Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs at http://barbtaub.com/
Barb has been reading Danger At Thatcham Hall by Frances Evesham
My Review: 4.5 stars out of 5
In John Bowen’s talk filmed at Horace Walpole’s miniature gothic Strawberry Hill—birthplace of the gothic novel—the Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York lists the essential elements of the gothic genre. Danger at Thatcham Hall, Frances Evesham’s latest novel, provides a seamless illustration of each point:
- A proper gothic requires its heroine to be transported to a strange place, such as a wilderness or prison. When Olivia Martin’s father dies leaving his wife and daughter in dire financial straits, they accept her cousin Hugh’s offer of an empty manor house near his own estate, Thatcham Hall. Although only a train ride from London’s amenities, the English countryside is a place full of unknown terrors for London-raised Olivia, who we first meet during her encounter with a terrifying horned beast—which turns out to be a placidly grazing Jersey milk cow. Her fear is mocked by an elegant stranger, barrister Nelson Roberts, also a London transplant brought in by Lord Thatcham when one of his servants is falsely accused of animal maiming. In best gothic fashion, her relief that the cow isn’t an attacking bull is short-lived, as another stumble leads to the discovery of a murdered body. Of course, a proper gothic also includes a contrast from the past, and Olivia soon meets that in the form of a strange young boy and his even stranger grandmother, whose tragic history is connected to both Thatcham Hall and to Nelson Robert’s military service as a British Major during a botched Afghan campaign.
- Power is always a theme in gothics, and frequently expressed in their fascination with sexuality. Vulnerable young women are threatened, either explicitly with rape or at least with the sexual power of patriarchal figures who seem to have no restraints on their desires. But the gothic is all about the ways in which those seemingly fragile and vulnerable women triumph over such supposedly unbeatable forces. In Danger at Thatcham Hall, Olivia is indeed vulnerable, seemingly without protection or resources. As she and Nelson investigate the mysterious deaths and other events, however, we learn that she is both self-reliant and strong, with a plan to escape her fate. The hero, interestingly, is not part of this power dynamic. His job, plain and simple, is to be strong, preferably witty, and save the heroine while (unsuccessfully, of course) attempting to conceal his tortured soul (from which torment, of course, she rescues him). Olivia senses the darkness and conflict in Nelson, suffering from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder.
- The indispensable tools of the Gothic-genre are the uncanny and the sublime. The former surfaces as Olivia and Nelson see familiar items used in peculiar ways, such as personal items stolen from Lord Thatcham’s family, rope with strange items twisted into it, or seemingly innocent herbs. For eighteenth century readers and still today, terrifying and overwhelming natural events such as storms or fire—things outside of the usual categories of beautiful or harmonious—contained sublime meaning. In Danger at Thatcham Hall, for example, a storm rages the night Nelson is accused of murder, while a climactic fire provides answers to the final mysteries.
- As they describe frightening events, gothics usually fall into either terror or horror categories. Some, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, embrace supernatural phenomena to evoke horror. One of the early masters of the gothic, Ann Radcliffe, believed that terror could be “morally uplifting” by not explicitly showing horrific events, but only warning readers of their possibility. Horror, on the other hand, would describe those events fully, and thus be “morally bad”. In choosing terror over horror, the writers often looked for a natural or realistic explanation for perceived supernatural phenomena. For example, the ghostly sounds and events Jane Eyre witnesses prove to be caused by her lover’s very-much-alive hidden wife. As they investigate the mysteries in Danger at Thatcham Hall, Olivia and Nelson hear whispers of witchcraft, curses, and echoes of past evil.
It is such a pleasure to see an expert at work, and Frances Evesham is clearly a master of the gothic novel genre. Danger at Thatcham Hall is the second book in her Thatcham Hall Mysteries, but also stands well on its own. The main characters, Olivia Martin and Nelson Roberts, are at the same time perfectly shaped by their world and struggling against the limits imposed by their backgrounds and demographics. By rights, as the daughter of an impoverished widow, Olivia should be destined for a life as a governess or paid companion. Nelson should have been at the center of a group of military heroes telling tall tales of his exploits. But she is determined to earn a living with her music, while he struggles to make a name for himself as a barrister. Frances Evesham’s technique of alternating points of view between the two main characters allows us see them both from the outside and also get a glimpse of the people beneath their conventional facades. The Victorian vocabulary of the gothic is particularly entertaining, such as Olivia becoming properly “breathless” when being carried by Nelson. And I’m no expert on Victorian times, but I’m bowled over by the amount of period detail and research she commands.
My complaints are fairly minor. Even Victorians, I believe, would not be so formal in private as to have Miss Dainty refer to her cousin and friend Olivia as “Miss Martin” even when the two are alone. More significantly, I just couldn’t buy the final revelation of the identity of the villain who is manipulating the whole chain of events. Without going into spoiler-territory, I have to say I didn’t see enough buildup in the story to ever believe that “the villain” could possibly have the understanding and depth to influence and/or cause the events.
But overall, for the pitch-perfect orchestration of the gothic genre in all its elements, for the beautifully paced and written narrative, and for the creation of two wonderful lead characters, I would give Danger at Thatcham Hall four and a half stars out of five. And I certainly can’t wait for the next book in this incredible series!