When seventeen-year-old Andrew Taylor gets into trouble at his school in Connecticut his parents decide to send him to Britain’s prestigious Harrow School to finish his education. On Andrew’s arrival at Harrow, people begin to remark on his resemblance to the poet, Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two centuries earlier. This makes Andrew the perfect choice for the role of Byron in the school play, which is being written by his housemaster, Piers Fawkes. But when Andrew witnesses the death of one of his new friends and starts to experience terrifying visions and ghostly sightings, he becomes convinced that Harrow is haunted and that the death is connected with something that happened during Byron’s time at the school. With the help of Persephone Vine, the only girl at Harrow, Andrew and Fawkes begin to investigate, but can they discover the truth behind the hauntings before someone else dies?
I was excited about reading The White Devil as it really sounded like a book I would enjoy. And I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as I was hoping to. I would describe the book as part ghost story, part literary mystery (though not a particularly scary ghost story, in my opinion – while it was certainly very atmospheric and unsettling, the scenes where Andrew encountered the ghost didn’t scare me very much). The Byron element of the novel was what really interested me and the main reason why I wanted to read this book. I admit I wasn’t sure exactly how much of this story was based on historical fact and how much was pure fiction, but I did enjoy watching Andrew and the other characters researching Byron’s life and attempting to solve the mystery surrounding him.
I also loved the Harrow setting, which was very vividly portrayed, and the descriptions of the old buildings, fog and rain gave it a slightly gothic feel. Justin Evans himself spent a year at Harrow and this obviously helped to make his descriptions of the school feel authentic and believable, with insights into many aspects of life at a boys’ public school including school uniforms, traditions and slang. And in making Andrew Taylor an American, this allowed the author to draw on his own experiences to show how Andrew had to adapt not only to a new school but also to a new country and culture.
The one thing that disappointed me about The White Devil was the lack of strong, well-developed characters. The only character I really liked was Piers Fawkes, who had once been a famous poet and now suffering from alcoholism and at risk of losing his job at Harrow. Persephone, as the book’s main female character, never really came to life for me – and apart from Andrew himself, none of the other boys at Harrow had any depth either. If the characters had been stronger I think I would have enjoyed this book more than I did, but it was still a good, atmospheric read.