All Over the World

One of the most popular tropes in, for want of a better word, women’s fiction from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980’s was the tale of the governess, ripped off and/or inspired from the mother of all governess novels, Jane Eyre. Victoria Holt returned to this well repeatedly, from her first novel Mistress of Mellyn through many others, including The King of the Castle. I even believe her heroine in On the Night of the Seventh Moon returned to the little German principality where she experienced whatever it was she experienced as a teenager as a governess to a young heir of the royal house; but it’s been years since I read the book so could easily be mistaken. Even the classic camp/horror soap Dark Shadows featured a governess as its young romantic lead, Victoria Winters. (Honey in the Trixie Belden series also has a governess, Miss Trask.) I don’t think there is such a job as governess anymore, or really, paid companions; I suspect everything like that, including private secretary, now falls under the title “personal assistant”, while the young women who were previously governesses are now “nannies.”

I could be wrong. It’s not like I know a lot of people who can afford either.

But for the genre known as “romantic suspense” (and I grudgingly include Mary Stewart in this genre; I think she was a terrific suspense writer more than anything else; and while her books did include some bits of romance they were never the driving force of the story–as I’ve said before, they sometimes seemed to be tacked on, to please publishers and readers and reviewers) the governess was an extremely popular trope, and very much Jane Eyre pastiches; inevitably she was young, orphaned and had nowhere to call home, making the job of the utmost importance. Inevitably the master of the house, who was borderline abusive to  her (definitely was in Jane Eyre) eventually was won over by her quiet beauty, charm and devotion to his child, fell in love with and/or married her, which inevitably put her life in some kind of danger–and she had to mistrust and fear that her husband, for some reason, wanted to kill her.

Mary Stewart took that trope and blew it to smithereens in Nine Coaches Waiting.

nine coaches waiting copy

I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.

We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfootl over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon’s rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. And beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stour man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.

But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime.

And so we meet Melinda Martin, called Linda by everyone. Her father was English and her mother French; she was born and raised in Paris and after her parents were unfortunately killed when she was in her early teens she was sent to an English orphanage. She is fluent in both English and French, and after aging out of the orphanage, one of the women who took a charitable interest in the place helped her get a job she hated at a boys’ boarding school–but when Madame de Valmy was looking for an English girl to be her nephew’s governess, the woman remembered Linda and recommended her. During the interview it became clear to Linda that the Valmys were looking for an English girl who would only speak in English to the nephew, a nine year old who’d inherited the ancestral estate as well as the title of Comte de Valmy; desperate for the job and desperate to get back to Paris, Linda allows Madame Heloise to mistakenly believe she doesn’t speak French–and is worried she’ll slip and betray herself, and get fired. She arrives at the imposing Chateau Valmy, and also as governess finds herself in that weird in-between where she is not a member of the family but isn’t considered one of the regular servants, either. The young comte, Philippe, who usually lives with a different uncle who has been called away for a lecture series in Greece as well as to work on a dig there (Hippolyte is an archaeologist) is very subdued, clearly afraid of his disabled uncle Leon (Leon is a dynamic personality Linda comes to think of as Lucifer after the fall–later in the book she calls him the King of Demons), handsome and strong and confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Heloise is his wife, and he has one son from a previous marriage, Raoul, who runs Bellevigne, a chateau with a vineyard and winery, for his father. There are three family estates, each of which was left to one of the three brothers; young Philippe is the only child of the eldest brother and so the title and the vast ancestral estate belongs to him; Leon merely serves as his trustee.

Linda manages to navigate her confusing place in the chateau with the remarkable aplomb all Stewart heroines are blessed with; these are strong young women more than capable of taking care of themselves in a man’s world, and these women are courageous and smart. When Linda realizes her young charge is in danger–someone is trying to kill him because of the complexities of the Valmy inheritance–she has no problem whatsoever in taking the child out of the house in the middle of the night and venturing out into the woods in a desperate attempt to keep him safe until his uncle Hippolyte returns–the next day, which leads the plot against the boy to amp up. The journey to safety–and not knowing who she can and cannot trust–cranks the suspense way up, until the denouement when all is revealed and the truth comes out, with the young boy safe and Linda in the arms of the man she has fallen in love with–but couldn’t be certain whether or not was involved in the plot to kill the child. Stewart manages to make it all seem absolutely real, and once Linda and Philippe were in the woods it was hard to look away.

