The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

Along with many other readers, I came to this book – first published in 1966 – via the recent film adaptation by Sofia Coppola. (There’s a good review of it here by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.) The novel itself is a brooding, tempestuous slice of Southern Gothic, a mood that is mirrored in Coppola’s adaptation, complete with its evocative Virginia setting. Even though the film had already shaped much of the visual imagery in my mind, it was still interesting to read Cullinan’s source novel to gain a greater insight into the characters. If the narrative is of interest, I would recommend both – although you might want to read the book first before watching the film.

Beguiled 1

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, the story is set in a girls’ boarding school in Virginia in the midst of the American Civil War. As a consequence of the unrest, only five pupils remain at the school, along with the forthright headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, her somewhat submissive sister, Harriet, and their perceptive cook/‘help’, Mattie. Miss Martha runs a tight, morally upstanding ship, aiming to educate her young ladies in both mind and spirit before they are released into the wider world.

As the novel opens, the school’s sheltered routine is interrupted when one of its pupils, Amelia Dabney, discovers a wounded Union soldier – Corporal John McBurney – while out picking mushrooms in the woods. In an effort to assist Corporal McBurney, Amelia helps him back to the school where he is taken in and treated by Miss Martha and the girls. At first, there is much discussion amongst the residents as to whether McBurney should be handed over to the Confederates; however, it is soon agreed that he should stay there covertly, at least until his severely injured leg has had time to heal. In essence, this seems to be the most charitable thing to do.

Corporal McBurney is a fascinating character, full of tall tales and Irish blarney which he uses to charm his carers, many of whom are beguiled by their charge. Almost immediately, his presence triggers a range of different sensations amongst the residents, unleashing points of conflict, sexual tensions and long-repressed emotions within the claustrophobic environment of the school. McBurney is clearly an unsettling presence in the house, one who delights in spreading his affections far and wide as he proceeds to play off one resident against another.

[Martha:] It was hard to dislike him. He had such an open and friendly look about him, that even when you knew for a positive fact that there was guile behind his innocence, it was difficult to think of it as anything but a boyish trick.

And the guile was there, no doubt about it. Whatever Corporal John McBurney said, you had to ask yourself – is this the way Corporal McBurney really feels? – or is this the way he wants you to think he feels? – or is he even more clever than you suppose and is allowing the edges of the trick to show, hoping that when you see it, it will make you feel superior to him in cleverness. And you’re really not. Or at least he thinks you’re not. Because what he really wants is your misjudgement of him.

How deep to the layers of deception go, I wondered one day but not that second day. (pp.80-81)

The story is told in retrospective from the point of view of each female character in the book, with the chapters alternating from one person’s perspective to the next. While this might sound a little confusing or repetitive, Cullinan handles it very well, moving the action forward a little with each change of the baton, also adding new dimensions and interpretations along the way. (Interestingly, we never hear directly from McBurney himself, although his dialogue and interactions with the residents are relayed through the other narratives.)

Miss Martha is particularly clearly defined as a character, clashing with McBurney on several occasions as her position of authority in the house is destabilised by his presence. It soon becomes clear that McBurney is in no hurry to leave his place of shelter, fearing reprisals from both sides in the ongoing war. Most of the girls are well differentiated from one another too, particularly the rather troubled Edwina Morrow, the provocative Alicia Simms, and the reclusive, nature-loving Amelia.

Right from the start there are hints of significant trouble to come following McBurney’s arrival; however, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything more about the plot at this stage, save to say that it becomes steadily more compelling as the narrative unfolds. (Some readers might find the pacing a little slow, so if you prefer fast-moving plots this probably isn’t the book for you.)

[Edwina:] I felt that he was attracted to me. […]

I can’t deny that I was flattered by it. I also can’t deny that I was attracted to him. […]

I felt at first that he had understood, as no one else around here ever had, the rather troubled and perhaps troublesome person that I am. I am not always the easiest person in the world to get along with, but I did feel that Corporal McBurney might possibly be someone who – even if he did not know all the reasons for my bitterness – would accept me the way I am with maybe the hope that affection might improve me. It might well have, you know. It really might have done so. (p.159)

The Beguiled is a thoroughly absorbing novel of deceits, secrets, sexuality and power. There’s plenty of dark melodrama here, the psychological nuances of which are nicely captured through Cullinan’s expressive prose. Definitely recommended, even if you’ve already seen the recent film. In fact, there’s a whole interracial dynamic going on in the novel which doesn’t appear to feature in Coppola’s adaptation – so it might be of interest for that alone.

