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