Invisible Ink 4: Virginia Andrews

Reading & Writing

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Sometimes an author’s work lives on, but here’s the first example I found of an author living beyond her death (the practice is commonplace now). Or rather, not – because the real Virginia Andrews has been forgotten and was replaced by a ghost writer called Andrew Neiderman, who penned over 40 subsequent volumes in her name.

Andrews’ books did so well that her estate found it necessary to keep her alive and continue earning money. In one of their more extraordinary rulings (the sort of thing that appears whenever they scent money) the Inland Revenue Service declared her still alive, arguing that her name was a valuable, and therefore taxable, asset.

In the age of the brand, this publishing behaviour is becoming more and more the norm. We’ve had extensions of everything from ‘Sherlock Holmes’ to ‘Sense And Sensibility’, because they come with a built-in readership. But let’s go back to the beginning of the Andrews story.

Cleo Virginia Andrews was an American novelist born in 1923, in Virginia. She started out as an illustrator and portrait painter, a sedentary occupation chosen largely because she was crippled by arthritis stemming from problems compounded by an early fall. When she switched to writing at the relatively late age of 55, she first chose science fiction, then produced a novel called ‘The Obsessed’, which her publisher felt she should sex up and retitle.

The revised version, a perverse fairytale marketed as a horror novel and now called ‘Flowers In The Attic’, appeared in 1979. It tells the story of four blonde blue-eyed siblings, Cathy, Cory, Carrie and Chris, who are imprisoned in an attic by their mother and grandmother in order to gain an inheritance. Kept there for years, mentally and physically abused by their relatives, two of the children eventually fall in love and form a new family unit before escaping.

There’s something deeply unsettling and unpleasant about the book – it’s an airless, claustrophobic work, a novel of the sickroom. Yet it became a surprise bestseller.

The siblings wreak revenge on their captors in the second novel, and subsequent sequels continue the style from new viewpoints. Throughout, gothic imagery is laced with all the trappings of Victorian melodramas; there are hidden identities, arsenic poisonings and outbreaks of religious hysteria, complete with arson, incest and incarceration in madhouses. It seems that the feverish hothouse atmosphere of life in the attic appealed to the temperament of teenaged girls, who clearly wanted to have their most macabre fears about sex and adulthood confirmed, and bought the books in their millions.

Andrews’ stand-alone novel ‘My Sweet Audrina’ explored similar themes in outlandishly lurid prose. She began another series, but soon these volumes were only ‘inspired’ by her voluminous notes as, by this time, Andrews had inconveniently died. The original books are psychologically bothersome and compellingly awful, whereas the pseudonymous volumes which were designed to keep the brand alive are merely awful. They continue to turn up every once in a while in charity shops.

4 comments on “Invisible Ink 4: Virginia Andrews”

  1. Sam Burns says:

    Felt I had to comment on this, it brings back ( slightly traumatic ) memories! When I was in year 8 or so at high school these novels were doing the rounds, being read avidly and then passed onto the next (female) person. I read at least the first one, but remember feeling quite disturbed by the content, have never felt the urge to read any of Virginia Andrews other novels! Was interested to find out many of them were not written by her, a good example of an author becoming a brand rather than an individual voice. At the moment I’m rereading as many Bryant and May novels as I can, having finished Strange Tides two days after I purchased it.I thoroughly enjoy the series, have grown to love the characters, and the nuggets of information about London, past and present are, for me, what makes the books unique and fascinating.

  2. John says:

    We knew her as V. C. Andrews over here in her native land. Could she be singlehandedly responsible for the slew of tawdry incest & abuse horror fiction that followed in the wake of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC? I think the sales of her books made it possible for a writer like John Saul, who was also obsessed with abused and amoral children, to become a bestseller in the world of mass market paperbacks. Andrews’ books were extremely popular with sad, misfit teenage girls I went to high school with back in the 70s. Anytime I see one of those old paperbacks I can only think of my high school years. I never met a guy who confessed to having read any of them. I certainly didn’t and have never had a desire even out of morbid curiosity. Nor have I seen the movie with Louise Fletcher as the insane grandma.

  3. Vivienne says:

    When my son did’n’t know what book to buy his father for Christmas, he was told, count five shelves and four books, and then buy that. (I may have the instructions incorrectly). Anyway the result was Virginia Amdrews but whether the real thing or not, I don’t know. The experiment was deemed a failure and the book went to Oxfam.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    When I see this sort of thing I always think of the old house names used in the pulps, Sexton Blake and when people like Leslie Charteris whose later books are said to be by other hands.

    Still this gives new meaning the idea of a ghost writer.

    Wayne.

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