This is the first of Victoria Holt’s gothic romances, and my first time reading one of her books though I have read and enjoyed historical fiction written under her other pseudonym, Jean Plaidy, before. This was also one of my first seasonal reads this October, since it was described as having a gothic/spooky tone to it. This one has a Jane Eyre/Rebecca kind of plotline. Martha Leigh is young, unmarried and impoverished which means the only course open to her is to go out as a governess. And this she does—the story in fact opens with her on a train heading to Cornwall and to Mount Mellyn, the residence of the TreMellyns. Martha’s employer (or should I say her Rochester) is Connan TreMellyn, while her charge is Connan’s eight-year-old daughter Alvean, who has had, as is customary in such stories a few governesses before, none of whom lasted very long. At TreMellyn, she also meets (among others) the housekeeper, Mrs Polgrey, slightly imposing but friendly enough when she gets to know her (in other words, no Mrs Danvers), and neighbours Celestine Nansellock and her brother Peter, who are friendly, both with Martha and her employer, though there is something that strains the relationship between the TreMellyns and the Nansellocks. Also there is Mrs Polgrey’s strange granddaughter Gilly, who seems to sing, yet not speak to anyone. Alvean, Martha’s charge, is headstrong and sullen, but Martha soon finds that all she wants is her father’s love and approval, but he continues to be cold. She also finds that her employer’s wife Alice died a year ago in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and in some way or other her shadow remains in the house. In fact, even on the railway journey to Cornwall, someone had warned her to watch out for Alice!
This was a reasonably enjoyable read for me, which delivered on most though not all of what it promised. The plot was as described on the lines of Jane Eyre and Rebecca—more the former than the latter in the sense of a governess going out to look after a child and falling in love with her employer, and there being a secret surrounding the employer’s wife’s death. Our heroine Martha is spirited, outspoken and up for the challenge of looking after a child (something she isn’t used to). In fact, more than that, she is not simply interested in getting young Alvean to accept her but also to improve her relationship with her father. Then she also takes up the case of little Gilly, who she feels is misunderstood. While she is the ideal ‘romance’ heroine, on many occasions, her reactions did feel to me a little childish. The romance thread of the story is I guess the usual, with Martha initially disapproving of her employer, but slowly taking to him; though the change of heart felt a little sudden.
The setting I thought—of a manor up on the Cornish cliffs, with a mysterious death (more than one death, actually) and the foundations she laid of our heroine being warned about Alice was quite perfect. But the spooky elements I felt didn’t turn out to have the effect of actually being creepy or scary in the slightest. There are mysterious whispers in the waves, and shadows of Alice, but the other threads of the story may be take up more prominence and so these don’t quite have the effect I’d have liked them to. But, the book did end up having a genuine mystery plot, surrounding the events that have taken place before Martha’s arrival, and there is more than one secret that the house and the people living in and around it are keeping—some she seems to find out quite soon, others remain a mystery right until the end. So there is a surprise awaiting one in the end, though I must say, if it had turned out as Martha begins to imagine it, it may have been more dark and fun (for us, not her).
Have you read this one? How did you like it? Any Gothic Romances that you read that were actually scary? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!