When I’m looking at the blog tours that are available to me, nothing makes me jump on board quicker than the words ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’. I can’t get enough of this genre, so I was really looking forward to spending the weekend immersed in this debut novel.
1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.
Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.
Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.
For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths….
This ‘governess sent to brooding gothic mansion’ story is becoming a genre of its own. Having read modern versions of the tale such as Madam and The Turn of the Key recently, it was good to go back to Victorian England and the roots of this tale that has its origins in Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre. The structure is clever, in that we start in 1849 with a prologue and a narrator that doesn’t introduce themselves. As I read, I started to feel intrigued, but that soon turned into an uneasy feeling that this character was shifty and manipulative. Their narration doesn’t flow, but the scene that follows has impact, even though it is brief. We then jump forward and the author gives us a bit of distance from events – an older Harriet recounting the tale in her old. The parts she relates are pacey and tense, so when I was jerked back to the present, I wanted the next instalment and what came next. All of this creates a novel that is very hard to put down once started and led to a lot of boxes left unpacked in my new house!
The tale Harriet tells moves us to 1871, to Co Durham and the country house Teesbank Hall. Far away from the urban areas and deep into the countryside, it’s remoteness gives us the sense that anything could happen and no one would know – the Victorian equivalent of ‘in space no one can hear you scream’. Added to the sense of isolation and foreboding in the environment we learn that no one has lasted long in the role of governess here. However, we’re not sure that Harriet has many other choices. She’s running from something and that means she may not have been too vigilant about what she’s running towards. She ignores warnings from locals about the house’s macabre history and the isolation, but does feel a little apprehensive as she walks up the drive. What if they aren’t the respectable, ordinary family they have led her to believe they are? Yet, Harriet Caldwell is an assumed name, suggesting that she hasn’t been too free with the truth about her own past.
Her pupil Eleanor, the daughter of the Wainwright family, is incredibly bright, but also obsessed by her own family history. She’s plagued by dark secrets and tragic incidents in their past. Eleanor draws Harriet into their heritage, but is it a heritage she wants any part of, especially when her own secrets are haunting her? Harriet soon finds that Eleanor’s breadth of knowledge is good, perhaps even better than her own, so she doesn’t need a teacher. Her role seems more like that of a guardian or carer, observing Eleanor’s behaviour and being vigilant against the angry, hysterical fits she apparently suffers with.The family would like Harriet to observe and report back to them, and even though she feels like a spy she knows she has no choice, if she wants to stay hidden. The feeling in the house is oppressive, with the parents almost at war with each other and the grief over their tragically murdered son twenty years before still affecting them deeply. In fact, the only welcoming and calm presence seems to be that of their other son Henry.
There are a lot of aspects to the mysteries here, but all of them are hauntings in a way. There are some potentially ghostly goings on, but also the lingering emotions of past events, the fear of something or someone catching up with you and the way secrets, lies and even intense marital discord can leave an impression on a house and it’s inhabitants. As Harriet slowly reveals her reasons for fleeing Norfolk on one hand, she is also uncovering the terrible murder of Samuel Wainwright back in 1849. However, it isn’t just the suppression of these secrets that are highlighted in the novel, its the psychological damage caused when someone can’t be their true self, openly and without judgement. There’s also an element of gaslighting in the denial of certain truths and the frightening ease with which men will declare their wives and other female relatives insane when they become inconvenient or dangerous.
I think the book succeeds beautifully in showing 21st Century readers how powerless women really were in the 19th Century. This thread in the novel reminded me of the Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Another novel where, once used, a woman is consigned to an asylum if she threatens a man’s status or respectability. However, married women like Mrs Wainwright were also stuck, unable to own their own property or have their own money. A husband could have a sympathetic doctor label his wife as insane or hysterical, and sign her away to an asylum without censure. Even the word hysteria has gender implications in that it’s linked to the word for the uterus – hystera – only women can be labelled hysterical. A man is allowed to be angry, upset and even lash out without any judgement or negative connotations relating to his gender. Whereas women are still labelled unstable, unbalanced and insane. This is how the original madwoman ended up in the attic.
I found myself deeply sympathetic towards Eleanor, who is trapped by the house, by the past and by her father. On first meeting her, she seems a little paranoid and distrustful of most of the family. However, as the story develops I started to admire her intelligence and her desire to speak out. I felt she was stifled by her family, and almost imprisoned at the hall, where memories of 1849 still haunt her. This girl will never flourish if she doesn’t get away and I had such hopes for her time in London with her brother Henry. I hoped it would create an escape for her and a chance to meet like-minded, progressive people. There is also a burgeoning friendship developing between Harriet and Eleanor, that’s broken when the trip comes to an end and Eleanor feels Harriet is to blame. It is after this trip, when she is at her most vulnerable, that the past comes back to taunt her and I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the consequences.
This is an absorbing novel, with several mysterious strands to follow and I think readers will be split over the characters and whose story they are most invested in. While I wanted the mystery surrounding Samuel’s murder to come to light, it was the women’s fates that kept me engrossed to the very end. This was an enthralling gothic mystery, with the pace of a modern thriller and strong feminist overtones. It’s a fantastic debut and I can’t wait to see what’s next for this author.
Published Quercus 1st April 2021 Paperback Edition
Helen Scarlett is a writer and English teacher based in the north east of England. Her debut historical novel, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, is a chilling take on nineteenth-century classics such as Jane Eyre seen through modern eyes. It is set in County Durham, close to where Helen lives with her husband and two daughters.