Spaces of the Heroine in a White Room in a Gothic Manor

Spaces of the Heroine in a White Room in a Gothic Manor
© Photograph by Daniele Ferrero

To say that the actions of literary characters are played out in a certain cultural-historical space seems trivial. However, there are many novels in which the spatial construction of the fictional world becomes particularly meaningful.

Descriptions of space start to be significant, and the space itself ceases to be a mere background to the protagonists’ actions, and it begins to affect them, to tell its own story. It is no different in the case of ‘Adelheid’ (1967), a novel written by the Czech writer Vladimír Körner.

The rules of the spatial construction in the world that Körner shows us are disturbed, which leads to the disappearance of the familiar distinction between the public and private. This is due to the situation in which the characters are placed: the world described in ‘Adelheid’ shows the post-war situation in Czechoslovakia just before the organised expulsions of German-speaking inhabitants of the country, the end of the 700-year-long coexistence of Czechs and Germans.

In this article, I analyse one of the most significant places that are described in the novel. It is a room of the daughter of the previous owners, located in the manor where the main character arrives to become a new administrator of the estate.

The problem of the post-war re-settlement of the Borderlands and the way in which the issue is conceptualised and described is highlighted by comparing ‘Adelheid’ and the most famous Czech novel concerning the same period, a socialist realist work by Václav Řezáč entitled ‘Nástup’ (1951).

Such a comparison is justified because even the names of the towns where the action takes place in both novels are interrelated: Grünbach (‘Nástup’) and Schwarzbach (‘Adelheid’). While the protagonists of Řezáč’s novel look at a new world full of possibilities, those from ‘Adelheid’ are far from such enthusiasm.

In Řezáč’s work the name suggests a green area, and, therefore, flowering, spring, the beginning of new life — which is, of course, brought with the new Czech settlers. Therefore, it is not surprising that Řezáč’s characters from time to time contemplate the beauty of the resettled village.

Meanwhile, Viktor, the main character of ‘Adelheid’, arrives in Schwarzbach, an unfriendly place, connoting darkness, decline and fear. Moreover, it is seen as such by the hero himself. The novel by Řezáč was written shortly after the war, at the time of “post-war euphoria of the end of the war and liberation” as well as “attempts to fulfil the theses of socialist realism” (Tomáš 77). Körner, writing ‘Adelheid’ in 1967, already had a large enough distance to the war itself as well as to the “liberation.”

The use of the novel ‘Nástup’, and not some other books of the epoch, as a counterpoint for ‘Adelheid’ can also be justified in another way. The work by Řezáč embodies the essence of the socialist realist way of writing about the borderland: “‘Nástup’ is its peak partly because most works written after ‘Nástup’ only try to problematize the theme […], but also because ‘Nástup’ represents a motivic and thematic synthesis of previous works” (Tomáš 78). Körner must, therefore, be aware that his narrative steps into a world already so suggestively outlined by Řezáč in the minds of readers. Consequently, the narrator in ‘Adelheid’ speaks to us not only from a different cognitive and ideological point of view, but it also uses other tools.

Viktor Chotovický, the main protagonist of ‘Adelheid’, arrives at Schwarzbach with a precisely defined purpose. He has to look after a German estate, namely the manor of Alfréd Heidenmann, one of the prominent local Nazi officials. The house, which Körner frequently refers to as a “little castle” (Czech zámeček), is located outside the village. Amazingly, this makes it similar to a transit camp for Germans, which is also placed somewhere outside Schwarzbach. Thus, the standpoints of Viktor and the former inhabitants waiting to be expelled are similar, as they are social outcasts who remain on the margins of society.

The impression is intensified by the fact that Viktor, although he is Czech, has just come back from the West. He spent the war in England, in the auxiliary service of the RAF. In his homeland, now under a communist regime, he is, therefore, not welcome and he seems suspicious.

Viktor is looking for peace and quiet. However, the mere sight of Heidenmann’s estate gives the impression that peace will be hard to achieve there — unless we mean the eternal peace. The manor or, as Körner wants it, the “little castle,” a property of a German awaiting trial in Olomouc, is a grim building in the pseudo-historicist style, which, at first – but only at first glance may look appealing.

Viktor, coming from the fields, can see: “At the end of the alley […] the house and the greenish sheet metal of the copper tower […] The manor at the end of the alley was quiet and the last beam of sunlight was reflected in the windows, as if light was already turned on inside. A sandy path forked next to a neglected rose-bed and joined again at the sandstone stairs where a mattress and some gilded frames lay scattered around.” (Körner 23)

The pseudo-light in the windows suggests the will-o’-the-wisp, leading wanderers astray, as well as the lights in the windows which a hero of fairy tales notices, while wandering through the woods.

