owns no slaves) says, “They are slaves in a strange land; much has frightened and left them defenseless. So they have perhaps a right to see menace in shadows, enemies all around them.”
She is trying, so there’s that. I have more issues with the portrayal of the Chinese Princess. She has the trappings of Chinese culture as seen through a Western lens, the jade and the silks and the mysterious powers, but to me she reads as a Moon Singer in a silken robe. She talks like one, to a large degree acts like one, and even puts on an animal face. China, here, seems to provide an excuse to incorporate a familiar fantasy world into a nominally historical setting.
It does sort of work, in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. I’ll be sticking with Gothic next time, too, with The Opal-Eyed Fan.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.