This book is peak Stewart at the top of her game–and that is truly saying something. I am looking forward to rereading her other novels even more so now than i was before.

Stand by Your Man

Sunday morning and I’m feeling fine. Yesterday was kind of lovely; I am enjoying this healthy feeling I’m experiencing, and it’s been a while since I’ve not been feeling like shit, so this recovery has been absolutely lovely. Yesterday I managed to be productive yet again–I finished the floors and some odds and ends; there are a few odds and ends that I need to get done today as well–and I got some wonderful reading done; I also managed to get some writing done.

What’s that, you say? Actual writing? Yes, indeed. I wrote about a thousand words on the Sherlock story, give or take; I started writing two new short stories (don’t @ me, I am well aware, but I wanted to get both “Officer Friendly” and “The Pestilence Maiden” started, else I’d forget what they were about or the ideas), and I also did some thinking about all the books and projects that I have in some stage of completion, which was also lovely. It’s nice to slowly be working my way back into my writing again–I was beginning to think I’d never get there, frankly–and yes, it felt really good to be writing again. Today I have to make a run out to get some groceries–my first time leaving the house other than taking out the trash or using the grill–since I got sent home from work over a week ago. I have a mask and gloves, and portable hand sanitizer attached to my key ring. My goal for the morning is to finish this blog, do some other puttering around the house that I need to do before leaving, and then head to the store. When I get back home, I am going to sit down and bang out some more writing, and then at some point I’ll retire to my easy chair to do some more reading.

Now that I’ve actually started to read ebooks, I have to eat a lot of crow. I’ve been resisting reading ebooks for years–I’ve done it, when required, for book award judging, but never really like it and resented having to do it–primarily because I don’t like change, for one thing, and for another, I already spend far too much time looking at screens; the last thing I need to do is read something electronically to relax after staring at a computer screen for a minimum of eight hours a day. My eyes continue to get worse–and it’s a combination of age and blue screen effect, I am fairly certain–and reading electronically was probably not going to help that. But now that I’ve gotten started, I can’t seem to stop. I finished reading This Rough Magic yesterday morning–or was it Friday night? I don’t remember–and yesterday I read a Scott Heim story, “Loam”, and then moved onto another Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, which is also fantastic. We watched Zombieland Tap Twice (it was something like that) which was much funnier than I thought it would be, and then the Octavia Spencer horror thriller, Ma–which could have been better, but was perfectly adequate. I do love Ms. Spencer, and wish she would get some better material to showcase her talents more.

I think we’re scheduled to  have shitty weather today, too–rain and so forth–and it looks kind of hazy and sepia-toned out there this morning, and windy–so I should probably get my act together faster this morning and get to the store  so I can not only get it over with, but get back home before the weather turns ugly. Good thing I just looked up the weather–that isn’t going to happen until this afternoon, and I should be able to get there and back before that occurs. It’s also fun to sit at my desk and write during crappy weather, I don’t know why that is, but I like having that tiny barrier of glass between me and the nastiness outside. I’m not sure why that is….but the only thing I like about driving in rain is the coziness of being warm and dry inside my car while only a thin sheet of glass and metal protects me completely from the elements. It’s weird, I know, but everything about me is actually pretty weird; always has been (and for the record, I never became truly happy until I stopped fighting and accepted the weirdness).

I greatly enjoyed Scott Heim’s “Loam”; he’s always been one of the finest writers that our community has produced over the last (gulp) thirty years, and his lack of production has always been a pity and a shame. I read and loved Mysterious Skin years ago, and have always intended to reread it; reading “Loam” got me to find my old copy and place it on the Reread Project pile, which now consists of it, two more Mary Stewart novels (Madam, Will You Talk? and Thunder on the Right), Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Sing Me a Death Song by Jay Bennett, Shotgun Opera by Victor Gischler, A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt, and Harlan Ellison’s collection Strange Wine (I also have Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank on deck in my Kindle app).

