Posts Tagged ‘Gothic Romance’

Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

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a lady of quality frances hodgson burnett 001

My spouse guffawed when he saw this cover: “Which child of the author drew that horse?” Well, it *is* eye-catching, even though I suspect it does not quite jive with the stated setting of the story, which starts in 1685.

A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett ~ 1896. This edition: Center Point Publishing, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58547-000-7. 317 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

She gathered all her dying will and brought her hand up to the infant’s mouth.  A wild look was on her poor, small face, she panted and fell forward on its breast, the rattle in her throat growing louder.  The child awakened, opening great black eyes, and with her dying weakness its new-born life struggled.  Her cold hand lay upon its mouth, and her head upon its body, for she was too far gone to move if she had willed to do so.  But the tiny creature’s strength was marvellous.  It gasped, it fought, its little limbs struggled beneath her, it writhed until the cold hand fell away, and then, its baby mouth set free, it fell a-shrieking.  Its cries were not like those of a new-born thing, but fierce and shrill, and even held the sound of infant passion.  ’Twas not a thing to let its life go easily, ’twas of those born to do battle.

Its lusty screaming pierced her ear perhaps—she drew a long, slow breath, and then another, and another still—the last one trembled and stopped short, and the last cinder fell dead from the fire.

It is “a wintry morning at the close of 1685”, and the heroine of our story has almost been smothered by her poor doomed mother. Nine children has poor Lady Daphne borne, all of them daughters, and with each successive childbed disappointment her abusive husband, Sir Jeoffry of Wildairs Hall, has become more and more enraged at his wife’s inability to bring forth a son. Six of the girl children have already perished; two survive, hidden away in a dingy nursery, and they are about to be joined by their baby sister, who survives her doomed mother’s feeble attempt at infanticide, meant to save her last child from a dreadful future fate.

Clorinda – our heroine, the baby-that-almost-was-smothered – is made of much sterner stuff than her mother, and she grows into a fiery-spirited, stunningly beautiful child. Catching her father’s eye by her forceful personality and wicked temper (he can totally relate), Clorinda spends her years until her fifteenth birthday hanging out with her father and his hard-drinking, hard-riding, gambling, womanizing cronies, while the sisters languish in their dismal corner of the Hall.

At fifteen Clorinda suddenly casts of her tomboyish persona and reinvents herself as a proper young lady, forcing herself out into society and making quite a stir what with her flashing eyes, unspeakable beauty, and rapier-sharp wit, not to mention her fairy-like dancing ability and gorgeous clothes.

The transformation continues, with the expected setbacks, including that of a blackmailing shadow from Clorinda’s heedless past. Luckily Clorinda’s elder sister Anne stands by her, and between the two of them Clorinda attains her marriage to the man she loves, and the downfall of her bitter enemy.

An absolutely overwritten almost-gothic romance – and I say “almost-gothic” because though it is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries it is deeply and awfully Victorian in style, all attempts by its author to set the scene with dramatically archaic language and descriptions of silks and brocades and paduasoys aside.

The occasional humour that enlivens FHB’s other books seems to be almost entirely missing here; there is an absolute earnestness which serves the highlight the improbabilities of Clorinda’s transformation and many successes, and Sister Anne is just as unbelievable in her saintly self-sacrifice; Anne’s deathbed scene at the end of the novel is stunning in its adherence to the stereotype.

An interesting novel in that it rounds out one’s familiarity with this author’s substantial body of work, but otherwise not particularly recommended by me for readers of the current day and age. A just-readable Victorian-age curiousity of a novel rather than a lost treasure or a hidden gem, I’m afraid.

 

 

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thunder on the right mary stewart 1Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart ~ 1957. This edition: Hodder Paperbacks (Coronet), 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-02219-1. 255 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Omigosh. This book. Words (almost) fail me. 110% gothic romance, and absolutely bizarre in plot and execution. Luckily I’ve been on something of a Mary Stewart binge recently, and this came along as book number six; if it was number one or two I doubt I would have had the heart to continue.

I try my hardest, in reviewing anything in the mystery-suspense line, to not include any spoilers, but, in this case, all bets are off. Consider yourself forewarned!

