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Joanna Scott: The Manikin

In this novel, Joanna Scott starts to wade into Joyce Carol Oates territory, with a novel verging on the Gothic. Henry Craxton, when young, saw a pair of stuffed lions at the Paris exhibition and was so impressed that he decided that that was the business he wanted to go into. He set up a business that dealt with taxidermy and fossils as well as other scientific areas and made a lot of money out of it. He decided to move away from Rochester and built a large house out in the wilderness in upstate New York. This house was called the Manikin, a manikin being the frame on which an anatomical model is built. Henry was married and had had three sons. The youngest died of diphtheria, when still a baby. The oldest died aged twenty-two. By the start of the novel, Henry had died, leaving his widow, Mary, who, as the result of an accident, was wheelchair-bound and his middle son, Hal, who hated Manikin and spent most of his time travelling. Mary Craxton, invariably referred to only as Mrs. Craxton, is left alone in Manikin with her various servants.

Though nominally alone, she has several people living in the house to help her and they are, of course, key to the story. Only one set of servants came with the family from Rochester. These are Sylva, the cook, and Peter, her husband, an odd job man, along with their ever-growing family of children. Ellen Griswold is the housekeeper. She is a widow, after only six year of marriage (her husband was killed in World War I), and has a daughter, Peg. Peg has had a good education but now prefers to stay at home, occasionally helping her mother, but often going out hunting with Junket. The head groundskeeper is Lore Bennet. He is a widower. He has a fourteen-year old son, Steven, but everyone calls him Junket, after his favourite food when he was young. Junket and Peg have been friends since childhood but Junket has now fallen in love with Peg. His love is not reciprocated, and he knows it. There are other staff who play a minor role. Finally, there is the one quasi-Gothic character, Boggio. Boggio had worked for Henry Craxton as a taxidermist but has now retired and been given a small pension and lives on the estate. He is a solitary and somewhat strange person but a gifted taxidermist. There is one temporary visitor during the course of this novel, in addition to Hal, namely Lily Stone. Lily’s mother had determined that her relationship with a young man was inappropriate and she had agreed. As a result, she had accepted to come and live at Manikin for the winter. Mrs. Craxton is overjoyed to have the company – her main worry is not her health but boredom – and welcomes her, little knowing that Lily’s young man has rented a room in a nearby hotel for the winter. Mrs. Craxton may not know but her staff soon do.

As always, with Scott, this is a beautifully written novel, covering many themes. The first and obvious theme is a favourite of writers, that of a group, more or less isolated from the rest of the world, and how they interact. The issue of coming of age, another favourite theme, is also key. Scott is also concerned with the relationship between the nature lovers and those who fear and reject nature. Indeed, it is this that might be said to be the key theme of the first part of the novel. We see it with the love of nature that Lore, Junket and Peg have. Ellen, who shares a room with her daughter and thinks she knows her, is completely unaware of Peg’s love of the outdoors, till Lore tells her. But we also see it in the issue of taxidermy, the idea of encapsulating nature in stuffed animals. Indeed, Scott gives us a glimpse of the collection after the house has been abandoned to the animals and how frightening it is. We also see it in a key scene in the book when Junket inadvertently shoots a white snowy owl. The owl cannot be eaten but only given to the despised Boggio for stuffing. The shooting has a profound effect on Junket, though when he later discards his rifle, apparently because of this shooting, we later learn that there was, in fact, another reason for doing so.

Till about half way through the book, the story is very much concerned with the individuals in their assigned roles. Mrs. Craxton is the owner and everyone else – even Peg, Junket and Boggio who have no assigned function in her household – have very distinct roles, which is to assist Mrs. Craxton. It all changes halfway through the book when Mrs. Craxton dies. Suddenly, the traditional roles change and the individuals experiment with other roles but cannot really manage them, even Hal Craxton. Scott brilliantly portrays this change and how it affects everyone, not always for the better. Scott has written several superb novels but this must rate as one of her best.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Ticknor & Fields