Sana Pirzada’s intrepid foray into the world of Gothic fiction, The Rose Within, is a courageous move if nothing else. The Gothic, a genre that titillatingly combines romance with horror, arose from the 18th-century novels of Ann Radcliffe, whose ability to entice her hungry audiences led to her meriting the soubriquet of ‘Great Enchantress.’ Salient features of classic Gothic novels include cruel villains, beautiful damsels in distress, inherent mysteries, ghosts, vampires, haunted venues, and romantic natural landscapes. Although its suspenseful and slightly outrageous themes were often relegated to the realm of penny-dreadful sentiment, the genre acquired enormous popularity over time and its influences can be perceived in popular literature even today. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, for instance, are peppered with Gothic images as are films such as Guillermo del Toro’s recent release Crimson Peak.
Pirzada wisely avoids the hassle of writing a Gothic novel based in either a modern setting or one situated a couple of hundred years ago. Instead she chooses the mid-1920s to early 1930s for the main action of her book, the bulk of which is written in the form of diary-entries. Mrs Sherwood, the housekeeper of a mysterious mansion called Winter Grange House, arranges for the hero, Jonathan Malcolm, to become a boarder there. Naturally, Malcolm loses no time in falling head over heels in love with the beautiful lady of the house, Selina Selwyn. Intriguingly, but entirely in keeping with the mounting Gothic atmosphere, he sees her in a dream vision prior to perceiving her in reality. Rather endearingly, he refers to her eyes as “sapphires” throughout the novel.
A debut writer’s notable entry into the genre of Gothic fiction
Also part of Malcolm’s dream is a less attractive but disturbingly sexual woman. Early on in his stay he encounters the latter while strolling through the grounds of the house at night even though he has been advised against these midnight strolls. She attacks him, leaving him shaken yet thrilled. Spiritedly he recounts: “If God had bestowed His light on Selina, then the devil must have bestowed his charms on this woman. She was ravishingly attractive in a somehow unholy way. If ever there was an embodiment of the forbidden fruit, it was her.” These polarised women represent the classic patterns that became very common in Gothic literature of the 19th-century, whereby virtue comes across as consistently grappling with vice.
Not seriously harmed, but deeply curious, Malcolm attempts to get to the bottom of who his mysterious attacker might be. I will refrain from revealing more of the plot here, since one of the greatest strengths of Pirzada’s debut novel is that it is systematically and intricately plotted. Indeed, much of the pleasure one derives from the Gothic genre stems from its convoluted but rapidly progressing plots. It suffices to say that the mystery woman is no spectre, though Selina initially tries to convince Malcolm that he has seen a genuine ghost. In true Bertha Mason (of Jane Eyre)style her story lies at the very heart of the mystery of Winter Grange. While uncovering it Malcolm uses the help of characters as diverse as a slightly batty clairvoyant, an officious family lawyer, and Selina’s efficient business manager, Sarah.
Of Persian origin, but based in Britain, Sarah’s elegant and sultry looks and cool manner act as a foil to Selina’s more conventional beauty. Yet Lady Selwyn demonstrates considerable strength of character as the novel progresses. In this manner, Pirzada’s novel blessedly avoids cloning Ann Radcliffe’s heroines who are so delicate, that some of them, such as Adeline from The Romance of the Forest, cry literally on almost every page of the book. A suitably leering and ugly villain makes his appearance too, if for no other reason than to commit a superbly splendid act of arson that results in one of the locations in the book turning into a second Manderley (the house in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca).
“My gaze fell first upon the portrait closest to me, which was of Selina. I decided to take a closer look. It was grand. It was the largest of all the portraits that hung on the wall, and it showed a much younger Selina. She looked healthier and rosier, her sapphires glowed and she wore a sky-blue dress; her hair was gingery-brown, and she sat on a chair like a queen on her throne. Basil Hallward had not done a finer job on the portrait of Dorian Gray than this artist had on his creation: a supernaturally beautiful portrait of a supernaturally glamorous woman. If ever I had the opportunity of stealing this portrait, I would … The next portrait was of Lord Lancelot. It was a full-sized portrait, and I dare say Lord Lancelot was a dashing, handsome man. In the painting he came across as tall, in excess of six feet. He was also extraordinarily slim and fit, wearing a posh navy blue suit with a red tie. His hair was golden, and soft ringlets fell across his forehead above his sparkling sapphire eyes that were eerily reminiscent of his daughter’s. His features were chiselled like Selina’s, though sharper; his nose was needle-like and this was accentuated by the fact that he was painted in profile. Stubbs had been right about this as well — Selina had gotten her looks from her father. But contrary to Stubbs’ perception of Lord Lancelot as a ‘scoundrel,’ I found the man rather debonair and respectable looking. Stubbs had warned me that appearances were deceitful, of course, but there was something very gentlemanly about Lord Lancelot. It was a work of art which could be sold at a handsome price.” — Excerpt from the book
Those who are familiar with the Gothic genre will be struck at how many of its motifs (such as mistaken identity, the supernatural, sexual passion, and monetary theft) have been crammed into this 300-page read. What saves the novel from becoming pastiche or parody are the undoubtedly sincere intentions of its writer, who pays homage to the Gothic tradition by honouring those elements of it that have persisted over the course of numerous decades. Mary Stewart, Daphne du Maurier, the Brontë sisters, and even Jane Austen (whose delightful Northanger Abbey is a parody of Radcliffe’s work) were all influenced by this historic tradition that, as I noted earlier, continues to thrill and delight to the present day. The only stock character missing from The Rose Within is that of the typically Byronic hero — Malcolm does not strictly count as one, and neither does an abusive, alcoholic husband who turns up later in the book. Selina’s male ancestors, especially her good-looking father, may have fit the bill; however, none of them are living. But then, creating a Heathcliff is a work of genius and Pirzada is to be commended on not pretending to be one; she appears to be writing purely for the purposes of entertainment. In that she succeeds.
Far too often writers get lazy and fail to do their homework, thereby making their work suffer. Pirzada is fortunately not guilty of this. She admits to having been heavily influenced by factors such as the sensual poetry of John Keats and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. But the novel depicts more than just influence, it is imbued with the very spirit of the Gothic tradition. In spite of, or perhaps because of, being an early work it comes across as refreshingly unfettered and surprisingly authentic; even its cloying sentimentality remains fastidiously true to Gothic prototype. Far too many Pakistani authors are interested in self-consciously styling themselves as superior writers, to the point where they forget to enjoy their work and end up producing pieces that are stilted and unsatisfying. Pirzada, at this stage of her literary career at least, does not appear to have fallen into that trap, and we should be grateful for this since The Rose Within comes across as a truly engaging read. It is obvious that she had tremendous fun while writing it, and most readers can be guaranteed that they will have at least as much fun perusing its pages.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
The Rose Within
By Sana Pirzada
Book Empire, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 19th, 2016