I hadn’t even heard of Florence and Giles until recently but as soon as I saw that it had been described as a gothic thriller and compared to Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe I knew I wanted to read it – and it went straight onto my list for the RIP challenge!
Florence and Giles could be considered a loose retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (the first clue is in the title as the children in The Turn of the Screw are called Flora and Miles) but if you haven’t read the Henry James book yet it doesn’t matter at all because this is a great story in its own right.
The book is set in 1891 and the Florence and Giles of the title are two orphans who live at Blithe House, a mansion in New England. The house belongs to their uncle, but Florence and Giles never see him – he never comes to visit and prefers to leave the children under the care of the servants. Soon Giles is sent away to school and twelve-year-old Florence is left behind because her uncle disapproves of education for girls. After secretly teaching herself to read and write, Florence spends her days hiding in a forgotten tower room with books she’s smuggled out of the library.
This seems a good place to mention Florence’s narrative style, which is one of the most unusual I’ve ever come across. Although she’s been denied a formal education, she’s an intelligent and imaginative girl who has created her own private language with a very strange way of using nouns, verbs and adjectives! Here, for example, she describes Blithe House:
A house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence, a neglect of a place, tightly pursed (my absent uncle having lost interest in it), leaked and rotted and mothed and rusted, dim lit and crawled with dark corners, so that, even though I have lived here all of my life that I can remember, sometimes, especially on a winter’s eve in the fadery of twilight, it shivers me quite.
The whole story is written in this way. The ‘unbroomed’ library is a ‘dustery of disregard’, her bedroom becomes a ‘smugglery of books’ and she ‘lonelies’ her way around the big house. It did take me a few chapters to get used to Florence’s voice but I loved it because it was so creative and different.
Anyway, back to the story: when Giles is removed from his school after being bullied, a governess is appointed so he can continue his education at home. But as soon as Miss Taylor arrives at Blithe House some strange things begin to happen and Florence starts to believe that she and her brother could be in serious danger. Is Florence right? Can we trust her? We don’t know, but as she’s the book’s only narrator we have no choice but to read on.
Florence and Giles has a wonderfully dark and gothic feel and has everything this type of book should have: the spooky mansion, the mysterious guardian, the sinister governess…Even the quirkiness of Florence’s narrative voice adds to the unsettling feel. Not everything is explained or tied up at the end of the book, but I felt there’d been enough clues throughout the story for me to draw my own conclusions.
I can’t remember who it was that first brought this book to my attention, but as Florence might say, ‘I grateful them!’