About the Book:
A classic slice of Southern Gothic, shot through with psychological suspense.
When an injured Union soldier is found in the Virginia woods as the Civil War rages, he is brought to the nearby Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies to recover. For the sheltered girls and their teachers, the arrival of the attractive John McBurney is a thrilling distraction from normal life. But before long, McBurney’s presence will turn them against each other and upend all their lives – with potentially devastating consequences. Combining psychological suspense with humour and romantic drama, The Beguiled is a wildly entertaining novel of sexual tension and repression, and of rivalry, jealousy and, ultimately, vengeance.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect with this novel, but goodness! As far as classic reads go, this is a pearler. It’s a modern classic, given it was published in 1966, but a classic nonetheless. It absolutely ripples with atmosphere, set in Virginia (the South) during the American Civil War. The sense of time and place is vividly recreated; the old Southern customs standing strong against the incoming Yankee tide while also fraying them at the edges. The Beguiled has a gothic feel to it: the isolation of the school, the thick vein of foreboding running right through the narrative, the powerlessness of the women and girls, stuck in the middle of nowhere with war raging around them, isolated from trustworthy assistance, and the sense of impropriety simmering below the surface.
‘I didn’t have any notion then how much evil we got in us, all of us. Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us…how one little mean thought can pile on another ‘til finally we got a mighty load of badness stacked up inside us…and then all it takes is maybe one nasty word to set off the trigger in us…and maybe that’s some little triflin thing that wouldn’t even have raised our tempers in a calmer time…and then we rush ahead and do things we coulda sworn to the Lord Almighty in the beginning we never had in us to do.’
The Beguiled is told in the first person, alternating between each of the women and girls that live at the school. We only ever experience John McBurney through their impressions. The style of story telling was very intimate, and consequently, extremely absorbing. It is a rather long novel but it reels you in, the suspense securing your attention, along with the beautiful writing and strong character development. Thomas Cullinan has a brilliant sense of humour and his characters, with their introspective musings and entitled cutting remarks were incredibly entertaining, particularly little Marie and Emily. I enjoyed discovering the backstories of each, teasing out the relationship dynamics, and getting a sense of the pecking order within the house. There were moments of such ridiculousness when it came to John McBurney’s outrageous conduct coupled with the most extraordinarily obvious lies he repeatedly told; yet it all worked so well within the context in which it was presented. The way he charmed his way into the household, systematically taking each woman’s measure and then setting about pressing the right buttons on each to serve whatever purpose he deigned necessary at the time. He was indeed a first class charlatan, a priceless creation on the part of Thomas Cullinan.
I really enjoyed this novel. I feel that The Beguiled is an excellent example of fiction written by an author who knew exactly what they were doing at every step of their story. I have been told that the film doesn’t do this novel justice. I’m yet to see the film so I can’t confirm or deny this claim, but if you have doubts about this novel based on the film, I do urge you to set them aside and give it a go. This is one classic that is well worth picking up and getting lost in.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Books UK via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Beguiled for review.
About the Author:
Thomas Cullinan (1919-1995) was a novelist, playwright and television writer. The Beguiled (1966) was made into a film starring Clint Eastwood in 1970, and remade by Sofia Coppola in a version starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst in 2017. Cullinan’s other novels include The Besieged (1970), The Eighth Sacrament (1977) and The Bedeviled (1978).
Published by Penguin Classics