In her interview with Maggie Power, Marie-Luise Kohlke identifies "Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859), Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892), and arguably Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839)" as evident "intertexts" for Power's second novel, Lily (1994) (88). Power herself goes on to add Wide Sargasso Sea and Dracula. The novel's indebtedness to the Brontës in particular and Victorian Gothic in general, however, turns out to be less imitation and more deconstruction. Power quips that the novel is "like a vampire novel without the vampire," an absence that suggests how Lily strips out the Gothic supernatural and substitutes a grotesquely-amplified biological horror in its place: syphilis.
Lily's characters aspire to Gothic heights of villainy or innocence, but wind up slumping as badly as High Withens, the decaying estate at the novel's core. It's hard not to wince when Jonathan Hopgate grandiosely announces, "'At last, my destiny!'" (2), a clunker that does not exactly bode well, but this bathos accurately predicts Hopgate's own failure to be Rochester or Heathcliff (let alone their precursor, Byron's Manfred). Invoking one of the Gothic's all-time pet tropes, the attempt to reclaim an inheritance gone astray, the novel charts how the preternaturally-gorgeous Jonathan, a drawing-master, snags a wealthy (but deathly ill, or so he hopes) woman whose father promises to buy back High Withens for him. The wife in question is the eponymous Lily, whose name links her to purity, rebirth, and the Virgin, but who was actually seduced as an adolescent (darn those Italian dancing instructors!). The seduction in question did not leave her pregnant; it did, however, leave her with syphilis, which the doctor decides to call tuberculosis of the spine. Needless to say, this is one of those moments when TMI is not the problem, as the doctor never explains why Lily should refrain from having sex; as Lily turns out to be possessed by intense desire for her (unenthusiastic) husband, she eventually passes the disease on to him. Inconveniently for all concerned, Jonathan falls in love with the curate's daughter, Agnes--another name with Christian resonances--and, after poisoning Lily with mercury (ah, the joys of married life), he celebrates his liberation by consummating this new relationship...only to be faced with the doctor's now-honest death certificate, and the realization that he has both infected his new love and destroyed any chance of furthering the Hopgate line. If this weren't all bad enough, it becomes clear by the end that Agnes' loyal servant, Edith, plans to knock her off via laudanum addiction, the better to get her own hands on the house.
The novel upends a number of Gothic conventions, especially those surrounding gender and class relations, and psychologizes or biologizes others. (Which is not to say that there may not be a ghost or two floating around--at least, Edith's sisters claim to see Lily.) Jonathan, as I said, fails at Gothic villainy much as he fails at art, eventually subsiding into alcoholism and ineffectual rage. The affectless Edith, coolly plotting her way into possession of High Withens, cleverly reverses the addlepated and talkative servants who overpopulate Gothic narratives. The hyper-sexed Lily, repeatedly defined by the "heat" of her body, defies the norm of the chaste Gothic heroine...but so too does Agnes, whose "insubstantial flesh" (90) initially appeals to Jonathan's desire for an honest-to-goodness "lady." Knowing that Jonathan has infected her, she angrily resists his advances after marriage: "'Take your filth out of me. Take your filth out of me, Jonathan'" (196). Agnes' unsuccessful attempts to repel her husband's advances recast the comic, domestic endings of some classic Gothic texts--hero and ingenue marry, live happily ever after, etc.--as rape. (Lily's implied presence in the Jonathan/Agnes marriage is actually rather reminiscent of Therese Raquin.) In a sense, the novel keeps refusing to end "properly": the marriages to Lily and Agnes both fragment, the would-be comic plotlines collapsing much like the house. Agnes' slowly-intensifying case of OCD, which manifests itself in endless bathing to "purify" herself from infection (a sort of endless baptism, as it were), makes Gothic repetition into a psychological diagnosis. Moreover, despite their symbolic names, both Lily and Agnes flunk the Jane Eyre test of calling the would-be rake to repentance; significantly, where Jane nurtured her injured husband (an ending that comes with its own ambivalent power relations in tow), Agnes turns her syphlitic husband into Bertha Mason, confining him out of sight as his brain rots alongside his body.
In fact, one of the intertexts not mentioned in the interview is The Picture of Dorian Gray, although both the family portraits and Jonathan's decaying body appear to reference it. Certainly, Jonathan's transformation from beautiful man to rotted flesh (that last captured for scientific posterity) seems similar to Dorian's fate, although in Jonathan's case, there is no beautiful work of art left to memorialize his lost innocence. (Jonathan actually destroys his wife's idealized sketches of him.) Much of the novel's horror derives from its frequent returns to porousness, bodily insides frequently leaking out (and vice-versa). Like Robert Browning's Bishop, suddenly gripped by a vision of "Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat / As if the corpse they keep were oozing through," the novel's characters are haunted by the spectre of bodily corruption emerging from the boundaries which ought to confine it. Syphilis, which slowly but surely turns Jonathan's exquisite face into a gaping hole (something foreshadowed early on, when Lily's father sees a "sepia shade eras[ing] Jonathan's features" ), is the primary culprit, along with the medications prescribed to cure it. Lily suffers from weeping sores, heavy sweating, diarrhea, and horrific vomiting; later, Agnes' compulsive washing serves as a different kind of release, in which "the pores of her skin were opened, exuding the grime she imagined inhabited her" (200). (Despite her fantasies of returning to a state of virginal purity through endless washing, though, going back to the rhythms of her marriage always brings her back to a state of "filth.") Jonathan himself seems to merge into Lily as he loses his mind, identifying himself as the wife he murdered (257) even as he succumbs to what would have been her eventual fate.
The conclusion, I think, takes a potshot at utopian fantasies about purely feminine households. Agnes, "sick of men" (260), imagines herself living free of High Withens, with Edith as her surrogate "daughter" (260). But Agnes' dream of rebuilding family life on her own, all-female terms is actually marked by a combination of obtuseness and occluded power relations. After all, Edith may be daughter-like, but she remains nothing more than a servant, and Agnes has spent the novel being hilariously (one might say, cluelessly) incapable of divining her "daughter"'s desires or needs. Contrariwise, Edith's mild liking for Agnes gives way soon enough to her yearning for High Withens. Far from providing a feminized, nurturing alternative to the brutality (sexual and otherwise) of the Hopgate legacy, the conclusion--with Edith ominously mixing Agnes yet another drink with laudanum--suggests that Jonathan's violence and will to power, gendered as male, may itself have leaked...