“Loam” is a long short story about three triplets from the small town of Collingwood, Kansas (is this a nod to Collinwood from Dark Shadows? Perhaps), who are returning for the first time in years, to arrange and attend their father’s funeral. The story begins with the three of them dealing with the rental car arrangements at whatever airport they flew into–I assume Kansas City, which is where I’d fly into if going to visit my part of Kansas–and then slowly, as they make the drive, Heim begins to peel back a trauma the triplets–and the other kids in their first grade class–possibly survived when they were very young; a Satanism scare, in which the teacher and her mentally handicapped son were accused of using (and abusing) the children. This begins to resurface when they stop at a second hand store and find a stack of pictures of their classmates and themselves at that age, possible evidence from the case, which was eventually dismissed as a hoax and a scare–similar to the Satanic scare that happened somewhere else, where the cops basically convinced the children they were abused and to accuse the day care operators of Satanism and abuse–and so we’re never really sure, as are the kids themselves–whether or not it actually happened. It’s very gruesome, and very Gothic, and extremely well written. I recommend it highly; and I wish Scott would write more. I’d never gotten around to his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear; I’m going to make the time this year, methinks. “Loam” is a Kindle single, part of a group of six stories called “Disorder collection,” whatever that is, and you can get it here for 99 cents. You won’t regret it.

And then I started rereading Nine Coaches Waiting. Again, this is a Mary Stewart novel that I read once, long ago, as I was making my way through the Stewart canon as a teenager; I remember enjoying it, but it didn’t make a strong impression on teenaged me. But as I begin rereading it again yesterday, I could not help but marvel at Stewart’s skill. Nine Coaches Waiting consists of the perfect Gothic romantic suspense set-up; a young orphan girl comes to a huge mansion near the French/Swiss border (she has to fly to Geneva to get there) to be governess to an orphaned young French comte; his estate, Chateau Valmy, is being managed for him by his aunt and uncle; he usually lives with another uncle in Paris, but that uncle, an archaeologist, has been called away for six months to a dig in Greece, and so he has returned to his ancestral home to live with his other uncle. Linda, our twenty-one year old heroine, is half-French and fluent in both languages, but it’s made fairly clear to her during the hiring process that they prefer someone who only speaks English, so that the young Phillippe’s English also will become fluent–as she can only speak to  him in English. Under the cover of that lie Linda comes to Chateau Valmy, and becomes attached to her young charge…while not entirely trusting Phillippe’s aunt and uncle, her employers. What Stewart is doing with this novel is completely subverting the meek governess trope of romantic suspense, that began with Jane Eyre; her employer even mockingly calls her “Miss Jane Eyre” at one point. Victoria Holt went back to the governess well over and over in her novels, from Mistress of Mellyn to The King of the Castle, sticking to, and mirroring, the original trope; I love what Stewart is doing with it, and this is yet another example of what a master writer Mary Stewart actually was.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to get back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Easter Sunday, Constant Reader.

grid-cell-12321-1387651353-4

Faded Love

I’ve always enjoyed romantic suspense, especially if it leaned really hard into the suspense aspect of the sub-genre. This sub-genre was enormously popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century; with authors like Dorothy Eden and Phyllis A. Whitney and Susan Howatch, among many others, scoring a number of successes with their books and even becoming international bestsellers. The sub-genre was so popular, in fact, that other female writers–who technically didn’t write romantic suspense–were often marketed as such, with the same styles of cover and fonts and cover design; often covers featuring a cover featuring a wind-swept beautiful young woman with long-flowing hair and a long gown, usually in the foreground with an enormous, spooky, brooding house/castle/mansion in the background with a solitary window lit up and the woman almost inevitably had a look of fear on her face. (I’ve always thought of them as girl running away from lighted window covers.)

But Victoria Holt was different from the others. Her books were varied, and while there were certainly tropes she followed, she often toyed with them in ways that were always clever and smart and original. Sometimes she followed the Jane Eyre style; in which the first third of the book is the main character’s history and how she wound up “running away from the lighted window”; sometimes she just inserted you right into the midst of the story as it developed….and once the mystery/suspense kicked into gear, it was impossible to stop reading.

kirkland revels original pb

I met Gabriel and Friday on the same day, and strangely enough I lost them together; so that thereafter I was never able to think about one without the other. The fact that my life became a part of theirs is, in a way, an indication of my character, because they both began by arousing some protective instinct in me; all my life up to that time I had been protecting myself and I think I felt gratified to find others in need of protection. I had never before had a lover, never before had a dog; and, when these two appeared, it was natural enough that I should welcome them.

