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.
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.