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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : The Introduction of Electricity Sparks Illicit Love Affair : ELECTRICITY by Victoria Glendinning ; Little, Brown $22.45, 256 pages

November 28, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A major reason for the enduring appeal of Gothic novels is their ability to combine the seemingly incompatible. Blood-sucking vampires with impeccable table manners; doctors creating monsters rather than curing them; wealthy modern men ruling dank ancient homes; guileless women mastering occult powers. There's a portentousness built into Gothic novels that keeps us reading even when the books aren't very good, if only to ensure that we don't miss some crucial scene that explains the inexplicable.

Victoria Glendinning's "Electricity" has many of the hallmarks, if not the heart, of a good Gothic. The naive bride and her scientist husband; the country estate and its suspiciously charming host; encounters with the supernatural; illicit yet inevitable love affairs; accidents both fatal and maiming.

Charlotte Mortimer, the heroine and narrator of this notebook-based novel, doesn't sense that her life will spin out of control soon after her marriage to electrical engineer Peter Fisher, but the reader knows better; Peter's hyper-rationality may be appropriate for 1880s London, and he may have rescued Charlotte from her tiresome, inbred, all-too-Victorian family, but his comeuppance--and hers--is as predictable as the color of Morticia Addams' wardrobe.

The best thing about "Electricity" is Glendinning's choice of metaphor. Few of us today can imagine living without electricity, but fewer still think about the losses, and devaluations, that go hand-in-hand with such manifest progress. The Fishers move to rural Hertfordshire so Peter can oversee the electrification of one Lord Godwin's Morrow Hall, but Charlotte finds herself unconvinced by the modernization.

"Where now are those hours of half-light before the lamps were lit," Charlotte asks herself at one point, "those long quiet passages between day and night? When, now, do we have time to think, and to not think? . . . . What I do not care for about electricity is that it conceals as much as it reveals. Everything is made significant, and nothing is. . . . What I do not care for about electricity is that up to the very last minute it seems stable, predictable, even benign. But one false move and it runs amok without warning, releasing its lethal energy. Then it is evil."

Charlotte's ambivalence toward electricity is not exclusively practical, however. It's also a projection of the grip electricity holds over her husband, and of the magnetic pull she feels toward Godwin, which results in an ill-fated affair. The electrical metaphor doesn't work so well on this level, though, for Glendinning--best-known as a literary biographer, most recently of Anthony Trollope and Rebecca West--hasn't fully integrated it into the novel's narrative.

"Electricity" loses its focus when Charlotte loses the men in her life, for her attractions to Peter and Godwin have been defining to such a degree that her subsequent decision to become a medium--a psychic--seems empty. The choice seems historically plausible for Victorian times, and politically acceptable to contemporary readers, but as executed it's literary make-work, Glendinning introducing no important new figure for Charlotte to spark against. Now if she had met a latter-day Luddite, a woman perhaps, who radicalized Charlotte into electrical monkey wrenching. . . .

Leave it at that--attempts to rewrite another's vision never seem entirely fair. It's likewise true, though, that a reader's yearning to alter a novel is a side effect of serious engagement--of frustration at a good book's failure to become a fine one.

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