There couldn’t have been a better choice for a squad of female bookworms than this gothic mystery, full of spooky incidents, forbidden love, an orphan governess and within a house that holds many secrets. There was such a Jane Eyre feel about the book and also an hint of the Daphne Du Maurier opening as our narrator looks back to the hall’s approach.
‘when i think of Hartwood Hall, there are moments that come back to me again and again, moments that stain me, that cling like ink to my skin. My first view of the house: a glimpse of stone, of turrets and gables, tall windows and long grass’.
Our heroine is Margaret Lennox, recently widowed and forced to find paid work when her husband leaves his estate to his mother. She is offered a post by the mysterious Mrs Eversham, to educate her son Louis. This should be a moment of freedom for Margaret, but she notes the strange mood of the coach driver as soon as they enter the boundaries of the hall. Local people do not come near here. There is also a very clear rule: do not enter the East Wing of the house, because it is no longer used. As Margaret starts to find her way in Hartwood Hall and enjoys her time with Louis, she does notice a few strange things. She seems under suspicion from one of the existing staff, Susan. She has noticed Margaret’s response to a letter she receives at the breakfast table and is keen to find out more. Stranger than that, she has seen a distance figure in white out in the gardens and followed a figure with a candle down the stairs and towards the East Wing. Maybe the house is haunted, but there are other mysteries too such as what happened to Mr Eversham and why do people in the village treat this woman and her boy with such suspicion and fear?
I was hooked by this story straight away. Just like the author, Jane Eyre was the first grown up book I ever read and I was enthralled with it as a gothic story, years before I started to deconstruct it’s complexity at university. I was also hooked by the Sunday teatime BBC series starring Timothy Dalton as Mr Rochester. It’s the perfect mix of ghostly mystery, intrigue and romance. This book was inspired by the classic but breaks new ground of it’s own in terms of forbidden relationships, marital abuse, and freedom. The freedom of women making their own choices, having freedom of sexual expression and to earn their own living. The governess has always been a liminal figure in literature because they are educated more than other servants and even the woman of the house. They are usually single so have more freedom in their lifestyle and finances. Here Margaret is a widow, she chooses her own destiny and can shape her life as far as choosing where she works and for whom. She also has the choice of what to do with her spare time, no household chores or husband and family to consider. We learn that Margaret’s marriage was not a happy one and she has never felt the love that’s spoken of in literature and poetry. In fact she is surprised to learn it exists and it is joyous to watch her explore that chemistry, even if I did fear for her recklessness. She also becomes the face of Hartwood Hall in the village, choosing to take Louis to church and sit in the hall’s pew, whereas the hall’s gardener sits with his family. She even makes friends with the minister’s wife, although the rest of the village seem to avoid and ostracise them.
As always in these mysteries Margaret is drawn towards the very part of the house she is told not to enter, in fact it is a perfect way into the house after the main doors are locked at night. She is sure she’s seen a candle moving around the East Wing’s rooms when walking in the gardens one evening. There are also noises in the dead of night that can’t be accounted for, but for me the tension really arises at the less mysterious points in the novel. The sly, unpleasant Susan really made my pulse race at points and her blackmail of Margaret feels grubby. She really enjoys the power of knowing something that gives her power over the other person and she seems to enjoy taking something valuable or precious from her victim. The way she commits little acts of dissent when only Margaret is looking, such as stuffing bacon in her mouth in the breakfast room shows resentment about her position. As I could see Margaret settling and enjoying her new pupil I desperately didn’t want Susan to ruin it. The period where both Louis and Susan are ill was truly tense as the whole house waits for the fever of the measles virus to pass. The isolation of Mrs Eversham and her boy is brought into stark relief when they can’t secure a nurse from the village to care for the patients. Mrs Eversham is in despair:
‘So these people will let a child and a young woman die because they suspect me, because they distrust this house? […] Because they believe in ghosts and spirits and curses? Or because they think I am a woman of low character, that I have never had a husband?’
This speech reveals another possibility about their isolation, that Mrs Eversham’s widowhood is not what it seems. It also shows me that Mrs Eversham has a different set of morals to the Victorian norm, she is wiling to set aside ideas about decency and propriety when it comes to saving a life. Margaret is so relieved when Miss Davis appears from nowhere claiming she’s come from the further village of Medley because she heard there was a child who needed a nurse. Yet the other servants seem uncomfortable and even Mrs Eversham seems on edge. Margaret wonders whether Mrs Pulley knows something troubling about this young woman. This brings another yet another layer of mystery to the house: why isn’t Miss Davis as prejudiced against the hall as the locals? Where did she spring from so quickly? By this time I was fascinated and couldn’t stop myself from picking the book up at every opportunity to resolve all my suspicions. Needless to say that when the truth comes out, it was nothing I expected and I loved it! I loved that these strong, determined female characters were living according to their authentic selves. There’s a lot of discussion around the ending of Jane Eyre, I’ve even had an argument about it at a literature talk. A woman said that she felt let down by the ending and Jane’s choice to return to Rochester, because it betrayed her feminism. I argued that she goes back a different woman, with her own money and able to make her own choices. Rochester is her choice and their relationship is on her terms. The ending of Hartwood Hall definitely goes further. It was really heart-stopping, but also satisfying. Both Mrs Eversham and Margaret make their independent choices and decide to live life on their own terms. I throughly enjoyed this atmospheric gothic mystery and it’s strong, forward-thinking, female characters.
Meet the Author.
Katie Lumsden read Jane Eyre at the age of thirteen and never looked back. She spent her teenage years devouring Victorian literature. She has a degree in English Literature and History from the University of Durham and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize and the Bridport Prize, and have been published in various literary magazines. Kate’s YouTube channel Book and Things has more than 20,000 subscribers and was long listed for the Book Vlogger of the Year Award at the London Book Fair Awards 2020. She lives in London and works in publishing.
2 thoughts on “The Secret of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden.”
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Yes, if you love gothic mystery then I definitely recommend it xx
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