This one starts off promisingly enough. Jennifer Silver, 22-year-old daughter of the Bullen Professor of Music at Oxford, is ethereally lovely (of course!) and rather at loose ends, despite recent years at art school. She sits in the dining room of her hotel in the French Pyrenees, tucking into a most delectable-sounding repast. She is thrilled to be in France again – she has visited in the past – and is looking forward with anticipation to her planned reunion with her half-French older cousin, who, widowed not long after her marriage, is convalescing from a recent illness in a nearby convent. More than merely convalescing; Gillian has sought solace in religion, and is thinking of becoming a nun, much to Jennifer’s not-so-secret dismay. But something isn’t quite right in a larger sense, and Jennifer sits and mulls over her cousin’s situation with increasing unease. Why have her chatty letters suddenly stopped? Tomorrow Jennifer will be going to the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages to meet Gillian, but she’s not quite sure what she’ll find. (Cue foreboding music. Oh, and a love theme, for here appears a prince on a white charger. Figuratively speaking. The real horse shows up later.)

For who should appear but a figure from Jennifer’s past. Up pops handsome Stephen Masefield, an old student of Professor Silver’s.  Jennifer has dallied with Stephen in Oxford days, and he has long cherished a secret passion for the lovely Jenny despite her mother’s brusque dismissal of his courtship, all unbeknownst to the innocent maiden. Stephen comes with an intriguing past, and is dashingly handsome despite his slight limp from an old war wound (this is all taking place post World War II, in the mid 1950s or thereabouts) as well as exceedingly talented, both in music and as a skilled amateur artist.

Lots of details, yes, I know. But every single one of them matters in the upcoming narrative, for this is an exceedingly busy story, chock full of details affecting details, and coincidences and lucky (or unlucky) juxtapositions of people and events. I’ll cut to the chase, if I may, and give the barest outline of the action to follow.

Jennifer goes to the convent, meets a sinister Spanish nun dressed in a silken habit and sporting a flashing ruby-encrusted cross, and is informed that her cousin was indeed in residence, but that she has died and is buried in the convent graveyard. Something about an automobile accident, and crawling up to the convent gates after midnight, and devoted nursing and a sudden decline… Jennifer is in shock and visits the grave, where a glimpse of a bouquet of gentians sets off a train of speculation in her mind. Perhaps Gillian is still alive, and a mystery woman is buried in her place…?!

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

Beware the nun! An older paperback cover which captures the mood so very well.

The plot convolutes on its merry way, involving a rare form of colour blindness (Gillian would not have been able to identify gentians as her favourite flower – she cannot distinguish blue), a beautiful young novice who nursed Gillian, a stunningly gorgeous local youth dashing about on a wicked stallion, the aforementioned sinister Spanish nun, the extremely old, kind and blind Mother Superior who is unaware of the fact that the Spanish nun, her bursar, is filling the convent with war-looted treasures (solid gold fittings, altar pieces by El Greco, jewelled statues, etcetera), a local smuggler in cahoots with said nun, a vitally crucial letter found tucked behind a picture – this coincidence put me off the story early on – absolutely contrived! – midnight forays by everyone generally ending in eavesdropping on startling conversations, a mystery woman in a mountain cottage, multiple thunderstorms (“thunder on the right” – aha!), a landslide, a flash flood, a slender rock bridge over a ravine, the heroine’s habit of delicately fainting at crucial moments, Stephen’s multiple heroic accomplishments – mastering the wild stallion! hand-to-hand combat skills! great kissing! – on and on and on we go.

The girl in the mountain hut is Gillian; the little novice goes off with her handsome horseman; the evil nun and the smuggler meet their comeuppances; the woman buried in the nunnery garden is the criminal alluded to in casual conversation early in the story. Jennifer is passionately kissed not only by her dashing swain, but by the testosterone-drenched smuggler, who manages to keep his carnal urges on a high boil even while fleeing for his life when the predictable dénouement occurs.

Moments of lovely writing – Mary Stewart does excel at her descriptions – and snippets of humour here and there did not make up for the messy, too-busy, coincidence-heavy plot. Jennifer is the most unbelievable of all of the Mary Stewart heroines I’ve met so far – the others have been very likeable – and I found her utterly annoying. The whole thing was too full of heaving bosoms – can even a nun have a heaving bosom? Well, yes, apparently – and surging stallions and heavily gothic settings.  Too much!

I have been soothing myself with a return to sedate O. Douglas, and am now reading Eliza for Common with relief. Thunder on the Right has rattled me badly, coming as it did after Mary Stewart’s rather more excellent My Brother Michael, which I have yet to review. I liked that one a whole lot more.

Thunder on the Right was apparently the author’s least favourite of her novels, and I can see why. Here are her own words, courtesy of the excellent Mary Stewart Novels website:

From Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1, 1967

Ms. Stewart once claimed Thunder on the Right as her least favorite novel. “I detest that book. I’m ashamed of it, and I’d like to see it drowned beyond recovery. It’s overwritten. It was actually the second book I wrote, and for some strange reason I went overboard, splurged with adjectives, all colored purple.”

