I spent much of my night reading. We're going through a tropical storm-- howling wind, rain, emergency candles, spotty Internet. What better night for a Gothic novel? I have finished this classic by Mary Stewart, published in 1958. I guess that date says much about why she is held in such high esteem by lovers of the Gothic form.
The novel (for those who have not yet read it-- I have a feeling many of you have, and that I'm late to the game with Stewart's work) focuses on Linda Martin who is a former Parisian, later English orphan after her parents' death. She has come back to France to get in touch with the happiest place and time in her life, and her position as a governess for the de Valmy family is her way in to a life there. The one hitch is that the family wanted an English governess, not a French one, so Linda plays at pretending she is English for a while. The novel centers around accidents that happen to Phillipe, her ward, and the one who will inherit the Valmy fortune. Linda realizes that someone wants him dead but the truth of this plot against his life becomes real only after she is directly told this horrible fact by one of the servants. Is it the Demon King himself, Leon de Valmy, his wife Heloise, and/or Raoul with whom Linda is hopelessly besotted?
The novel starts out with a leap and a bound; the first fifteen pages held me captive; then, the novel dragged a bit, for me anyway, and picked up speed again around page 35. I noticed the explanations of who was guilty dragged on a bit at the end as well. I think plotting in the novel at times suffers with descriptions, but wow, what a gift for description Stewart has! It is best used when she intersperses it with dialogue and action.
One thing that stands out about this novel is how many odes to English Literature are in it-- to Milton, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, to Robert Browning, to William Blake (in a character with his name, in fact!), to Charlotte Bronte, to John Keats, and so many others. I found that fascinating, especially with the setting of the novel as France.
I could write about so much, but I'll move on to the elements in the novel and comment further:
Characterization: 4/5 [I felt that I knew many of these characters, and the descriptions of the hero and villain were especially strong.]
Plot: 4/5 [As I mentioned above, the story is lovely overall, but it does drag in places. Unlike some other Gothic novels I have read, I was not gripped with the compulsion to keep reading until page 80 or so. I think the lesser suspense in this novel is why I began another by her some years ago and did not finish it.]
Atmosphere/spooky elements: 4/5 [Leon de Valmy is menacing and glides around on silent wheels; his character is creepy, but not one that will keep me up at night. The night in the woods that Linda and Philippe spend was quite scary to me. Also, I find the chapter naming is a bit spooky-- "First and Second Coaches, " "Third Coach,' etc. Overall, though, the chills are milder in this Gothic novel than in some I have read. ]
Literary elements: 5/5 [Definitely! So many works are invoked that this novel will be a delight for anyone who loves literature-- especially British Literature. I was thrilled to find new works/authors to read after seeing some of the quotations in this novel.]
Romance? Yes. If you love brooding heroes, this one is for you. I quite enjoyed it, but I found myself (almost) wishing it had ended differently. I wonder if others had that experience? I guess I never fell fully in love with Raoul de Valmy.
Rating: 4+ stars ****+
**I'm glad I finally read this one. It is my first full Mary Stewart novel, and I plan to press on with others. Just to note, I took the terrible cover shot for this novel. I could not find this version online. It's a pretty old Fawcett paperback-- with the heroine in the front by a tree and a man walking toward her. All of it is in dark colors-- browns, tans, black, mustard yellow, hunter green with a bit of off white. The title is in white lettering (you can't see it on here).