Review: Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen

Posted by Maria Cohut on March 14, 2015 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,



Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen
by Chris Riddell
Macmillan 2015
ISBN-10: 1447282477
ISBN-13: 978-1447282471

'Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' by Thomas Gainsborough

‘Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’ by Thomas Gainsborough

Written and published on the occasion of this year’s World Book Day, Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen is Chris Riddell’s newest installment in the ‘Goth Girl’ children’s series, following Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse and Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death. Unlike the previous two books, this one is considerably shorter, and also not nearly as stunning as an object: while Riddell’s complex and lighthearted illustrations still provide enough for the gluttonous eye to feast on, they are no longer beautifully brought out by glossy paper, and the lush hardcovers and shiny gilding are also absent. The extra booklet, too, is here lacking which in the previous books was attached at the end, and which illustrates the life and adventures of an eccentric secondary character (Ishmael the ghostly mouse in the first book, Marylebone the shy lady’s maid in the second). However, these drawbacks are only natural considering that Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen was conceived as a World Book Day ‘gift’, free in exchange for a Book Token, or else no more than £1.00. In effect, the book looks, feels, and reads like an enjoyable literary bagatelle, perfect in fact for the occasion on which it was published. As in the previous two volumes, the story is replete with witty cultural references. The reader meets such characters as Lady George, Duchess of Devon, a cross between the famous (or notorious?) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Cruella De Vil-turned-dog-lover, D’Urberville, the dairy maid builder, or Tristram Shandygentleman. Further literary references are made in the ‘footnotes written by a lamb called Charles, who loves the plays of Shakespeare’, and who takes every opportunity to show it. The locations are also glaringly and exquisitely intertextual, like ‘The Bolde Curiosity Shoppe’, and ‘the Prince Regent’s pavilion’, which is ‘based on the stately pleasure-dome of Kubla Khan’t – you know, the Chinese emperor who couldn’t say no’.

Cruella De Vil in Disney's 1961 'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' animated feature

Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ animated feature

Dame Vivienne Westwood

Dame Vivienne Westwood

Also like the previous volumes, Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen selfconsciously plays with literary tropes, breathing new, exuberant life into them even as it parodies them. The plotline is as simple and familiar as it is effective: the protagonist, young Ada Goth, is invited to the modish resort of Brighton to attend the World Frock Day Ball. Once in Brighton, however, she loses the money given her by her father, which she was meant to spend on a fashionable costume for herself. This development of course then calls for Ada to put to good use her wits and the opportunities that Fate lays in her way. Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen departs from the unproblematic Gothic-tinged setting of the labyrinthine Ghastly-Gorm Hall and grounds by moving the action away from the confinements of a dusty, mysterious and ancient mansion and almost entirely into the open, on the breezy and much more playful seashore and pier (the Not-Quite-a-Palace Pier, to be more specific) of this humorous alternate-universe Brighton. What, then, is left of the Gothic dimension in this story, apart from the in-your-face ‘creepy-cute’ flavour evoked by characters themselves? The answer lies precisely in the tropes that the narrative is built upon. As in the sentimental novel of the Romantic period, Ada is sent away under the supervision and protection of a motherly ‘matron’, the aforementioned Lady George. In some such sentimental novels, and in many Gothic ones, this chaperone is often inadequate or, at best, indifferent and unnecessary. Whilst nowhere nearly as sinisterly damaging to the heroine as, for instance, Madame Cheron of The Mysteries of Udolpho, Lady George is, shall we say, endearingly expendable, as she is left ‘snoring in the main bedroom’ whilst Ada plunges headfirst into her misadventures. As in the classical Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, where the heroine is transported to an exotic, unfamiliar land littered with perils and beset with villains, Ada is left to fend for herself in the comically strange seaside resort, where her lack of experience in dealing with the world makes her unwittingly vulnerable. Comical and heartwarming crossovers here abound, what with the introduction of haute couture masters Lady Vivienne Dashwood, ‘a rather haughty looking woman in a ginger wig, who was wearing a dress that looked as if it had been put on inside out and back to front’, and Jean-Paul Goatee, who makes Ada try on his ‘goat slippers’.

Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier

Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier

Screenshot from the film 'Arabella, the Pirate's Daughter' (1982), based on the eponymous children's book by Aino Pervik

Screenshot from the film ‘Arabella, the Pirate’s Daughter’ (1982), based on the eponymous children’s book by Aino Pervik

One question that Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen seems to pose, starting from the very title, is: what is the link between the Gothic mode and pirate stories? After all, don’t Gothic tales take place at land, usually between the confines of a dark castle or cloister, and don’t pirate adventures usually have guileless heroes rather than persecuted heroines? The answer seems to me to come via two channels. One, probably the better known, is the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, especially the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, where an initially naive, although adventurous heroine is foregrounded in the person of Elizabeth Swann. The other, of which I was made aware thanks to a dear friend from Estonia, is an Estonian pirate adventure for children, Arabella, the Pirate’s Daughter by Aino Pervik, recently retranslated into English, and which also features a heroine faced with the sinister world of the lawless life at sea. Whilst Elizabeth and Arabella each have opposite drives – one wishes to become a pirate herself, whilst the other wants to live the quiet life of a landlubber girl – the sea and the pirate ship are, for both of them, what the haunted castle is for the regular Gothic heroine: a maze set with traps and ‘haunted’ by villains who are out to get them. At sea and on the ship they are faced with the same terrifying, unspeakable, and unfamiliar qualities which Manuel Aguirre, in The Closed Space, identifies in the Gothic house, namely the sense of ‘Otherness’, of space-time remoteness. The sea is, traditionally, no place for a woman unless she, herself, is a hybrid creature of the waters, like the mermaid. This has been alluded to in some literary texts of a Gothic turn, such as Isak Dinesen’s story ‘The Monkey’ (one of her Seven Gothic Tales), which talks of women’s alleged aversion to the sea: ‘From the first smell of sea water to the contact with salted and tarred ropes, [women] shun [the sea life] and all its ways’, the reader is there told. When faced with this alien space, therefore, the heroine must either tame it, render it familiar, homely, or escape from it into a homelier space. In Goth Girl and the Pirate Queen these constructions are subtly alluded to, though appropriately toned down in keeping with the story’s general lighthearted tone. The book, nevertheless, can be said to feature as many as three ‘pirate queens’, though each earns her title in very different ways.  The first is Tall Nell, the retired Pirate Queen of the title, Frankensteinian monster (‘legs of a ballerina, arms of a dairymaid and the head of a chocolatier from Mainz’), who ‘wanted adventure, the roving life of a queen among pirates’ like Elizabeth Swann. The second is Horatia Hornblow, aspiring designer with a penchant for royal navy uniforms, and the third is, of course, Ada herself, but I  would rather let you yourselves infer why after reading the story.

Illustration from 'The Other Statue' by Edward Gorey

Illustration from ‘The Other Statue’ by Edward Gorey

In essence, with his mix of witty, punning, intertextual prose, and funny, elegant, though ever-so-mildly unsettling illustrations, Chris Riddell is – successfully, I would add – tapping into the lighthearted-gloomy legacy of Edward Gorey, the master of serious Gothic parody. Virtually any one of Gorey’s works can testify to his smart humourisation of Gothic tropes, which nevertheless manages to take the Gothic seriously at the same time that it winks and nods at it amusedly. The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Other Statue are two such excellent examples. In writing (and drawing) ostensibly for children, however, Riddell departs from Gorey not simply in target, but also in rendition and approach. His works are more on the heartwarming rather than the unsettling side (as Gorey’s often tend to be, perhaps despite themselves), and they bring classical tropes, cultural complexities, and sophisticated literary devices down to bite-sized, ‘edible’ portions. They are ‘the spoonful of sugar’ which ‘helps the medicine go down’, as Mary Poppins sings in the Disney adaptation of P.L. Travers’ books. They are, however, just as helpful for the more ‘informed’ adult readership in getting back in touch with the spontaneous pleasure of indulging in a purely funny book, satisfying also in the knowledge that we can ‘get the joke’. That said, I am looking forward to seeing what fresh twists and puns Riddell will have devised for the next installment, the promisingly-titled Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright, due to come out in September this year.

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