Before re-reading My Sweet Audrina for this book club, I read it exactly once a quarter of a century ago, yet all these years later, I can remember the plot like it’s a story from my own childhood. For years, I’ve gotten drunk and told the story of My Sweet Audrina to friends who are both unfamiliar and refuse to believe that the actual plot of my favorite novel from pre-pubescence is basically “What if, instead of being child-like, the narrator of Rebecca was an actual child?”
But occasionally, I meet other women who loved My Sweet Audrina as girls, and having loved the book is like a secret handshake in a very fucked-up sorority. We realized at the time that we were reading something depraved and the early thrill of illicitly encountering that depravity has stayed with us for the entirety of our lives. So my guiding question for this week’s reading of the first five chapters of the novel was, “How did My Sweet Audrina become an accidental YA classic?” And the answer, for me at least, is that it served as an introduction to the world of the female Gothic novel.
Ellen Moers coined the term “female Gothic” in her 1976 work of criticism Literary Women: The Great Writers. The “Gothic,” according to Moers, “is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear,” not literary existential dread, but terror that affects “the body itself, its glands, muscles, epidermis, and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physiological reactions to fear.” The works of female Gothic novelists, like Ann Radcliff, center that fear on women’s lived experiences rather than men’s imaginings of them, distorting themes of sexuality, childbirth, and motherhood into nightmare scenarios meant to evoke a visceral reaction through frightening imagery.
In the years since, the idea of the female Gothic has been a lens through which we view books like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but also the works of more contemporary authors, like Shirley Jackson, whose haunted mansions are supposed by some critics to represent a longing to return to the womb. VC Andrews’s first novel, Flowers in the Attic, moves the female Gothic closer to what I’ve informally dubbed the children’s Gothic, in which a pre-teen narrator comes of age locked in a Victorian mansion under tight restrictions meant to police sexuality, often enforced by matriarchal figures in service of a terrifying patriarch. My Sweet Audrina, written by a man—Andrew Neiderman—in the years following Andrews’s death, takes the tradition of the female Gothic and uses all its trappings while publishing under a woman’s name, creating a false sense connection with its target audience: women. So the novel is both the descendant and bastardization of works by Radcliffe, Daphne du Maurier, and Jackson, which makes it an easy introduction to the genre for a young reader, heavily borrowed from all the genre’s best woman writers, enshrouded in all the trappings of female Gothic terror with none of the substance.
The book’s first chapter is called “Whitefern,” which introduces the titular house as a prison for Audrina, raised in the shadow of a much-loved and mysteriously dead older sister. Echoing du Maurier’s Rebecca, the second Audrina is reminiscent the Second Mrs. de Winter, wandering the big halls of a mysterious house, flawed only by her youth and the fact that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, namely the details of the previous, more beautiful inhabitant’s death. Audrina’s cousin Vera fills the Gothic role of the insidious guardian of secret knowledge, much like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, taunting the narrator with the mystery out of jealousy and meanness. Audrina’s father is a hot-tempered villain, forcing Audrina to attempt to take the good of his dead first daughter and leave the bad—some seemingly dark, sexual energy that is present in both his and Vera’s remembrances.
And like du Marier’s Second Mrs. de Winter, Radcliffe’s Emily, and Shirley Jackson’s Nell, what the second-best Audrina wants most is love, lamenting in the book’s second chapter, “I wanted parents who were honest, consistent from day to day, not so changeable I couldn’t depend on their love to last longer than a few minutes.” And while other female Gothic novels feature adult characters whose unhappy early lives have left them with a childish yearning for consistent love, Audrina is an actual child, desperate for that consistency as she’s actively being fucked up by the world around her, not as a damaged adult attempting to navigate grown-up relationships despite the baggage of a lonely, abusive childhood. That retreat into even younger territory is, I think, what must have so appealed to me as a child and primed me for the female Gothic stories that would become my most-loved literature in adulthood. —Emily Alford
Now that we have unpacked some of the crucial context for what is essentially a YA novel for fast, sad children, one pressing question remains: how on earth does time work in Whitefern? Audrina is either nine years old or older than that; Vera, same. Her mother has chosen to tell everyone that she is perpetually 32. Audrina’s father, dastardly and nasty, is an indeterminate age, but surely we will find out more. For the next six chapters, keep track of the way time is mentioned and how it passes. Surely this means something! Or maybe... nothing at all. Join us next week!