A warning: if you’re planning to read “The Golden Fig” primarily for its plot (rather than for its gorgeous cover and recapturing-1974 time-capsule qualities)–don’t read the rest of this. SPOILERS FOR A 1974 PAPERBACK, in other words.
It took me a while to work out when this was supposed to be happening. Not 1974, I was pretty sure; it had the flavour of a 1970s historical novel rather than a contemporary-to-then gothic. But it wasn’t until page 29 that the book came right out and confirmed it was set in 1910 (although there had been hints in the form of hairpins and the heroine calling herself an old maid…but that *could* still have been the 70s, actually).
So I was a little irritated already when I hit the binding error: my copy of The Golden Fig is missing pages 31-62. In their place I have a second set of pages 175-206. So I missed the part where Paul, the young man the heroine-librarian is helping, courts and proposes to her, and was left on page 63 wondering why they’d gotten married and moved back to his cursed estate in the West Indies.
Once they get there he stops being charming and turns sinister and unfriendly, and also obsessed with producing sons. In case you haven’t caught on that he’s the villain there’s a marital rape scene. As in most gothic romances there’s also a seemingly-sinister but actually-kind male lead–in this case the heroine’s husband’s cousin–but the part where the heroine is MARRIED to the one that turns out to be an evil murderer is off-putting. Thus far in the 70s gothics I’ve been reading, there’s always a blandly attractive guy the heroine LIKES who turns out to be evil, but this is the first I’ve encountered where she spends weeks and weeks MARRIED to him.
Plus even after he rapes her, she’s still thinking about how she wants to save their marriage, which made her so alien a creature I couldn’t wrap my head around her at all. I think it was supposed to make you think she was a good, kind person, but it just made me wonder if she was suffering Stockholm syndrome. About ten pages after he rapes her–and beats her so badly her face is bruised–she’s thinking “Now things are back to normal! I have my own husband again!” just because he picks her up and spins her around in his arms. I can’t figure out how to read this: is she meant to be “too dumb to live” or admirably sweet and forgiving? I mean, HOW WOULD READERS IN 1974 HAVE READ HER? I don’t know why that matters to me–I mean, I should be content to take my own interpretation (Stockholmed into a state of too dumb to live) and just go with that–but it’s driving me nuts trying to figure out how this would have been interpreted in its own time.
1974 isn’t all that long ago, but in some respects it’s unfathomable.