I’m glad I read it, though, if only to contrast with the rest of the author’s works. It is indeed interesting to see her development as a writer over the course of her career. I’m only read six of the novels so far, and I’m definitely seeing a pattern of evolution. Very interesting. I intend to continue to explore the vividly painted, action-packed worlds of Mary Stewart, though I may have to take a bit of a break to regain my equilibrium after this latest foray.

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the ivy tree mary stewartThe Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart ~ 1961. This edition: Coronet, 1975. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01115-7 319 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This was my third Mary Stewart romantic thriller read in the last few weeks, and it was perhaps my favourite to date. Where This Rough Magic (1964) was set in exotic Corfu and referenced the English theatre world, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Communist politics in Albania, and a passionately fast-developing love affair between the heroine and a brooding hero-type, and Airs Above the Ground (1965) was set in the Austrian Alps and concerned itself with a complicated plot involving a happily married heroine, her two male companions, and a group of circus performers, The Ivy Tree is a much more sedate and personality driven story, and much more concerned with psychology rather than straight-out action as in the other two tales.

In this tale of family and inheritance and underhand plotting, the reader is never quite sure who is telling the truth, and what is really going on. The threads of the story wind about this way and that until the tapestry takes shape and the true picture emerges near the end. Told (as are the other two stories) in first person narration by the key female character, we are not quite sure if she is indeed the heroine in the accepted sense, for her actions are unreliable and her inner dialogue frequently less than frank with the reader. And though there were occasional credibility gaps in this story – as in the others – by and large it was an intriguingly detailed mystery.

Here is the basic plot outline, from the flyleaf of a 1962 edition:

Mary Grey had come from Canada to the land of her forebears: Northumberland, where Hadrian built his wall nearly 2000 years ago. As she leaned against the sun-warmed stones, savoring the ordered, spare beauty of England’s northern fells, the silence was shattered by a single name hurled, as it were, like an epithet:

“ANNABEL!”

And there stood one of the angriest, most threatening  young men Mary had ever seen. His name was Connor Winslow, and from his spate of words Mary discovered that he thought she was his cousin–a girl supposedly dead these past eight years. Alive, she would be heiress to an inheritance Con determined to have for himself…

Thus begins the story of an impersonation fraught with the perils of treading present depths without the buoyancy of an innocent past. To it, Mrs. Stewart brings her remarkable ability to create atmosphere be it joyous, brooding, or terrifying. And with her acknowledged talent for characterization, she delineates sharply the savage, ruthless, half-sardonical Con; his drab half-sister, Lisa, firm only in her dedication to Con and his wishes; arrogant Matthew Windlow, a failing tyrant, by tyrant nonetheless where his family was concerned; the ebullient, sometimes rebellious Cousin Julie; and Adam Forrest, the reserved owner of neighboring Forrest Hall,  now a widower, but eight years before, inextricably tied to a hysterical, neurotic wife and tormented by his love for Annabel.

With admirable skill, Mary Stewart practices the full scale of uncertainty while developing a theme embellished with the rich overtones of atmosphere and characterization.

That’s the basic outline, but the story itself is even more complex than this summary would indicate. Though some of the characters – including the true love interest of the heroine – never received much more than a superficial characterization, many of the others were nicely portrayed, showing realistic complexities of good and bad, and delving into motivations, and justifying contradictory behaviours in a most believable way.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar was an obvious inspiration, and the author openly acknowledges that, giving the novel to her characters as a guidebook to their own planned deception; I enjoyed the parallels, as Brat Farrar is one of my favourite Teys (if there can be such a thing – I do love every single one of Josephine Tey’s too-few novels), and Stewart’s take-off of it was different enough to hold my interest.

I won’t say much else; this is a novel that rewards coming to it without too much foreknowledge of the crucial details of the plot.

The “what bugged me” bits were similar to the other Mary Stewarts I’ve just read: a too-convenient disposal of the “bad” character(s), with a rather too-rushed and too-neat conclusion. There were some fairly major holes in the story, and readerly questions left unanswered; I am thinking that one must just put up with this tendency of the author’s and enjoy the enjoyable bits regardless, but it does stop me from rating the books higher on my personal scale.

Last thought: well done. I will be reading this one again; I enjoyed it.

The Ivy Tree was read and reviewed for Mary Stewart Reading Week , September 15th to 21st, celebrating the author’s long career and her 97th birthday on September 17th, 2013. Mary Stewart Reading Week was initiated and hosted by Gudrun’s Tights.

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