Jezebel's Summer of Bad Books Club: What Does 'Time' Mean Anyway?

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Jezebel's Summer of Bad Books Club: What Does 'Time' Mean Anyway?

Megan Reynolds: Last week, my partner-in-crime Emily Alford expounded beautifully on how My Sweet Audrina is an entry in the canon of the female Gothic novel, sitting alongside works like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca but meant for teenagers and not adult women. Perhaps that explains why MSA traffics in such high melodrama, but I’m willing to chalk that up to the genre. What I am not willing to let rest, however, is the issue of time and how it operates in Whitefern.

Truthfully, the responsibility for picking the subject of this week’s book club discussion filled me with the same sort of dread that I have experienced in other, real-life book clubs, but thankfully the subject I have selected is one that is very important and also highly apparent. Time is nebulous in Whitefern; it marches forward regardless. But the way that our sweet Audrina experiences the passage of time doesn’t make sense!

Audrina struggles with time, simply because her father has kept her in the dark and any questions she might have about how old she is or what month it is are skillfully elided. Her confusion isn’t because there’s a discrepancy in what her father is telling her; it is simply because, in the eyes of her monstrous father, she cannot be trusted with this information. Audrina’s memory is faulty, so much so that she begins keeping a diary so that she might try to remember anything concrete about her life at all. Living as she does, in that sepulchral home, in the shadow of the first Audrina’s memory, current Audrina exists as if trapped in amber at an indeterminate age, either seven years old or, I’m guessing, roughly 14? As a narrative device, fucking with time in the way that MSA does lends an ominous air to the proceedings, though it is a bit heavy-handed. Consider this passage about Mercy Marie, the older sister of Lucietta and Ellsbeth, who is not alive, as I previously thought, but is dead? I think? When our sweet Audrina inquires as to when the last time she saw Mercy Marie alive, Papa embraces her in his greasy little arms and says:

“Sweetheart, stop troubling your brain with efforts to recall the past. Today is what counts, not yesterday. Memories are only important to the old who have already lived the best of their lives and have nothing to look forward to. You’re only a child and your future stretches long and inviting before you. All the good things are ahead, not behind ou can’t remember every detail of your early childhood, but neither can I.”

Here we have the most succinct explanation for how time operates in V.C. Andrews’s world. The past is the past, but it is also mutable. Memories are subjective, and change with each retelling; adjust the truth enough times when you recount it, and the edited version of the past eventually becomes fact.

Emily Alford: “The past is the past, but it is also mutable. Memories are subjective, and change with each retelling; adjust the truth enough times when you recount it, and the edited version of the past eventually becomes fact,” could be lifted right from a Faulkner novel if it were a run-on and had a few parenthetical asides. Which brings me to my point about the way time is used in this and other Andrews novels: no Southern writer ever escapes the shadow of Faulkner.

I’ve long been of the opinion that, had William Faulkner written Flowers in the Attic, the resultant novel would have been the greatest in all American letters. This theory was not well-received in my Ph.D. defense, nor is it endorsed by any white man Southern writer or modernist scholar I’ve floated it to, and for those reasons, I know it to be sound. But V.C. Andrews is without a doubt a Southern writer, and her decaying mansions reeking of old hurt are absolutely Compson-adjacent. The cornerstone of the Southern Gothic is the idea that unacknowledged trauma is never fully buried because the past doesn’t die, and ghosts are just Lichtenberg figures reflecting the South’s refusal to recognize the ways its violent history has shaped its present reality. In the short story “A Rose for Emily,” a corpse decays in an upstairs bedroom, while the titular Emily sleeps beside it each night, keeping hope alive despite grotesque reality as time stands still within her rotting antebellum mansion.

And that brings us to Audrina, where everyone is both young and old at once and yesterday might as well be ten years from now, all because no one will be honest about what fucking happened to Audrina, maybe because to do so would be to acknowledge that no matter who killed the first and best Audrina, the violence and desperate unhappiness of the house and all its occupants exists both before and after her individual trauma. In a Faulkner novel, it could always be either 1865 or 1935 because Faulkner—along with all the statue-loving historical revisionists—need it to be both and neither. Likewise, these early V.C. Andrews novels are vaguely set in the 20th century South, haunted by characters who are never making it out of there, no matter what the actual ending says.

Before we get to next week’s reading question, I have to issue a correction and my sincere apologies. Last week, I suggested Andrews’s longtime ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman wrote Audrina, but it was actually published in 1982, four years before Andrews’s death. He did later write a sequel.

I think part of the reason I misread my source as saying Neiderman had written this novel is because it is hard to believe that a grown woman wrote the ideas in this book and thought, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good representation of how women feel about themselves and the world around them.” However, it does play into my ideas of why these books were so popular with young girls—both Audrina and the book itself seem to be working out which misogyny is good and which misogyny is bad, much like Cathy Dollanganger from Flowers in the Attic. For example, both Audrina’s father and Audrina can agree that beauty standards are Good because in the world of the novels a woman’s inward kindness is a direct reflection of her outward beauty. But Audrina and the novel seem to agree that a career, as long as it is an artistic career, is also good for a woman, though Audrina’s father would disagree.

These decisions about what cultural misogyny to internalize and what cultural misogyny to reject are a huge part of the playground politics of pubescent girls. Looking back, it’s easy to see why Audrina’s struggle to parse the constant mixed feedback around gender expectations was so appealing, especially in the land of the Good Southern Woman and all the baggage that comes with. So here is next week’s question: In the world of Audrina, what is the definition of a Good Woman? How has Audrina’s definition of good womanhood changed over the first three-quarters of the book?

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