Flowers in the Attic: Virginia Andrews, The REAL VC Andrews
Behind the Initials: The Day Virgina Andrews Finally Spoke
In 1980, a writer named V.C. Andrews appeared on the paperback bestseller lists with a novel titled Flowers in the Attic. The book, less than two hundred pages, told the story of a family of four blonde and beautiful children confined for years inside the attic of a family mansion after the early death of their father. The stark confession of the eldest teenage sister, Cathy, lured readers into a world ruled by cruel grandparents and a distant mother who sacrificed her progeny for a lucrative inheritance. With no one to love but one another, this quartet of siblings — the Dollangangers — formed a family unit of their own, one in which Cathy and her brother Christopher played the role of parents far too accurately and incestuously. The subsequent complications arising from their brother-sister romance carried the Dollangangers though a bestselling four-book series and a few spin-offs authored by Andrews until her death from breast cancer in 1986.
Flowers in the Attic delivers the most significant cultural weight to readers who remember the hours they dedicated to the tale of familial love as well as the sense that reading the book was -- in itself -- a sort of sinful act, one not serious enough to stop reading yet strong enough to linger long after the final page. That is why so many readers have never forgotten Cathy’s story.
In the world of publishing, Andrews is better known for the legion of Dollanganger fans than for her writing abilities, which were undercut by the extraordinarily profitable enterprise that built up around her name and continues long after her death. Many don’t know that Andrews was female (her publisher intentionally gender-neutralized “Virgina” into “V.C.”), that she was disabled, and that she had an intense longing for recognition as a writer, crafting nine novels before she sold her first. She was a private person who avoided reporters and only two interviews of her are widely accessible today: One with People in 1980, and one for the 1984 anthology Faces of Fear, in which Douglas E. Winter, the editor, takes on seventeen “encounters with the creators of modern horror” (cover). The interview with Winter is far more extensive and insightful than the article from People, which Andrews castigated because of the two photographs that accompanied it. (She might have also found case against the included quote from a Washington Post critic who said that “Flowers in the Attic may well be the worst book I have ever read.”)
Horror, Romance, or Something in Between?
On the day that Winter interviewed Andrews, she was at the height of fame, with four books of the Dollanganger series in print and over twenty million copies sold. It would be a few more years before her fatal breast cancer diagnosis, the legal battle over her fortune, and the assumption of her identity by pulp horror novelist Andrew Neiderman, who would write more than fifty books under her name.
Winter, an attorney who eventually wrote a well-received novel of his own, opens his chapter on Andrews by explaining that “the modern horror novel is seemingly the enclave of the male writer” (163). Indeed, Andrews is the only female writer in the Winter anthology, and he remarks that she sits alongside fellow bestselling authors Stephen King and Clive Barker despite his observation that her novels are categorized into the horror genre “more by default than by design” (164). He also sheds light on why she so despised the People interview (“they come to get dirt”), and that she refuses to reveal her chronological age because “I get older and younger as I want” (164).
The interview was held in her home. Andrews suffered from crippling arthritis, the tragic outcome of an accidental fall down a school staircase when she was fifteen years old. Although not paralyzed, she relied on crutches, a wheelchair, and her mother’s assistance to get around. One of the photographs from the People article shows her in the wheelchair, reading a card attached to a basket of flowers, feet turned at awkward angles. Another photo has her peeking through the curtains of a window, scowling and shadowed. In the Winter anthology, however, she is posed and pretty, a vision of Southern womanhood, holding a rosebud to one cheek, smiling with lips closed. It’s a revealing perfection, one that begs for a second, longer look; something about the stiffness of her neck and the tense expression in her eyes belies the fact that all was not well.
The three-hour interview between Andrews and Winter resulted in the only document in which Andrews discusses her writing career and the events of her life in detail. If someone – maybe Andrews’ mother – had taken a photograph of the two of them on that day, I imagine they might have looked sincere and purposeful, two writers – a 60-year-old woman and a 34-year-old man, one never married, and one happily so -- brought together for what might have seemed like a fateful mission. But since no photograph is available, we are left to imagine the “stylishly appointed living room,” through which Winter traveled to the “enclosed porch overlooking the bay” where Andrews was waiting, offering “a wary smile” (164).
She did not like interviews. Would this one be any different?
The Story Unravels
The 6000 or so words Winters reserved for Andrews in Faces of Fear draw a sketchy but fascinating portrait of a multi-talented, determined, and disciplined individual who experienced incredibly bad and good luck throughout her life.
In childhood, Andrews loved to read. “I think I read every book in the school library,” she told Winters, “including adult books. I would read my father’s books. I would read anybody’s books” (165). Her love of language, however, was overshadowed by a more obvious talent with drawing and painting. After her accident, she completed a home-study art school degree and made a living for many years on portraits and fashion illustrations. But her love of writing held strong. In one of the brief transitions where Winter fills in missing details, we learn that Andrews “began working at night – a ‘closet writer,’ hiding her work from her mother” (169). After many rounds of rejection, Andrews became “gutsy enough” to write “around all the things my mother would disapprove of” (170). She wrote Flowers in the Attic, pitched it to agent Anita Diamant-Berke, and quickly received a contract from Pocket Books. Because she was a previously unpublished author of a manuscript considered to hold great potential, Andrews benefitted from an intense marketing campaign that took her first novel to heights that most authors never realize. This, say some, was the secret of her success.
But Andrews told Winters her own perspective. The power of Cathy’s story should be attributed to the tragedy that subjected Andrews to a life of pain and – at times -- immobility: ". . . it is very traumatic – particularly when you are young – to be yanked out of the mainstream of life because you have an illness that comes on you so unexpectedly. Suddenly, you are not in control anymore. You are made helpless by circumstances that you don’t have say about. It’s not justly dealt to you. I always felt that if I had done some terrible thing, this would be a punishment; but I hadn’t done anything yet. I thought, ‘Why don’t you give me a chance?’ . . . When I wrote Flowers in the Attic, all of Cathy’s feelings about being in prison were my feelings. So that, when I read them now, I cry (168-169)."
Somewhat ironically, Winter ends his interview with Andrews with her claim that “My life isn’t finished yet . . . ” (176). The literal truth of this final statement, however, is overpowered by the fact that – over twenty-five years later – books bearing her name relentlessly appear on the shelves. For this, we can thank a decision by her estate to reassign her name post-mortem. We might once again turn to Cathy, who summed up something similar on the first page of Flowers in the Attic: “Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captives by greed.”
Andrews, V.C. Flowers in the Attic. New York: Pocket, 2005. Print.
Langdon, Dolly. “Have You Read A Best-Selling Gothic Lately? Chances Are It Was by A Recluse Named V.C. Andrews” People 6 Oct. 1980: 51-2. Print.
Winter, Douglas E. Faces Of Fear: Encounters With The Creators of Modern Horror. New York: Berkley Trade, 1984. Print.