I remember the day perfectly. It was spring, and there was a fresh wind blowing over the moors. I had ridden away from Glen House after luncheon ad I could at this time leave the house without a feeling that I had escaped. This feeling had been with me since I returned home from my school in Dijon; perhaps it had always been there, but a young woman senses these emotions more readily than a child.

My home was a somber place. How could it be otherwise when it was dominated by someone who was no longer there. I decided during the first days of my return that I would never live in the past. No matter what happened to me, when it was over I should not look back. Early in life–I was nineteen at this time–I had learned an important lesson. I determined to live in the present–the past forgotten, the future left to unfold itself.

Kirkland Revels  was the second novel British writer Eleanor Hibbert wrote under the name Victoria Holt; she used, over the course of her incredibly prolific career (using a manual typewriter for most of it) many different pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy (historical fiction focusing on royalty; fictionalizing the lives of kings and queens and the mistresses of kings) and Philippa Carr (historical romantic suspense novels, all linked by the concept that each novel featured the daughter of the main character in the preceding novel, beginning with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s). The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, launched the Victoria Holt name quite successfully; she wrote numerous bestsellers under that name for decades. The first Holt novel I read was The Secret Woman, a novel I still remember fondly because its plot was so complicated and the mystery essentially unsolvable–the twist at the end caught me completely by surprise. Holt often did this with the mystery/suspense side of her novels–tightly plotted, and just as many twists and turns as any other suspense novel. (Although one of my personal favorites, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, has about as original–and far-fetched–a plot as anyone could have ever dreamed up; I’m still surprised, all these years later, her agent and publisher went with it.)

Kirkland Revels was unique for its sub-genre in that the heroine, Catherine, spent the entire suspense part of the book pregnant. The first half of the book details Catherine’s background and sets up the suspense half of the novel; she’s come home from a boarding school in France, her home is empty and strange, haunted by the absence of a dead mother and an absent-minded, rarely present father when she meets Gabriel Rockwell on the moors and also finds a stray dog. She and Gabriel have a whirlwind romance, they wed, and he brings her home to meet his family in the brooding mansion, Kirkland Revels–which is located near the ruins of an old abbey, whose stones were used to build the mansion and is supposedly haunted by a monk. But her time in this strange house is limited when Gabriel falls from a balcony to his death and the dog also disappears; she returns to her home as a young widow…only to discover she is actually pregnant from her brief marriage, and returns to the Rockwell manse as her child, if a boy, will inherit everything.

And soon, things take a turn to the dark side:

One prospective master of the Revels had died violently; was something being plotted against another?

That was the beginning of my period of terror.

Catherine soon finds out that her mother isn’t actually dead, but completely insane and locked away in a mental hospital; her father tried to shield her from this knowledge, and Catherine herself isn’t so sure of her own sanity as weird things continue to happen to her at the Revels. Is she imagining things? Is she really seeing the ghostly monk or is her grip on sanity slipping, the same way her mother’s did? (It was widely believed in the past that madness, or insanity, was inherited; the prospect of inherited insanity drove the plots of several of Holt’s books set in the past.) Holt was really good at building suspense and tension; all of her books read quickly, despite the old-fashioned, formal style in which she wrote them.

Kirkland Revels was never one of my favorite Holt novels, and I rarely, if ever, reread it when I was younger–I used to reread favorites over and over again–but now, as an adult, I realize that the reason the book wasn’t a favorite was the notion of a pregnant heroine in danger, the danger growing as she grew closer to term, made me uncomfortable; much the way Pet Sematary by Stephen King disturbed me so much I never reread it until recently. I’m glad I gave Kirkland Revels a reread; it’s actually quite well done–and while later Holt heroines might have been mothers (hell, the heroine of The House of a Thousand Lanterns was not only a mother but was on her THIRD marriage in that book!), they were never again pregnant throughout the suspense portion of the book.

Definitely worth a look, Constant Reader.