This has been on my Kindle for ages and ages, and on my priority list almost as long.
Wieland, or the Transformation: An American Tale was published in 1798, one of the first "significant" novels published by an American. I'm not sure what that "significant" means, though it's certainly noteworthy that Wieland was both popular and influential.
One of the attractions for me, however, is that it's written from the point of view of Clara Wieland, the sister of Theodore for whom the novel is ostensibly titled.
The story is more or less straightforward -- Theodore and Clara's father had been something of a religious fanatic, who died apparently of divinely-ordained spontaneous combustion in a "temple" he had built on his property in rural Pennsylvania. Years later, in the grip of similar fanaticism, Theodore murders his wife and their four children as well as a young female companion. An itinerant "biloquist" -- ventriloquist -- named Carwin confesses to having provided various mysterious voices but denies using his talent to induce Wieland murder his family. Theodore eventually realizes what he's done and takes his own life. The end, sort of.
The style is awkward, and I can't say this was a fun read. The novel purports to be a letter Clara is writing to an unnamed friend -- and I thought I wrote long letters?? -- so it's all tell and no show in a decidedly 18th century manner. But Clara as a character and narrator often has more in common with a kick-ass heroine of the 21st century than with her gothic descendants of the mid-20th century. Wealth inherited from her father permits her to live independently, and she even makes plans to reveal her affections to their object rather than wait for him to do so first.
Unfortunately, before she has a chance to do that, there's a classic "big misunderstanding" and everything goes to hell. Sound familiar? Yeah, the more things change and all that.
The ventriloquism device didn't work for me. Regardless how clever the ventriloquist, there is still the matter of distance across which a voice can be "thrown." Had Carwin's talent been more smoothly woven with the belief/disbelief that Wieland or Clara or her love interest Pleyel had actually heard divine voices, it might have worked better.
But that's a criticism coming from two and a quarter centuries of popular fiction later.
The novel's focal point, if you will, is the mass murder of Wieland's family. This event was based on an actual case that occurred in 1781 in New York, in which the father slaughtered his wife and children and claimed God had told him to do it. What struck me about Wieland, however, was that the murders don't occur until almost two-thirds of the way through the novel -- 62% on my Kindle. By this point, Carwin has played his games, Pleyel has learned of and revealed Carwin's sordid history, and Clara's romantic future has been destroyed by the Big Miz. Her brother's religiosity is a very minor issue; he's been portrayed as devout, yes, but also studious and a good father and husband. Unlike his own father, Theodore Wieland hasn't (yet) become a nut job, to use 2017 terminology.
Up to then, this has been Clara's story, told by Clara -- as told by Charles Brockden Brown, of course. Then the men screw it all up.
Wieland kills his family then testifies in court that yes, of course, he did it because God commanded him to do it. How could it be wrong if it was God's will? So the court decides he's the equivalent of insane -- unable to distinguish right from wrong, essentially -- and condemn him to life in prison.
Interestingly -- remember, this was published in 1798 -- Clara's maternal uncle is a physician who argues that Wieland's hallucinations are an indication of mental illness, while Clara argues that they weren't hallucinations at all but rather the product of the evil Carwin's machinations.
It all winds down with Carwin's doleful confession to Clara, tempered by his insistence that he wasn't the one to tell Wieland to kill anyone, and then Wieland himself escapes his prison, threatens Clara, suddenly sees the error of his ways (regains his sanity???), and kills himself.
There follows a kind of postscript, in which Clara recounts her life after her brother's death, and while she achieves a certain happiness or maybe at least contentment, almost everyone else has a kind of "life's a bitch and then you die" ending. Still, the whole thing seemed rather remarkable to be told from the woman's point of view until
the very last paragraph. 'Cause yep, it's always the victim's fault.
I leave you to moralize on this tale. That virtue should become the victim of treachery is, no doubt, a mournful consideration; but it will not escape your notice, that the evils of which Carwin and Maxwell were the authors, owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers. All efforts would have been ineffectual to subvert the happiness or shorten the existence of the Stuarts, if their own frailty had not seconded these efforts. If the lady had crushed her disastrous passion in the bud, and driven the seducer from her presence, when the tendency of his artifices was seen; if Stuart had not admitted the spirit of absurd revenge, we should not have had to deplore this catastrophe. If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland: or, the Transformation, an American Tale (Kindle Locations 3308-3314). Kindle Edition.
(emphasis mine, above)
Wieland is one of those books I'm glad I read because of its importance to the literary history of fiction by, for, and about women. But I can't say I enjoyed it. Only recommended to those who are truly dedicated. (It's not scary or creepy or gory or anything else.)