Like them, the lights in the windows of the manor disappear when Viktor comes closer. A neglected flower-bed and the visible signs of looting can be regarded as a symbolic representation of what is left of German culture in the region.

To quote the Russian literary scholar Vladimir Toporov: “the abandonment of space, the disappearance of its constant elements […] arouses trepidation in the human soul” (47). The manor itself, without its inhabitants, who disappeared from there, can cause such feelings in the hero.

Gradually approaching the building, Viktor sees all the elements of horror in Heidenmann’s house: “Mature plane trees put the front of the house in deep shade, on plastered wooden rails strained and blushed the wild vine, sharp crosses of the Knights of Malta were silhouetted against both towers, and […] the gaping mouths and heads of gargoyles: the little devils and lizards.” (Körner 23)

The manor is, therefore, equipped with all the elements vital to Gothic horror fiction. The house, pictured as in the nineteenth-century Gothic novel, not without coincidence, raises similar associations in one of Viktor’s guests: “You live here nicely […]. Perfect Middle Ages” (Körner 76).

The Gothicism of the manor is also highlighted by the first book leafed through by Viktor — lying open on the lectern, there are poems by Walter von der Vogelweide. Also, the inside of the house bears the hallmarks of the Gothic.

The view that greets Viktor after he enters is “a suit of knightly armour scattered on the floor like a shadow of a sleeping or dead man” (Körner 23).

The first association with the scattered knightly armour which Viktor has is of a sleeping or dead man. However, there can be another interpretation of this view, which is the result of the actions of the looters. The abandoned weapons and armour can create the illusion of a sleeping knight. His role was to defend the house when the worst danger came. However, he could not wake up on time, leaving only sad remains, no longer needed by anybody: even to the looters, they did not seem valuable.

But this is not the only knight on the estate. Heidenmann’s house is full of signs of its former glory, also the glory of arms. In the garden, there is “a statue of St. George […] a dimmed, bronze lizard […] covered in mud” (Körner 53).

Similarly to a scattered suit of armour, Saint George stands in the corner of the garden muddy and abandoned, as if the chivalrous ethos “appropriated” by the previous owners left this world for good.

The last knight in the house is a portrait of a crusader, hanging in the living room on the ground floor of the building. What especially frightens Viktor is a cage, located in the garden of the estate.

On the basis of the dried blood stains, whips and leather straps which he finds inside it, he concludes that this is where Heidenmann used to keep foxes or disobedient hunting dogs (Körner 31). He is, however, informed that he is wrong: “That is what a medieval pillory looked like, it is a copy. Old Heidenmann sometimes locked in here some Polish prisoners. He had them working in the forest. He comfortably let them go without food for two days, and one got beaten by him just at the stairs” (Körner 35).

It brings associations with Gothic images of slavery in American literature, as described by Ellen J. Goldner. This kind of discourse does not have to be rational and based on facts, as Goldner argues. Instead, it has to show the distortion of the lens through which we look at certain social phenomena (Goldner 60). This is not the last clue which tells us to think about the meaning of Gothic stylization used by Körner in ‘Adelheid’.

A cage, as I try to prove further, is a recurring theme in the novel. An uncanny concatenation of German love of the Middle Ages, the romantic surroundings of the manor, and, at the same time, the cruelty attested by the cage, is a combination typical of stories about the Nazis.

The greater problem arises when the title heroine of the novel, ‘Adelheid’, appears. She is sent there as a maid, but she turns out to be the daughter of old Heidenmann. She does not speak Czech, Viktor does not speak German. They communicate in a kind of sign language; actually, until the end of the novel, they do not have an opportunity for a normal conversation.

As the narrator shows us the events from the perspective of Viktor, we can trace the way the protagonist tries to understand Adelheid and her story by exploring the surrounding area: the Gothic mansion, and later also Adelheid’s room from her childhood years.

This process of the transition from open to smaller, closed places, as in this case from Heidenmann’s manor as a whole to a small room in its distant part, is similar to the process described by Toporov.

The Russian scholar treats the closing of space around the characters as an analogy of transition from a wide and open living space to the narrow and confined space of death (Toporov 43). Viktor’s feelings could, therefore, be connected to the death that fills the property of the convicted German — through the dried blood in the cage, through the spirit of past Nazi glory, and through the fate of the characters of ‘Adelheid’.

Here, too, the fact that Körner stylizes the space of the whole manor as that of a Gothic mansion has its meaning. As Paul Lewis writes, “it escaped the attention of many readers and critics that, for all its tawdriness, the Gothic novel by presenting mysteries raises and often answers important questions about man, society, and the universe” (207).

He is right when he points out that the often ridiculed setting of Gothic novels is not just a tool of building horror, but it can fulfil other functions. How, then, can it be interpreted in Körner’s novel?