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Mahy’s Gothic Beach – Lovell-Smith

April 16, 2013

The Tricksters - MahyIn ‘On the Gothic Beach: A New Zealand Reading of House and Landscape in Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters‘, Rose Lovell-Smith presents a compelling argument for a Kiwi reworking of the Gothic in Margaret Mahy’s 1986 novel The Tricksters. Lovell-Smith argues that “the beach is a Gothic site in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” (p.93) Place of ice creams, sunshine and holidays, it is also our site for riots, drownings, road toll destinations, battles, encounters with the Other and various histories that connect it easily with the Gothic. Lovell-Smith is correct in noting that “Beaches may not look like probable Gothic sites at first, …but on second thoughts reveal themselves as the bits of New Zealand with the longest and most violent histories. These are definitely among our haunted landscapes.” (p.94) Beaches are also, as Lovell-Smith highlights, a domestic space for us (where we harvest, boat, play, exercise, holiday, and socialise (p.98); “It thus functions as ‘home,’ an extension or replication of domestic space.” (p.98)

Lovell-Smith begins her analysis with a study of Maui’s Gothic (or at least, Gothicised) relationship to the beach. From this trickster, to the tricksters of Mahy’s tale, the argument seems sound, but my fingers are tired, so I’m jumping over it….

Interestingly, Lovell-Smith notes that “The Tricksters begins where any Arthur Ransome book begins, at the start of the summer holidays.” (p.99) She doesn’t develop this thought, but it fits her argument; the homey, familial feel of the many books in our literary history that begin their adventures with the start of the summer holidays shape our expectations of this book, adding to what might then be twisted by the ‘Gothic’ in the novel. It’s a valid point!

Gothic tropes haunt the house called Carnival’s Hide [the house which provides part of the setting in The Tricksters]” (p.101) However, “while many characteristics mark Carnival’s Hide as a ‘Gothic’ house in The Tricksters, these characteristics are nevertheless significantly modified by Mahy’s text” (p.101); in particular, Lovell-Smith identifies “Mahy’s modification of …three remarkably persistent features of the Gothic house: the difficulty of getting into it; its mysterious or labyrinthine extensiveness (this house is somehow bigger on the inside than the outside); and its remoteness and isolation in a lonely, rural, perhaps wild and uncivilized, even desolate, setting.  …[as well as noting] the significance of other modifications of the Gothic expressed through the figure of Harry/Ariadne. All these changes contribute to Mahy’s particular vision of a New Zealand Gothic beach.” (p.101)

The Tricksters - margaret MahyHaving noted numerous examples of the inaccessability (and inescapability) of Gothic houses, Lovell-Smith writes: “Carnival’s Hide is …well-lit, open, and hospitable (as well as haunted) and by its physical form represents, in my view, tolerance of emotional expression within the family, as well as the relatively loose and permeable boundaries of the family itself. In contrast, the classic Gothic house, as in Wuthering Heights, contains an isolated and inward-looking family kept under patriarchal control, and considerable hostility and a high degree of opacity or unreadability are shown to outsiders.” (p.103)

“A second familiar characteristic of the Gothic home modified by Mahy,” Lovell-Smith continues, “is its mysterious inwards extensiveness, as Railo remarks of Radcliffe’s works, ‘the castle doors and passages […] are extremely numerous, winding and narrow, so that they form a veritable labyrinth’ (1927: 11). Mahy refers us to this motif by her heroine’s name – Harry short for Ariadne – and a maze motif is also evoked, though by no means especially well developed, by the physical house at Carnival’s Hide. Such internal swellings-out of the Gothic domestic space as cellars and attics, long complicated passages and locked, unexpected or secret rooms, hidden stairs, priest’s holes, abandoned west wings, grottoes and caves in the garden or environs connected by secret underground passages to the house, and so forth, are represented at Carnival’s Hide only by Harry’s attic bedroom. For Carnival’s Hide is extended in space, but extended outside, where the washhouse and loo are, as well as the whare down by the beach, a special place up on the hillside where harry and Felix meet, the sailing boat and boat ramp where Charlie passes his days, and, of course, the beach itself, a near-private space where the family spends whole days and often entertains visitors. The family at Carnival’s Hide is larger, fuller of secrets, differences, distances, tensions, and untold histories than may appear on first view: this is the main meaning of those extensive but mysterious spaces found within the Gothic house. But in Mahy’s version these emotional factors also prove to build the family out into the world. An outward-turning family first laid thh Hamiltons open to their current internal tensions, and similarly open to hauntings by the undead past; but they are also open [-p.104] to various outsiders and visitors who will in time prove to be sources of resolution and healing.” (pp.103-104)

Thirdly and finally,” Lovell-Smith writes, “what of the remote, rural, uncivilised, featureless, the unmarked surroundings of the Gothic house? …this encircling desolation is another factor making the house both difficult to get into, and difficult to get out of. Predictably, then, the reader of The Tricksters finds that Carnival’s Hide is a lonely place a long way from towns or main roads. It is surrounded by wildish hills and stands by the sea, on ‘a ragged coastline of tiny bays and indentations’ (Mahy 1986: 19). In my view this traditional isolation of the Gothic house, apart from plot, functions in removing persecuted heroines from human assistance, mainly offers an interpretation to the reader of wider society as wilderness. An isolated house implies the primacy of family origins, but also that only within the family can the subject hope to find or make meaning of their (her) life. The implication of social alienation is a familiar, if depressing, feature of the literature of urbanised and industrialised societies in the last two centuries. Within the family, says the Gothic house, problems must be resolved, terrors faced, tyrants overcome, one’s inheritance claimed, and one’s true identity established; the outer world offers only a wilderness of non-meaning.” (p.104)

The TrickstersAlso, “The Hamiltons on holiday deal with many outsiders, including Anthony Hesketh, a visitor from England who came to check out his colonial connections and ancestry.” (p.105) “Mahy’s idea of home …allows many intrusions by, and assigns considerable importance to, ‘outsiders’.” (p.105) “The reader derives from Mahy’s modified Gothic setting …a relatively optimistic and integrated idea of family and of the family’s connectedness to wider geographical and social worlds: a local modification of transatlantic traditions…. And yet, Mahy’s family retains secret spaces as well; this book is sharply aware of the dangers of the exercise of male privilege Jack allowed himself by beginning a relationship with his daughter’s best friend Emma. This family secret above all others gives the Tricksters power over the family at Carnival’s Hide.” (p.105)

Lovell-Smith concludes: “Mahy, an author often accused of writing like a foreigner, shows an accurate sense of her local New Zealand heritage in thus alternating the setting of her tale of haunting between the Gothic home and that other domestic space and elemental meeting place, the beach. If her ghosts are tied to that site, it is because Mahy’s wide knowledge of mixed cultural heritages in Aotearoa and her skills as a reader of culture enabled her recognition of the beach as a local and significant Gothic site and tied her characters there.” (p.108)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Rose Lovell-Smith ‘On the Gothic Beach: A New Zealand Reading of House and Landscape in Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters‘ pp.93-115 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York


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