[Note: The novel was also filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the leading roles. Coppola’s version (made in 2017) stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. Both are worth watching, although my vote goes to the more recent female-centric adaptation for its evocative mood.]

The Beguiled is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

26 thoughts on “The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It works surprisingly well, although that might be because I was already familiar with the overall story by the time I picked up the book. The Coppola film is a real treat, well worth seeking out!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know it’s funny. Even though Sofia Coppola is a pretty big deal in the film world, I don’t think this received very much publicity on its release. I first heard about it during the coverage of Cannes a few years when Coppola picked up the award for Best Director – only the second woman ever to do so, I believe. Plus it was part of that whole ‘Kidnaissance’ thing that happened around the same time. She’s excellent in this, just the right amount of brooding emotion to play off against McBurney.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    I have actually only seen the Clint Eastwood version of this story. I remember liking it. But I can imagine that the novel would have been a lot richer. The premise is a very good one. It seems that A skilled novelist can do so much with these ideas.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Clint version is very good too, definitely worth seeking out for a re-watch at some point. And you’re right, there’s an awful lot going on in the source novel – probably enough for a mini series if truth be told. I think Coppola received some criticism for omitting the interracial element in her adaptation, but I can understand why she chose to focus on the other elements of the story – the underlying sexual tensions are very powerful!

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    I’m pretty sure I too saw the Eastwood film version, but remember little about it. I’ve seen the trailers for the newer one, but it didn’t appeal – though I do admire S Coppola’s direction. The novel sound better, which is usually the case with films of good books; it seems to be the bad books that make good films.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really rate her as a filmmaker, so I try to seek out her films even if the subject matter itself doesn’t hold a huge amount of appeal for me (Marie Antionette is a case in point). Her adaptation of The Beguiled is a lot of fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously, but Lost in Translation remains my favourite. Who could resist a mournful Billy Murray trapped in a mid-life crisis?

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    This sounds like some I’d love. I like Southern Gothic so much. And I’m a huge fan of Sofia Coppola. Since she chose this for one of her movies it must be excellent. I must admit, I’d never heard of this author before.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this very much. It’s the sort of novel you can sink into over a long weekend. Good old-fashioned storytelling that’s strong on character and mood – no wonder it works so well on the screen!

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I remember the 1971 film version quite well. I didn’t know there was a more recent one. I think I would like the book too, I like the sound of the way it is told in alternating perspectives.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Clint Eastwood version is the sort of film my mother would have loved! Probably quite racy for its day in retrospect. Yes, I think you’d enjoy the novel. As I was just saying to Caroline, it’s good old-fashioned storytelling in the best sense of that phrase.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    How interesting! The minute I saw your post heading I thought of the Clint Eastwood film (which I don’t like because I don’t like him!). From what I know of it, it’s very focused on him, so it does sound like a shift that the new film and book take things from the women’s viewpoint. I wonder if it slipped under the radar because it’s a film by a woman and also not a CGI-laden blockbuster?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do think the Coppola adaptation puts more of a focus on the women than the 1971 version. Also, the individual characters seem better differentiated from one another, more distinct if you know what I mean. I think your point about it not being an Avengers Assemble type blockbuster is a good one. It was released over here during the summer when the market is primed for that sort of thing, so I suspect it got subsumed by a plethora of other stuff!

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    As I haven’t seen the film yet I still have a chance to read the book first, though somehow I suspect I’ve more chance of getting round to watching the film first!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I doubt whether the book is for you, Grant, but the Coppola adaptation might be worth a watch if it pops up on Film 4 at some point. The lead actors are all very good!

      Reply
  7. Sarah

    I’ve seen the Eastwood film several times; quite trippy. I’m sure the book is good, Jacqui, as I trust your judgement. That cover though, is awful! It’s exactly the kind of thing I would walk straight past in a shop. I know that’s really shallow.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Trippy is a great way of describing the Clint version, it definitely captures that steamy atmosphere of the South. The cover is very romancey, isn’t it? Almost like a Barbara Taylor Bradford or Mills and Boon!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. realthog

    Many thanks for the recommendation of the Coppola movie, Jacqui. We watched it today and I enjoyed it a lot. (Pam, on the other hand, having disliked the earlier version was damned if she was goin’ to watched any remake, so ostentatiously dropped off for a while then went and sat in the loo to watch the tennis on her iPad . . . :) Pshaw!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed it! Mind you, I had to laugh at Pam’s reaction to the thought of it after her experience with the Clint/Geraldine Page version. A rather steamy film if my memory serves me correctly!

      Reply

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