In this latest American Gothic from Begiebing (The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton, 1999, etc.), a mysterious girl runs afoul of her relatives and becomes the obsession of a young artist in 18th-century New England.
For all of his refined artistic sensibilities, Daniel Sanborn is a man who knows how to get ahead. Trained as a painter in London, he realizes that England in the 1740s is a buyer’s market for portraiture, so he strikes out for the American colonies, just then full of rising merchants beginning to fancy themselves patrons of the arts. Not long after his arrival in Boston, Daniel wins his first commission, to paint a portrait of 12-year-old Rebecca Wentworth in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The orphaned Rebecca was adopted by Squire Browne, her father’s cousin, who lost two sons of his own to the same plague that carried off her parents. Beautiful and phenomenally intelligent, Rebecca is an artist herself: untutored, but skilled enough to make Daniel envious of her talents. Her wild, brooding canvases, far beyond the mainstream of colonial taste, are taken as signs of madness, and Rebecca’s guardian tries to cure her of such fantasies. The squire first sends her to work on a remote farm where she will have no time to paint, and later attempts to marry her off. Thwarted in both plans, he decides to commit her to a lunatic asylum. Daniel learns of Squire Browne’s plans from the girl’s former governess, who wants to help her but is powerless to intervene. Awed by Rebecca’s talent, and horrified by her guardian’s insensitivity, Daniel tries to save her. But there are a number of obstacles in the way, not the least of them the American Revolution, which is just getting underway. And Daniel soon has to confront the painful realization that his feelings for Rebecca are not wholly disinterested.
Begiebing’s narrative tends to get bogged down in historical detail, but it’s arresting enough to carry you through to the end. A truly creepy tale.