Spoilers follow for The Haunting of Bly Manor
A young woman arrives at a looming mansion where she meets a beguiling and dangerous man that she falls head over heels for. This is where the story takes a tragic turn. Usually.
Gothic romance has enchanted us with yarns about naive women and the dangerous, wealthy men who lure them in since the 1800s. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor takes the structure and atmosphere that stories like Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre established and makes subtle shifts. These shifts subvert the genre. They broaden the idea of who deserves love, what it means to be loved, and who gets to be at the center of a love story.
Bly Manor presents many kinds of love, with multiple love stories taking place throughout. Its first and foremost tragic relationship is that of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. This pairing sticks most closely to the conventions of gothic romance. Make no mistake: in every other version of this story they would be the core romantic relationship. Here Flanagan reshapes our expectations. Peter Quint is toxic, but he’s also damaged. He’s poor but smart, loving as well as abusive. He isn’t to be forgiven as his actions are unforgivable. But you can understand how Rebecca Jessel might have taken a chance on loving him. It’s far from the cold, distant men that often haunt the halls of gothic romance, especially as those men are usually wealthy. But both Quint and Jessel are working class, trying to survive at the whims and wants of those who pay them.
Both Quint and Jessel are working class, trying to survive at the whims and wants of those who pay them.
From her first appearance, Rebecca poses a challenge to the idea of who gets to be a romantic lead. She’s a Black woman who wants to be a barrister. She pursues her goals with the knowledge that she deserves more than society wants to give her. Ambitious, intelligent, and strong-willed, her loving nature and open-mindedness ultimately leads to her tragic demise. But instead of becoming a soulless and bitter ghoul, her loving nature and bravery transcend her own death, living on through her ultimate sacrifice to save the children she once cared for. It’s a choice that foreshadows and probably inspires Dani’s own decision—one that sets her on her own tragic path.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Bly Manor isn’t interested in fetishizing loss, toxic relationships, or trauma. Instead it offers years of queer happiness and an equally heartbreaking and happy ending. Well, as happy as you can get in a gothic romance.
Often gothic romance stories center on women as they face loneliness, loss, and aging. But The Haunting of Bly Manor goes another way. It takes a woman from a place of overwhelming isolation and offers her solace and love. Dani’s journey from being forced into a heterosexual relationship with her best friend to finding love with Jamie is the romantic story at the heart of Bly Manor. Queer love stories are rare, and ones that also get to play in the realm of genre are nearly non-existent. Dani and Jamie represent the antithesis of Quint and what he tries to do to Rebecca, breaking her so she is just as lost as him. Instead, the two broken women come together in order to create something whole.
Queer love stories are rare, and ones that also get to play in the realm of genre are nearly non-existent.
That’s not to say there isn’t tragedy. This is a gothic romance after all.
But shouldn’t queer stories get to traverse both happy and sad? Though it only takes up the space of maybe a third of an episode, we get to see Dani and Jamie live a happy, full life—one that any of us would be lucky to have. It contradicts the classic gothic romance ending. If a woman survives in those stories she spends her days in an autumnal sadness of settling. No, this is a passionate, funny, splendid kind of life. It’s a bursting at the seams kind of love. Flanagan gives us enough of this slice of life lesbian dream that when Dani ultimately returns to Bly it’s even more painful. But in a beautiful twist, we discover that the love we got to glimpse is an eternal kind of love, one that fits far more into the “immortal gays” trope than the outdated “bury your gays” one.
Even as a queer woman who longs to be seen in the stories I watch, Dani and Jamie weren’t my favorite pairing in Bly Manor. They broke my heart, they made me feel represented. And they made me feel a bittersweet happiness. But Owen and Hannah shared a love so pure, so untainted by cruelty that I couldn’t help but root for them. It’s an interesting exploration of how workers co-exist in an almost separate world from those they work for; the cook and the housekeeper found a love that they appreciated too late. Their roles as caretakers for others meant that they pushed their own wants aside. It’s a romance between friends who both wished for more, but could never quite bring themselves to put it into words. Not that it’s a competition, but in a way, Owen and Hannah’s romance is the most tragic of all.
Quint and Jessel, as well as Dani and Jamie, got to love one another and be happy. Albeit, only for a moment. Circumstances denied Owen and Hannah any of that. It’s a different kind of tragedy than those we usually see in gothic romance. Neither party’s greed or trauma caused it either. This tragedy came from circumstance, simply by life getting in the way. It’s two people who cared so much for others that they didn’t make time for their own happiness. Of course, there’s a supernatural murder that really keeps them apart—remember, this is a ghost story. But Flanagan uses the their unrequited romance to remind us all of what we can miss if we don’t act. It also shows a truly pure version of love that is based solely on humor, trust, attraction, and friendship.
This was a tragedy born of circumstance, one created simply by life getting in the way, two people who cared so much for others that they didn’t make time for their own happiness.
One of the greatest strengths of The Haunting of Bly Manor is the love at its core. Not just in the relationships it chooses to center but also in every scene and performance. Flanagan and his team imbue each episode with a love for the genre, for the characters, and even for the looming house itself. Bly Manor is a romance, but it’s unconcerned with what we think romance should be. In fact, in the midst of the ghosts and gloom the series makes a case for all kinds of love. And even more striking and moving is that The Haunting of Bly Manor chooses to present queerness and true friendship as the most powerful and pure kinds of love of all.
Featured Image: Netflix