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The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

I’ve seen so much about this book and more specifically the most recent film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola with its truly star studded cast. I had no idea what the story was about which is my favourite thing when starting a new book. After reading the blurb I was convinced this would be just my kind of story; gothic setting, a strange boarding school for girls, a mysterious stranger comes along and then a dark tale begins? SIGN ME UP!

Plot Overview:

At a girls boarding school in Virginia, the pupils lead sheltered lives. When an injured soldier, wounded on the civil war, is found in the woods nearby and taken in to recuperate, the girls immediately fall under the spell of this charming stranger. But soon his presence unleashes something dark and dangerous in all of them…

This classic Southern Gothic novel is a heady, atmospheric tale of sexual tension, rivalry, jealousy and, ultimately, vengeance…

My Thoughts:

I finished The Beguiled in a day, I don’t know why exactly but I just could not seem to put it down! I loved it to be honest but I also found myself feeling so conflicted as there’s some majorly problematic stuff explored and that’s putting it lightly!

The good:

  • Setting – Pretty much all of the story takes place in the Seminary / School, in contrast to many other novels where the characters take journeys elsewhere which prove to be transformative for them as well as further the plot. In this novel however all the turbulence occurs in one house, which made it feel quite claustrophobic and all encompassing. It is stated on more than one occasion by Martha that the outside is dangerous and the house is the only safe place to be, again reinforcing the sense of entrapment and paranoia the characters experience at any intrusion from the outside world.
  • Favourite characters – While there are quite a range of characters in the story, the only character I really liked was Amelia Dabney – an intelligent young girl with a huge love for nature and animals. Picture a woodland sprite or fairy or something along those lines and you’ll come close to what Amelia is like. I really liked her free spirited nature and her lack of regard for social customs of the time. She is also extremely loyal – to a fault, when it comes to her attachment to McBurney.
  • Southern Gothic / Tone – While I love Gothic literature, I’m most familiar with the Gothic in reference to English / European literature as that’s what I studied in University as well as in secondary etc. So the term Southern Gothic – whilst enticing, didn’t mean much to me prior to reading this novel. After reading The Beguiled though, I’ll definitely be exploring more into the genre of Southern Gothic because I found it absolutely enthralling. The whole setting and atmosphere of the story was so charged and heady. From the commentary about the South and it’s history of slavery, to the lush natural surroundings and strict morality and sexual repression, it was quite something.

The bad…

  • Representation of female characters – Just to clarify that 8 of the 9 characters in the novel are women, so women are placed centre stage in this book and the representation seemed so skewed to me. With the exception of a few characters, the majority of the girls seem to be besides themselves with lust after coming in to contact with John McBurney (the injured soldier) once or twice. I get that given the time period, young women would have limited social interaction with men and attitudes towards sex were different in the 1800’s but seriously?? I found it hard to fathom how a number of the female characters were taken in by his blatant manipulation and trickery because of their apparent desire for him. *Rolls eyes*
  • Many of the girls also served to be an archetype as well, here’s a few just to give you all an example – Martha the god fearing and domineering headmistress and champion of morality (despite it being alluded to that she was involved in an incestuous relationship with her brother). Alice was the girl with the ‘loose’ morals, often attributed in the novel to her lower class background and her mother who may or may not have been a prostitute. Everything she said or did was twisted to fit this stupid narrative and it was so frustrating! Emily – The intelligent but the least conventionally attractive, praised for her mind but not her beauty, which is mentioned over and over again. WE GET IT! *YAWN* I’m honestly over these one dimensional portrayals of women based on their perceived beauty and sexual activity or lack thereof.
  • McBurney – Honestly the less said about this character, the better but honestly he’s super predatory and manipulative, turns all the girls against each other and is just basically trash. Any time he was spinning his little lines, rather than being charming, it just made me cringe and want to face palm at how he would get his way. He’s a forgettable character, in a novel with way more interesting features.
  • Male writer portraying female characters – If you’re on twitter and in bookish circles then I think you’ll have noticed there’s been an extremely valid and interesting discussion recently about male writers and their depiction of female characters. Those involved in the discussion have drawn attention to the fact that some male writers tend to portray women in a sexualised manner and put unnecessary focus on the female body in a way that’s not only uncomfortable to read but just straight up laughable. After reading The Beguiled this discussion came to mind, as I think that’s a huge part of why I found the representation of women so problematic. I don’t know whether Cullinan was working with some extremely misogynistic ideas about women but it just didn’t sit right with me. Given that the novel was written in 1966 – I feel like there’s not really an excuse for some of the stuff that’s written here. It proves to be extremely dated in that regard and something which I’ve seen other reviewers have picked up on as well.

Overall, The Beguiled was a beautifully atmospheric novel and I’m glad I read it, despite the many flaws it presented with the reductive portrayal of women. I have yet to see any of the film adaptations but I’m interested in seeing just how this novel would come to life, from the posters I’ve seen of Coppolas film, the cinematography looks stunning so I think I’ll give it a go.

★★★ – 3 Star rating

Have any of you read The Beguiled? If so, what did you think? If not, does this sound like a book you’d read? Would love to chat in the comments!

Until next time,

Rumaanah x

5 thoughts on “The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

  1. Great review! I thought this sounded like a really good read but reading your thoughts means I think it will annoy me as well. You’d think a book mainly based on female characters would make it realistic and not present them in such a lust filled way. Once you notice it, you can’t turn it off again either.

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