The fatal vow is a critical plot item in so many gothic novels. The vow that Wolfenbach’s Countess made to save her son’s life almost cost her own, and in the first volume of Clermont both Madeline’s father and the mysterious Countess have both hinted that they are keeping deep and dark secrets from her. The true value of the fatl vow is that it’s eventual revelation in the third volume can speed on the progress of a flagging plot and explain away a number of unresolved subplots in quick time.
You know, Biddy, that a heroine ought always to snatch at an opportunity of making a fatal vow. When things are going on too smooth, and interest drooping, a fatal vow does wonders. I remember reading in some romance, of a lady, who having vowed never to divulge a certain secret, kept it twenty years ; and with such inviolability, that she lived to see it the death of all her children, several of her friends, and a fine old aunt. (The Heroine, ES Barrett)
But for once we aren’t considering the gothic, another fatal vow is at the heart of The Other House by Henry James. Now I’m not generally a fan of James, I read Turn of the Screw out of a feeling of duty after having enjoyed both the film (The Innocents) and the opera (Benjamin Britten). It was a book I found surprisingly hard going. Still I picked up The Other House primarily because it is one of the inspirations of the storyline in the film within a film sequences in Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.
So I was surprised to find how readable it is; apparently at the time he wrote it James was trying his hand at writing plays, and the novel is constructed very like a play. It is in three sections (books), each one of which takes place in a fixed location and in real time, such that it is essentially three acts of a play. The text also contains a high proportion of dialogue so it also reads like a play.
However, at its heart is a very tragic, and somewhat ridiculous fatal vow, in which the male lead, beside his wife’s deathbed has sworn never to remarry during the lifetime of his daughter. Very soon he has two admirers, and would be second wives, for whom this fatal vow is a very real and immediate obstacle.
Spoiler alert – although you have probably guessed it by now, the daughter soon ends up face down in the river (during her birthday party, poor girl) and the only issue to be resolved is which of the two women put her there.
Rivette’s film avoids the tragic ending by allowing Celine and Julie to rescue the girl and take her boating on the river rather than leaving her to float down in of her own accord.
James novel, one of his lesser known, however is a sad and horrific little tale and the perfect reminder of why we should try to avoid making a fatal vow, even when our storyline seems to require one.