I slowly became more and more intrigued by Elizabeth Gifford’s new novel. Even the title whetted my appetite for more of the same beautiful writing that made The Lost Lights of St Kilda such a memorable book. We’re still in Scotland, this is the late 1940’s and our heroine Caro lives with her husband Alasdair and baby Felicity in the Laundry Cottage situated in the grounds of his ancestral home. They met at Cambridge University and married less than six months later much to his mother Martha’s surprise. She was expecting him to marry someone of their class, maybe even their family friend Diana who’s valuing heirlooms at the family’s castle. Caro’s mother-in-law wanted her and Alasdair to live at the castle with her, but Caro wanted a little bit of privacy and distance. At Laundry Cottage she can still be in her dressing down at lunchtime or having a sleep while baby Felicity has a nap. Yet, the past is about to make it’s way into the present both physically and mentally. Caro is asked to research the family archives for a mysterious, missing member of the family. A great-grandmother seems to have been scrubbed from the archives, along with a missing diary from her husband Oliver’s trip to the Arctic. When the Laundry Cottage floods suddenly and workers inspect the Victorian drainage system they find a body of a woman. Could this be the missing bride?
It seems formidable mothers are the norm at Castle Kelly, because when I read the second narrative it took me back to the late Victorian period and tension between Oliver and his mother. From early childhood Louisa and Charlotte Strachan have been summer visitors to the castle and Oliver’s playmates. However, as they get older it’s clear that feelings have developed between Oliver and Louisa. Could she be the missing grandmother from the archives and the body found in the grounds? How come Oliver ended up in the Arctic? What effect will Caro’s findings have on the family and her marriage? With so many questions I was compelled by the story and some of the characters caught up in these dramatic circumstances. Also the historical shifts behind these stories was fascinating too, showing how much the world changed over two world wars.
Caro is such a sympathetic character and I felt immediately on her side in this very difficult situation she finds herself in. She’s an intelligent woman and understands a lot about how the world is changing. Her expectation of life after the war is that she and Alasdair will live in London as lecturers at one of the city’s universities. She didn’t bank on having Felicity so quickly or for Alasdair’s only offer of employment coming from St Andrew’s university. She describes feeling ‘ambushed’ by her own fertility, but she loves Felicity and wants to be a good Mum. I understood her need to be separate from the castle – it’s a compromise between his obligations and the total freedom they expected in London. I also empathised with her feelings of struggling as a new mum and being isolated from everyone and everything she knows. It’s a huge leap from being organised, full of energy, totally independent and career minded, to living in a cottage with a new baby feeling tired and slightly inadequate. She can’t understand why looking after Felicity seems so arduous and exhausting, when she’s always been so lively and alert. She also finds her emotions difficult; she’s struggling to understand why she wants to keep mother-in-law Martha at bay, or why she feels threatened by the presence of Diana. Her interest in the missing grandmother is linked to these emotions, maybe they were both outsiders in this family. It’s painful to her when she hears Martha say she’d hoped Alasdair would marry someone of his own class, surely those barriers don’t exist any more?
When I started to compare it with the 1940’s I could see that there is change, but within the Gillan family it has been minimal compared to the rest of society. Early in the novel Caro remarks that ‘she was secretly rather proud of her ability to make good friends across the classes’ because ‘once the war was over, class was not going to mean anything after all the country had been through together’. This was probably true in more metropolitan areas, but it hasn’t reached the upper class residents of rural Scotland. Martha is trying, but her true feelings are old-fashioned. The mistress of Kelly Castle in the Victorian period is Sylvia and she resents her husband’s adherence to an old obligation. He invites the daughters of old family friends, Charlotte and Louisa Strachan, to the castle every summer. Whereas Louisa tries desperately to fit in, Charlotte is a more fiery and independent character and I fell in love with her. As soon as she cut her own hair off I knew I would enjoy her way of being in the world.
To Sylvia’s disgust, Charlotte brings a young girl called Mary into the children’s circle. They run wild in the grounds and don’t seem to notice the differences between them. This changes as they get older until one summer Mary’s aunt asks Charlotte not to run in and out of Laundry Cottage where they live, tempting Mary to play when this year she had to work. As far as Sylvia’s concerned the girl is lucky to be merely helping her aunt, because the true destiny of the poor girls of Dundee is in the jute mills that pay for Kelly Castle. When Charlotte defies her, bringing Mary along on an outing to see the family’s new whaling ship and dinner in the Castle Hotel. When Sylvia asks Charlotte to remove her beret at dinner, she sees her unseemly cropped hair. Charlotte knows a punishment is coming, but what her aunt does next makes her sick and heartbroken. Without any emotion she tells the driver to take them home via the jute mill. There, she ushers Mary into the office as a new mill girl for the foreman to set to work. Sylvia has wanted Mary in her proper place for some time, but the opportunity to put Charlotte in her place at the same time was too good to miss. Charlotte is devastated. Sylvia now has to find a way of dealing with the Strachan girls, she has her eye on a young lady for Oliver and she doesn’t want her plans scuppered by a crush on someone unsuitable.
I found it interesting how patterns seemed to have formed down the generations. Some brides were suitable to be the next mistress of Kelly Castle, and others were not. Caro’s mother-in-law kept her misgivings and disappointment over her son’s choice to private conversations. Sylvia had been so determined and cruel in her treatment of Charlotte and Louisa that I wondered what fate awaited Oliver’s unsuitable bride, whoever she was. Since there are family rumours surrounding the Arctic voyage with hints of cannibalism, I was worried for this unnamed woman.
This author always creates an incredible sense of place and the beautifully atmospheric opening is reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and the ghostly walk up the drive of Manderley. A woman sees Caro and tries to call out to her from her place beneath the earth.
‘Wrapped in darkness beneath the trees I watch rain falling on the earth where I have slept for so long. Light from the Cottage windows stretches across the lawns, but it does not reach me. Find me, I whisper. Give me my name.’
Her need for Caro to hear her showed a spirit undimmed by death. I was really interested in this and the theme of women being controlled or even erased by forces or expectations beyond their control. As the unnamed woman sits beneath the earth, Caro feels removed from the life she wanted by motherhood. Mary is taken from a carefree childhood to the responsibilities and restrictions of adulthood overnight. It had been hoped that she might be given a maid’s position in the castle, but her destiny is at the jute mill. Charlotte isn’t even allowed to cut her hair, and she hates the prissy dresses she’s expected to wear as a guest of the Gillan family. She doesn’t understand why her friendship with Oliver has to change, just because she’s older.
‘Angry tears pricked her eyes.While they were away at school that year it seemed that someone had decreed that childhood was over, a closing down of what a girl may or may not do – and a forewarning of the hardening of roles to come that she saw in the lives of the adults around her. Well, Charlotte was not going to accept it. She would stay true to herself and true to the things she loved.’
I was sad for her, and her sister Louisa. It’s interesting to see how both girls react to the effects of being from a poorer and lower class background. I was compelled to read on and find out about these girls in adulthood, not just their relationship with Oliver, but how they were making their way in the world. I wanted Charlotte to have retained that fire and attitude and hoped that circumstances hadn’t tamed her. There is just so much to love about this novel: the well written characters; the intriguing mystery of the unnamed woman; the depth of research into the two time periods especially into societal changes, class difference and the lives of women. I heartily recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction, women’s lives and family secrets. This is one of those books that I loved so much, I will be buying a finished copy, despite having the proof. It’s so atmospheric, romantic, and deeply poignant.
Meet The Author.
Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway. She is married with three children, and lives in Kingston upon Thames. A Woman Made of Snow is her fifth novel.