I recently read The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan. While I enjoyed this story, I struggled to concentrate well enough to appreciate it fully.
The Beguiled is set during the American Civil War in a girls’ boarding school in Virginia run by two middle-aged sisters, both of whom are spinsters. Due to the war there are only five students still at the school, all teenage girls of various ages and backgrounds. An elderly slave, Mattie, also lives at the school.
When young Amelia was out in the woods she found an injured Union soldier and took him back to the school with her. Although Miss Martha knew it was risky to have Corporal Johnny McBurney in her home she operated on his leg after which he was left to recuperate on a settee in the parlour. As Johnny recovered he charmed the girls with his flattery, stories and kisses and much like a rooster in a henhouse, became the focus of all of their attention.
Two girls hoped Johnny would be their lover and when one girl found him in bed with the other girl, she caused him to have an accident that further injured his leg. Miss Martha then amputated Johnny’s injured leg, although whether this operation was actually needed or not was ambiguous. Once he recovered, he was furious and began a reign of terror against the women to get his revenge.
The story is told in chapters told alternately by the five girls, Miss Martha, Miss Harriet and Mattie. Each of the narrators had a different view of Johnny and they each wanted something different from him. Despite this, I struggled to distinguish between the girls’ voices as they all sounded exactly the same regardless of the difference in their ages, life experience, morals and backgrounds.
None of the characters excepting Mattie were particularly likeable. The girls constantly squabbled amongst each other and rebelled against their teachers, while Miss Martha and Miss Harriet had carried grudges from their youth into their current circumstances. Johnny lied so much he believed his own stories and although he was charming, he was a fiend when things didn’t go his way.
Amongst all of the characters, Mattie had the most to be unhappy about. She was the last slave left at the school after Miss Martha sold all of the others including Mattie’s husband, but she was the only person with true strength of character and a good heart. In an interesting twist she saw straight through Johnny’s wiles when he showed sympathy for her situation as a slave in an attempt to gain rapport with her.
The Beguiled has been made into two movies, an earlier one starring Clint Eastwood and a more recent version directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. While I’m more inclined to watch the more recent adaptation of this movie than the Clint Eastwood version, I won’t go out of my way to find either.